France's far-right party RN elects Bardella as new president

French far-right National Rally party's Congress in Paris

By Geert De Clercq

PARIS (Reuters) - France's far-right Rassemblement National (RN) elected Jordan Bardella as president on Saturday, overwhelmingly backing the 27-year-old member of the European Parliament to succeed Marine Le Pen in the post.

Bardella, a party loyalist who had already been interim president for a year, won nearly 85% of party members' votes, against 15% for his challenger Louis Aliot, who is Le Pen's former partner.

Le Pen, who has diluted some of the party's anti-immigrant, eurosceptic policies, stepped down from RN's leadership in 2021 ahead of her unsuccessful bid for the presidency in this year's election, which was won by incumbent Emmanuel Macron.

"I am not leaving RN to take a holiday. I will be there where the country needs me," Le Pen told Saturday's party convention. She is widely expected to make another presidential bid in 2027.

In a speech to the conference, Bardella - who hails from a working-class neighbourhood north of Paris - said he owed everything to two women: his Italian immigrant mother and Marine Le Pen, with whom he has worked for a decade.

Bardella said he would continue Le Pen's drive to attract voters beyond the party's far-right core and turn it into a government-ready organisation.

"Come with us on the road that leads to the conquest of power... we will succeed Emmanuel Macron," he said.

Bardella will be the first person to lead the party who is not a member of the Le Pen family. The former National Front party was founded in 1972 by Marine's father, Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Marine Le Pen, who took over from her firebrand father in 2011, expelled him from the party in 2015 in a bid to distance it from its most radical, far-right fringe.

Bardella told Reuters last week that the fact that someone from outside the Le Pen family could chair the RN represented a "small cultural revolution".

"Bravo Jordan," Le Pen senior tweeted following his election.

A boxing enthusiast raised in a social housing block, Bardella has risen quickly through the party ranks. In 2019, he led its campaign for European elections, where it took the top spot ahead of Macron's centrist party.

Bardella said sovereignist forces were on the rise across Europe, notably in Sweden, Hungary and Italy, and he saluted Italian sympathisers at the conference.

Italy's hard-right League party head and deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini congratulated Bardella in a tweet.

Bardella takes over after the French parliament on Friday cut the pay of a far-right lawmaker and temporarily banned him from the chamber for shouting racist remarks he made during a parliamentary session.

Bardella defended the RN lawmaker and said immigration and national identity would remain key tenets of RN's programme.

"Once we are in charge, immigrant ships run by the mafia of people traffickers will not be allowed to dock in French ports," he said, adding that welfare benefits would be reserved for French people because "our country's calling is not to be the world's hotel".

But Bardella called on party members to steer clear of "useless provocations" and to appeal to the entire political spectrum, by focusing on the struggle of citizens to make ends meet.

RN member and longtime Le Pen ally Steeve Briois, who was not included in the party's new executive committee, said there was a risk that under Bardella the party would "re-radicalise" and again become "obsessed by only one thing: identity".

(Reporting by Geert De Clercq; editing by Helen Popper and Jason neely)