Who is Jordan Bardella, France’s far-right star eyeing the premiership?

The 28-year-old National Rally president, Le Pen’s protege, has enjoyed a meteoric rise that could go further in the upcoming snap election.

Jordan Bardella
French far-right National Rally president Jordan Bardella says his party is ready to govern [File: Christian Hartmann/Reuters]

Jordan Bardella has a smile and a selfie for everyone.

In regular TikTok posts to his 1.3 million followers, the far-right leader gunning for France’s prime minister spot appears as an amicable politician alongside jubilant supporters.

The 28-year-old frontman of the far-right National Rally (RN), alongside firebrand politician Marine Le Pen, is vying for victory in France’s snap parliamentary election on June 30 and July 7, which President Emmanuel Macron called after a crushing defeat at the European elections this month.

Polling suggests the RN will bag the biggest share of the vote. But in his lightning-speed campaign, he is demanding more – an absolute majority to govern free of partners.

He has promised to “restore faith in France and its greatness”.

The RN’s manifesto, unveiled on Monday, lays out his plan.

The main pillars are curbing undocumented migration, boosting purchasing power by cutting energy taxes, and exerting more authority over schools.

He has also sought to reassure voters that his party, which is seen as close to Russia, would continue to provide support to Ukraine while opposing the provision of long-range weapons.

The snap election, Macron’s riskiest gamble, could usher in a period of uncomfortable “cohabitation” between a hard-right prime minister in charge of the domestic agenda and a liberal president overseeing foreign affairs.

If no party wins a majority, the vote could stall the parliament in gridlock.

Bardella, who has pitched his candidacy as the “only alternative” to seven years of discontent with Macron’s leadership, is making the most of this opportunity to govern.

“In three words: We are ready,” he told supporters this week.

Meteoric rise to power

Having grown up in the banlieue of Seine-Saint-Denis, a Parisian suburb, Bardella claims he has experienced firsthand the lawlessness that unchecked immigration has brought to France.

The banlieues, working-class neighbourhoods around Paris that have been demonised by the right wing, are often home to many French citizens with ancestry in Africa.

“I have seen these lost areas of the French Republic become conquests of Islamism,” he said during a rally in 2022. “I have felt, like you and like millions of French citizens, the pain of becoming a foreigner in your own country.”

Born to parents of Italian origin, Bardella attended a semi-private Catholic school, the “only establishment in Saint-Denis where a teacher was not at risk of having a chair thrown at their head”, as he described it in an interview with French daily Le Monde.

His father Olivier, whose mother was Algerian, ran a drinks distribution business and left the household when Bardella was a child.

According to a biography written by journalist Pierre-Stephane Fort, Bardella joined RN in 2012, at 16, after spending three weeks pleading with his mother to grant him parental permission to join Le Pen’s party.

He briefly enrolled in a geography undergraduate course before dropping out to focus on his political career.

In 2014, he became the party representative for Seine-Saint-Denis. He first stepped into the limelight when he suspended his party comrade and former friend, the local councillor Maxence Buttey, following Buttey’s public announcement that he had converted to Islam.

President of the French far-right National Rally (Rassemblement National-RN) party Jordan Bardella takes a selfie with supporters, during a political rally to launch the party's campaign for the European elections, in Marseille, France, March 3, 2024. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes
Jordan Bardella takes a selfie with supporters during a political rally to launch the party’s campaign for the European elections on March 3, 2024 [ Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters]

Bardella later had a romantic relationship with Kerridwen Chatillon, the daughter of Frederic Chatillon, a friend and confidante of Le Pen who introduced him to the party leader.

He became Le Pen’s protege and at the age of 21, was appointed party spokesperson.

In 2019, Le Pen put him in charge of heading the party’s list at the European elections, which the RN won, granting the eurosceptics a parliamentary seat in Brussels.

Bardella’s meteoritic ascent continued in 2022, when he was crowned RN president by Le Pen as she refocused her energies on trying to win the next presidential election in 2027.

“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 following his election. “Our country’s calling is not to be the world’s hotel.”

Mild manner, hard views

The poised, social-media-savvy candidate has since led the party’s rebrand, breaking away from the racist gaffes and anti-Semitic tones of the party’s predecessor, the National Front, and presenting a more palatable image to the moderate electorate.

Bardella has sought to reassure French voters with his clean-shaved looks and mild demeanour.

“We are credible, responsible and respect French institutions,” he said as he laid out his manifesto.

By connecting with young people through social media, he is garnering support, especially among swaths of voters who are traditionally unsympathetic towards 55-year-old Le Pen and her father, Jean Louis Marie, who founded the movement in the 1970s. Le Pen senior was convicted of hate speech for calling Nazi gas chambers “a detail of history” and has made a slew of offensive racist comments.

“Bardella is part of the party’s normalisation strategy,” Sebastien Maillard, associate fellow at Chatham House, told Al Jazeera. “His name is not Le Pen, he never got into any controversy and was very cautious about what he was saying.”

But while repackaged, far-right core views remain intact.

“It is time to free the topic of immigration from social cliches,” Bardella said. “The problem of the far left is the abolition of frontiers, which leaves our country unarmed. This will lead to a saturation of our social services and a recession of our French identity.”

The RN plans to expel foreigners who commit a crime, abolish the right to nationality for people aged 11 to 18 who have lived on French soil for a minimum of five years, slash the welfare budget by limiting social spending to French citizens and exclude dual nationals from “sensitive” jobs in defence and security.

It pledges to introduce a law “against Islamist ideologies,” but did not elaborate further on the plan.

‘A call for the French’

Bardella has also expressed his intention to end birthright citizenship, despite experts warning that the move would not pass constitutional review except through a referendum.

He has promised an overhaul of the education system to restore “state authority” in schools. This includes tougher punishments for misbehaviour, as well as measures to expel disruptive students or bullies from the classrooms and relocate them to newly created special centres. He wants to ban mobile phones in schools and reintroduce the use of uniforms and the respectful form of you, “vous”, to address a teacher.

On the economy, he pledged to tackle the cost of living crisis and cut energy taxes to help people make ends meet. He did not elaborate on where he would find the funds to sustain the move.

The party has veered away from some of its older, more controversial stances, including Frexit – a French exit from the European Union – and quitting the NATO Atlantic alliance, while tapping into the electorate’s fear of migrants and dissatisfaction with Macron.

This “tie strategy”, Maillard said, alluding to the attempt to look presentable in parliament, has earned RN new voters.

According to Maillard, Macron’s move to call for a snap election aimed to force RN to present a clear plan, rather than bank on the discontent with the government.

“Macron wants RN to prove if they really are ready [to govern],” the analyst said.

“And it’s also a call for the French to answer the question: Do you really want this?”

Source: Al Jazeera