How Jordan Bardella has helped give the far right an acceptable face in France

At just 28 years old, Jordan Bardella has led the French far right to a landslide victory and humiliated President Emmanuel Macron’s camp in the European Parliament elections. He’s poised to become the next prime minister if the French president loses his gamble in the upcoming snap election. But who is far-right doyenne Marine Le Pen’s slick protégé?

Bardella, the National Rally party leader, grew up an only child in social housing in Seine-Saint-Denis, a working-class suburb in the northeast of Paris. He joined the far-right party at 16 and then briefly attended the prestigious Sorbonne university in the French capital before dropping out.

“Like many families, many people who live in these neighborhoods, I was confronted with violence, and my mother struggled to make ends meet. The truth is that the sense of urgency that led me into politics has never left me,” Bardella told public television channel France 2 in April.

In clinching 31% of the vote in the European parliamentary election – a record score for the National Rally – he trounced Macron’s centrist party by a wide margin.

“A wind of hope is sweeping across France and it’s only just the beginning,” he said Sunday, as he urged Macron to call a national election – a bluff the president called, with the first round of voting to take place June 30.

Le Pen handpicked the young politician to head the party in 2022 – ending a 50-year-rule by the Le Pen dynasty – and bring a fresh boost to the French populist right.

Hailed as the answer to the National Rally’s attempts to detoxify the party and attract a younger crowd, he helped distance the party from its founder and Marine’s father, 95-year-old Holocaust-denier Jean-Marie Le Pen. While Bardella continues to try to rid the party of its antisemitic and racist overtones, the populist rhetoric remains much the same.

“We will act by expelling delinquents, criminals and foreign Islamists who pose a threat to national security,” Bardella said, as he campaigned on promises of limiting free movement of migrants and threats of mass expulsions.

Entrenched in the mainstream

Bardella’s popularity is proof that what was once unpalatable and reserved to the fringes of French politics is now normalized and entrenched in the mainstream. Voting for the far right is no longer something to be ashamed of in much of France. He appeals to the working class, the unemployed and young people in rural areas.

On Sunday, 32% of people aged between 18-34 voted for him compared to 5% for the candidate representing Macron’s party, according to an Elabe poll for BFMTV.

National Rally volunteers paste up campaign posters ahead of last weekend's elections. - Jeff Pachoud/AFP/Getty Images
National Rally volunteers paste up campaign posters ahead of last weekend's elections. - Jeff Pachoud/AFP/Getty Images

According to political analyst Dominique Moisi, Bardella has galvanized a new generation of voters who worry about the future, particularly as regards jobs and the cost of living, and who believe France has an “identity crisis.”

“They (the youth) think the world is too dangerous and they say we don’t want to be inundated by migrants coming from the Middle East or Africa. We want to be at home,” said Moisi.

TikTok charm offensive

The selfie-taking, clean-shaven Bardella has led a successful charm offensive on TikTok with videos of him wine tasting and doing shots. Even something as banal as him eating a cereal bar racks up thousands of views.

His carefully curated social media presence makes him seem familiar and relatable to his 1.5 million followers. He’s known for his videos with brutal put-downs, such as drinking a beer with a caption reading “drinking the tears of Macron fans.”

Far-left figurehead Jean-Luc Mélenchon has accused Bardella of being all bluster and no substance. “What does Mr. Bardella want? We don’t know. He says nothing. He’s a good-looking guy, but what’s his program? Throwing immigrants into the sea.”

Critics also point to Bardella’s short career and lack of concrete experience as well as his many absences from the European parliament, to which he was first elected in 2019.

Despite his inexperience, Bardella’s ability to rally people behind him was evident this week when Eric Ciotti, the head of The Republicans, France’s traditional right-wing party, announced a surprise coalition with the National Rally for the upcoming legislative elections. The move was immediately attacked by senior members of Ciotti’s own party while Marine Le Pen welcomed the announcement calling it “a brave choice.”

Effective political match

Bardella – who dated Le Pen’s niece – has said the two politicians have a very trusting relationship.

“I’m a loyal, well-behaved boy and I’ll always be her first supporter,” he said.

Le Pen, a self-described Bardella groupie, has said she’s always been a great admirer of his and that he shows great maturity.

Bardella and Le Pen attend the National Rally party's Congress in Paris, France, November 5, 2022. - Christian Hartmann/Reuters
Bardella and Le Pen attend the National Rally party's Congress in Paris, France, November 5, 2022. - Christian Hartmann/Reuters

The 55-year-old has run for president three times since 2012, made it into the final runoff for the past two, and is largely expected to be a candidate in the next presidential election in 2027.

The young Bardella’s electoral success in the European elections look set to help boost that ambition.

These two deeply political animals, one a fixture of French political life, the other an up-and-coming disruptor of it, appear to have found in each other a remarkably efficient political match. It’s one that threatens to bring a party long considered too far to the right to be electable to power.

CNN’s Emma Leyo contributed reporting.

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