BERLIN – Until last week, France’s largest far-right party, the National Rally (RN), had been led by someone named Le Pen throughout its 50-year history. Its first leader was Jean-Marie Le Pen, a convicted Holocaust denier who founded the party as the National Front (FN) in 1972. Jean-Marie handed over power to his daughter Marine in 2011, who renamed the party in an attempt to rebrand it. But the RN is no longer headed by a Le Pen: Jordan Bardella, a photogenic 27-year-old, was elected on 5 November as its president.
Marine Le Pen is believed to want to concentrate on leading the RN’s group of MPs – the largest in history, at 89 – and preparing her likely next presidential run in 2027. She has cultivated Bardella, sponsoring his rapid rise through the ranks of the party. Though she is formally handing over control of the party structures to him, it’s widely thought that she will retain a significant influence over its affairs. Who is the first non-Le Pen to lead the RN?
Bardella had a humble start: he was born in 1995 in the département of Seine-Saint-Denis, north of Paris, to an Italian mother and French father of Italian and Algerian-Kabyle ancestry. In his victory speech after winning the RN presidency on 5 November, he alluded to his background, describing himself as “the son of a family more French by the intensity of its patriotic feeling than by its number of generations”.
In public, Bardella plays up his modest origins, a marked contrast with the Le Pen dynasty. While Marine Le Pen also grew up in the Paris region, the 5,000-square metre family estate she lived in as a child is in the Hauts-de-Seine, France’s richest département, while Seine-Saint-Denis is the poorest. “I have seen the best and worst of what the Paris region has to offer,” Bardella said during a televised debate last year. “The best, because it allowed me to go from the council house I grew up in to become an elected official… The worst because I was confronted with insecurity and violence early in my life.”
“[The name] Jordan is a social marker,” Bardella said in a 2019 interview, a reference to the trend beginning in the 1980s for working-class parents to give their children American-inspired first names. (Steeve Briois, the RN mayor of the northern town of Hénin-Beaumont – and an opponent of Bardella’s within the party – is another example.) In the same interview, Bardella criticised Muslims naming their children Mohammed.
When he recalls how his upbringing shaped his politics, Bardella describes the episodes that formed him as themes of identity and security – the RN’s core campaign issues. “My first political memory was the 2005 riots,” he said in a televised interview in May this year. “While I don’t have any memory of the 2005 referendum [on the European constitution], I very clearly remember the riots because there were fires outside my building.” The unrest that year, sparked by the deaths of two black and Arab teenagers fleeing from police in Seine-Saint-Denis, was France’s worst in a generation.
In 2013, at just 18 years old, Bardella began attending meetings of what was then still the National Front in Paris. Noticed early by Marine Le Pen, his rise through the ranks of the party was rapid. In 2015, he was elected as a regional councillor for Seine-Saint-Denis – an area where the far right usually performs poorly. In 2019, at age 23, he was selected to head the RN slate for that year’s European elections, which the party won, making him the second-youngest MEP ever elected.
Unlike many of France’s top politicians, Bardella did not study at the elite Sciences Po university (he failed the entrance exams). He dropped out of a geography degree at the less prestigious Sorbonne to focus on his political career.
Bardella ascended quickly through the RN, in part because he was skilled at balancing the different factions and personalities of the sometimes chaotic and unprofessional party. At first, he associated with Florian Philippot, then the vice-president of the party, before Philippot fell out of favour and left in 2017. Bardella ended up becoming a protégé of Philippe Olivier, one of Le Pen’s closest advisers.
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Yet Bardella is also a skilled orator, comfortable facing off against Emmanuel Macron’s ministers and left-wing journalists in high-stakes TV debates. He is one of the most frequent guests on France’s political talkshows. He is trusted by the leadership to expound RN positions fluently and without the gaffes that politicians at all levels of the party are known for, which undermine Le Pen’s strategy of dédiabolisation – the attempt to present the RN as a competent, moderate party like any other.
To the extent that Bardella has formulated a political identity independent of Le Pen’s, it is more sympathetic to the ethnic nationalism her rhetoric dodges. He has suggested that he believes in the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory, which holds that elites are engineering a replacement of Europe’s white population with immigrants from Africa and the Middle East. “A change of population via immigration flows, legal and illegal, is relentlessly occurring in proportions and at speeds unprecedented in history,” he wrote in a July column. “I don’t use the expression of ‘Great Replacement’, which has certain connotations, but I recognise the genuine reality it describes. I have lived it and I see it every day,” he told the right-wing magazine Valeurs Actuelles in October.
He also has plans for the direction of the far right: Bardella has said he thinks that the Éric Zemmour and Le Pen factions of the nationalist right will need to unite in their so far elusive quest for national power. “All these people who share beliefs and convictions will – no matter what some may say – need to travel part of the way together,” he said in March.
A recent incident in parliament immediately prior to Bardella’s election proved embarrassing for the party. On Thursday 3 November – just two days before Bardella’s election as leader – Grégoire de Fournas, an MP elected as part of the RN wave in this June’s legislative elections, shouted either “let him go back to Africa” or “let it go back to Africa” while Carlos Martens Bilongo, a black MP for the left-wing France Unbowed party, was speaking about a humanitarian boat transporting migrants rescued off the coast of Libya. The RN rallied in support of De Fournas, suggesting that he had been saying the boat rather than his parliamentary colleague should be sent back to Africa. The outburst nonetheless proved extremely embarrassing for the party, overshadowing a historic moment for the moment: its first leader not named Le Pen. De Fournas was rumoured to be in line to be appointed party spokesperson following Bardella’s election.
Bardella’s ascent has alarmed some within the RN, such as Briois, the mayor of Hénin-Beaumont. Briois’s faction – increasingly marginalised after the president’s win – fear he will encourage a shift away from Le Pen’s fusion of higher state spending with opposition to immigration which has proven to appeal to working-class voters, particularly in northern France. They worry his election as party president could result in the RN adopting Zemmour-like liberal economics and a harder ethnic nationalist line. “I regret that years of dédiabolisation are being reduced to nothing, with the sole aim of pleasing a minority of voters,” Briois wrote soon after Bardella’s election, denouncing the new leadership’s “prioritising” of “identitarian fads”.
For all the fears, though, Bardella is unlikely to diverge significantly from Le Pen, at least until the 2027 presidential election that she is expected to run in. Party insiders believe that Le Pen, though having formally given up control of the party, will continue to command the RN’s direction. Bardella is probably happy to let her do so for now. He’s still only 27.