(Bloomberg) — For about half a century, France’s largest far-right party has been led by just two people: its founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and his daughter Marine. On Saturday, rank-and-file members chose an outsider as their new chief.
Jordan Bardella, a 27-year-old of Italian descent from the Parisian suburbs, won an internal National Rally online ballot, beating Louis Aliot, mayor of the southern city of Perpignan, by a large margin.
The result was widely expected as Marine Le Pen has been progressively handing over to Bardella, who’s served as deputy leader since 2019. He’s been key in expanding the party’s electorate to younger voters in rural areas and suburbs, with frequent trips across France and regular television appearances.
Though Bardella has at times voiced more radical views than Le Pen, he’ll likely continue the efforts she began to bring the party into the mainstream after she took over from her father in 2011, said Marta Lorimer, an expert on the French far right at the London School of Economics.
“Even though he’s more of an Identitarian than Marine Le Pen, I don’t think he’ll take the party in a different direction from where it currently is,” she said, referring to Bardella’s views on non-White immigration.
Macron Support Slipping
His rise comes as the popularity of centrist President Emmanuel Macron drops slightly in some polls amid rising inflation and strikes in the energy and transport sectors.
Bardella’s immediate attention will turn to the Senate race in 2023 and European parliament elections the following year. Only then is he likely to zero in on the presidential election set for 2027.
Le Pen made Bardella acting president last year when she stepped aside to focus on her bid for the Elysee palace. Although she failed for a third time to land France’s top job, the far right secured its strongest result ever. The party went on to win 89 of the 577 seats in the National Assembly election, another record. Le Pen will continue to be the party’s leader in parliament.
“The challenge for the party is how they use their time in parliament, so that next time there is an election they are in a decent place to do even better,” Lorimer said.
Lorimer said it’s too early to know whether Le Pen will make a fourth run for president in 2027. At an event in Paris where the RN election result was announced, party member Yannick Prudor said he doesn’t care who runs. “It’s the party that matters,” he said.
Bardella was born and raised in Seine Saint-Denis, a tough, poor and ethnically diverse Paris suburb, and dropped out of university to focus on politics. He plays up his background and portrays himself as the polar opposite of the average French politician who tends to attend elite schools.
He’s helped Le Pen “de-demonize” the party by focusing on the economy rather than only immigration, and re-framing its views on women.
But while Le Pen has distanced herself from comments about race, Bardella has portrayed immigration from Africa as a civilizational threat. That’s an allusion to the “great replacement” theory — views once confined to racist far-right tracts that have fueled deadly gun violence around the world.
A reminder of RN’s hurdles came earlier this week during a lower house session, when a party legislator shouted “go back to Africa” as a Black leftist MP spoke about a migrant boat in the Mediterranean. The party said the lawmaker — who was banned for two weeks and given a salary cut — was referring to the migrants, not his political opponent.
“We don’t really care about yet another made-up allegation against us,” said Thierry Besson, a party representative. “This is not the kind of thing that can harm our path.”