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Bardella: French far-right poster boy now aspiring statesman

July 3, 2024

The 28-year-old from the Paris suburbs has had a meteoric rise thanks to close ties with Marine Le Pen. Jordan Bardella is credited with widening the party's appeal, though his joviality belies his radical politics.

Jordan Bardella of the French far right National Rally gestures while holding a speech
Jordan Bardella has been a major figure behind the Nation Rally's move from the fringes to the center of French politicsImage: Michel Euler/AP Photo/picture alliance

On Sunday, France will once again head to the polls to choose the makeup of its lower house. Last Sunday's early election round saw the far-right National Rally (RN) net 33%. It was a jolt for a country that was last under far-right administration when occupied by Nazi German during World War II.

By current projections, the anti-immigration and Euroskeptic RN could win a parliamentary majority, possibly making the 28-year-old party president Jordan Bardella France's youngest-ever prime minister. 

Should the RN emerge as most powerful party in France's parliament, Bardella would have a strong case for building a government in an awkward power-sharing deal known as "cohabitation" with embattled pro-business President Emmanuel Macron.

Macron's centrist Together alliance trailed into third place in the snap elections he called following a surge in popularity for right-wing parties in the June's European Parliament elections.

A clean-cut wunderkind 

Bardella is widely credited as the dapper, fresh face that has helped a once-fringe party associated with overt racism and antisemitism detoxify its brand over the past decade under the stewardship of Marine Le Pen. The grande dame of the French far-right made Bardella her protege, appointing him party spokesperson at age 21 and then handing him the reins to the party in 2022 so she could concentrate on securing France's top job.

Le Pen, whose father Jean-Marie helped found the party in 1972 but was eventually pushed aside due to multiple hate-speech convictions and for trivializing the Holocaust, has her eyes on a fourth bid for the French presidency in 2027, when Macron's current term expires.

A clear wish for change: Jordan Bardella, National Rally

A Le Pen victory seems likelier than ever, thanks perhaps in part to Bardella's popularity. So, who is the clean-cut political wunderkind?

A college dropout, Bardella joined the RN at the age of 16. He devoted himself to politics full time several years later and won a seat in the European Parliament in 2019, aged 23.

The son of Italian immigrants with Algerian roots on the father's side, Bardella was born and raised in the diverse, largely working-class Parisian suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis.

"I came from elsewhere, but I became who I am here. I married French history," is the way he describes his background on Tiktok, a social media platform popular with a young demographic, where he boasts 1.8 million followers. 

A 'mythology' of moderation

"His identity based in a migrant background is all part of a certain 'Bardella mythology,'" said Marta Lorimer, an expert on the far-right from the University of Cardiff. "That is precisely one of the things that made him attractive (...) that he seems to represent a part of the new electorate that the National Rally is now trying to attract."

Under Le Pen's guidance and with the popularity of Bardella, the party has broadened its base and won over more young voters.

In 2007, when Jean-Marie Le Pen led the National Rally, then known as the National Front, only 0.1% of the French electorate voted for the party in the second round of legislative elections. With Marine Le Pen at the helm in 2022, the party scored 17.3% of second-round votes.

Jordan Bardella's face on a TV screen behind Marine Le Pen as she walks on stage
Together, Le Pen and her protege Bardella have turned the party's fortunes aroundImage: Julien de Rosa/AFP

But the perception that Bardella had put the party on a course of moderation was misguided, Lorimer argued.

While the party itself has dropped some of its more extreme positions, such as taking France out of the European Union and NATO, opposing same-sex marriage, and reinstating the death penalty, Bardella was originally brought into the fold to retain the party's more extreme supporters, the expert on the far-right told DW.

"His role was going to be to keep the more radical fringes of those who support Le Pen on board by speaking to this traditional electorate, while Le Pen was going to be moderating, de-demonizing and trying to look presidential," Lorimer said.

"That all seems to have changed. So now he has become the clean-shaven face of the far right, this young guy who doesn't look like a fascist," she added.

A long way from the suburbs

But Bardella is as staunchly anti-immigration as ever, Lorimer explained. One of the National Rally's key policies is imposing what they call "national priority" — the idea that French nationals should be given first priority for receiving employment, welfare and social housing over citizens with foreign nationalities. Critics says this would amount to significant discrimination against people who hold legal resident titles and contribute to the country's tax revenue.

The RN president has even been accused of echoing the extreme-right conspiracy theory that white Europeans were being replaced with non-white migrants through demographic change engineered by political elites. A number of experts have debunked the statistical validity of this claim, which white nationalists, neo-Nazis and far-right extremists continue to propagate as the "great replacement theory."

Bardella speaks into microphones pointed at him while surrounded by press
Bardella, who has a major Tiktok following, is now trying to pitch himself as a serious contenderImage: Shootpix/ABACA/picture alliance

In 2021, Bardella told French broadcaster BFMTV he disagreed with the term, but saw validity in it. "I don't like this word 'Great Replacement' because it's not clear, it's a very intellectual slogan, but it points to a reality which is true,” he said in comments widely reported in French media. "Go for a walk in the neighborhoods I grew up in," Bardella said. The area is known for having a high number of immigrants and people of Arab and African descent.

Bardella took a more conciliatory tone last Sunday in his first address after the exit polls showed a resounding victory for his party.

"Next Sunday, if the French people award us an absolute majority to put the country back on its feet, I intend to be the prime minister of all the French people, listening to each and every one of them, respecting the opposition and mindful of national unity."

Edited by: Maren Sass