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French far right gets youthful vibe with 28-year-old leader

Jordan Bardella is the new kid on the rightist block
Jordan Bardella is the new kid on the rightist block - Copyright AFP PATRICK HERTZOG
Jordan Bardella is the new kid on the rightist block - Copyright AFP PATRICK HERTZOG
Toni CERDA

France’s far-right National Rally is banking on its youthful and charismatic party leader to be a major asset as it scents massive gains in upcoming European elections.

Jordan Bardella, 28, took over in 2021 as party leader from Marine Le Pen who has been trying to rid the party of the racist and anti-Semitic imprint left by her father and party founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen.

She is still widely expected to be the party’s candidate in the 2027 presidential elections, her fourth bid for the Elysee, which is widely seen as her best chance to become head of state.

But since taking over as National Rally (RN) party leader, Bardella has become an increasingly visible presence in French politics, forming an effective tandem with Le Pen, who leads its MPs in parliament.

A recent election rally in the southwestern coastal city of Royan highlighted the appeal of Bardella, a major presence on the TikTok platform, with adoring fans queueing for selfies.

“I got it, I got it,” shouted a happy young voter, holding up his smartphone, after getting his idol to pose with him for a snapshot.

– ‘Not Le Pen’ –

Bardella has not revolutionised the party’s belief system, experts point out. 

It still stands against what it says is unacceptable mass immigration, a purported decline of civilisation in France, and “a punitive ecology” that hurts farmers.

But as he presented the party’s programme for the June EU parliamentary vote, his Royan audience seemed grateful for the freshness he brings.

“He represents youth,” said Agnes, in her 60s, withholding her last name. “I never voted for any Le Pen. But there’s been a renewal, and that’s a very good thing,” she said.

“One advantage that Jordan Bardella has over Marine Le Pen is that his name is not Le Pen,” agreed Mathieu Gallard, a political scientist at the Ipsos market research and consulting firm.

Le Pen has laid much of the groundwork for Bardella’s success. She was runner-up in two presidential elections, losing to Emmanuel Macron on both occasions, and won the highest number of seats ever for her party in parliamentary elections in 2022.

Opinion polls ahead of the June 9 European elections — seen in France as a key test for the government — have pointed to a severe drubbing for Macron.

An Ifop-Fiducial poll this week found that 32.5 percent of voters intend to cast their ballot for the Bardella-led National Rally list, and only 18 percent for Macron’s allies.

– ‘Our saviour’ –

Bardella is part of an increasingly youthful dynamic in French politics that includes President Emmanuel Macron himself, 46, and his Prime Minister Gabriel Attal, 35, appointed earlier this year. 

“He is young, ambitious, approachable,” said Louis Vergnaud, 23, dressed in a white Ralph Lauren shirt, of Bardella.

“For young people, he represents the future of France. Our saviour,” he told AFP.

Bardella’s carefully-communicated life story — his family immigrated from Italy and he was raised by his mother in a poor suburb of Paris — adds to the contrast with the former National Front (FN) party that was run by Jean-Marie Le Pen from an imposing chateau in a rich town west of the capital. 

His rise has not entirely been free of controversy with a French television report alleging earlier this year that he used an anonymous Twitter account to share racist messages when he was a local elected official.

Bardella vehemently denied the report, broadcast by the France 2 channel, and the RN has said it will take legal action.

Bardella, considered to be a social conservative but more liberal in economic matters than Le Pen, has found plenty of subtle ways to freshen up the party’s image.

In an apparent display of new openness, international songs were mixed with French hits before the start of his Royan rally.

The 1,300 people in the audience that day appeared like a cross-section of Bardella’s diversified voter base: trendy young people mixing with middle-aged and older voters often dressed in shirts or suits.

The National Rally is now “clearly perceived as being the main opposition party to Emmanuel Macron and his government”, political scientist Gallard said.

It had also become better at responding to daily voter worries such as dwindling household purchasing power. “Just like a normal opposition party,” he said.

AFP
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