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Can Jordan Bardella seduce France? He is detoxifying the Le Pen brand

'Most importantly, his last name isn’t Le Pen.' Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images

'Most importantly, his last name isn’t Le Pen.' Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images


May 14, 2024   6 mins

If you asked an AI-powered robot to generate a new star for France’s hard-Right National Rally (RN), it would probably produce someone just like Jordan Bardella. The MEP and head of the party’s ticket for June’s elections to European Parliament is young and handsome. He hails from an emphatically non-elite background. And most important, perhaps, his surname isn’t Le Pen.

Voters certainly seem impressed: polls show the 28-year-old has a double-digit percentage point lead over President Emmanuel Macron’s party as well as over each of the major Left-wing lists — numbers that would solidify the RN’s status as a serious contender in the 2027 presidential elections.

What’s his secret then? For one, Bardella has managed to inspire the RN’s formidable base — something I witnessed first-hand at his rally this month in Perpignan, southern France, where 3,000 sympathisers packed a convention centre to hear him speak alongside the party’s three-time presidential candidate Marine Le Pen. As European elections tend to see low turnouts, parties that manage to energise the faithful often reap the rewards — and the RN is on track to do just that.

“He represents the values of France, he’s the only one who tells the truth,” said Adrien, a 20-year-old in the military who took the train down from Toulouse with a couple of Le Pen-voting friends. “I think Bardella is really the new generation of the party.” Indeed, polls currently show the RN winning about a third of voters aged 18 to 24, which is more than any other party, but on par with Left-wing parties when their totals are combined.

At the same time, the campaign appears to be resonating beyond a band of true believers. Laëtitia, a 44-year-old social worker from Beziers, there with her 19-year-old daughter, said she didn’t vote for Le Pen in the last presidential election. “Like every politician, I don’t necessarily agree with all [Bardella’s] ideas,” she said, referencing a proposal to strip welfare benefits from parents whose children have been convicted of delinquent offences. But she applauds Bardella’s call to rein in immigration. “I’m waiting for him to be close to the people and to listen to us.”

Judging by the polls, more and more of France is willing to give this once-fringe party a chance. Building on its base of conservative working-class voters, the RN is winning solid support from young people, middle-income voters and even retirees — the latter of whom have historically proven hostile to its message. In short, they’re winning more support from just about everyone across the board.

The rally in Perpignan was a near-perfect distillation of the party’s drive to reinvent itself as a mainstream opposition force, the latest chapter of its “de-demonisation” strategy. Part of that involves stylistic adjustments: as the crowd filtered in, speakers blasted out a playlist of friendly pop hits including Rihanna and Black Eyed Peas. The headliners were introduced by the Perpignan Mayor, Louis Aliot, a reminder the party is actually capable of governance. During his speech, Bardella cracked a couple of jokes and showed his capacity for self-deprecation, another quality that separates him from many high-profile Macronists. At one point, he took off his jacket to cheers and mock catcalls in a scene that could have been staged for his 1.2 million followers on TikTok. And after the rally, Bardella took selfies with members of the crowd, a ritual that seems to fascinate the French press.

But normalisation also means tinkering with the party’s platform, reassuring rather than scaring off voters. Gone are the references to Frexit or leaving the eurozone. Such promises have been replaced by a string of grievances over the EU’s agricultural and energy policies, framed in terms of restoring French sovereignty.

Still, the credo that unites the delicate cross-class coalition — the lifeblood of the party — is a deep hostility to immigration. Though the crowd seemed to be tiring toward the end of his speech, when Bardella vowed to detain all migrant boats that arrive in France and send them back to their ports of origin — drawing out the syllables of the final word for emphasis — the spectators roared back to life, hoisting their tricolor flags, and breaking out into a familiar chant: On est chez nous! On est chez nous! On est chez nous! (“We’re at home!”). Invoking the old-time religion, Bardella fired out a list of ills supposedly caused by foreigners: crime, Islamism, terrorism, declining public services and the loss of French identity. “You’ve understood it, my friends,” he thundered. “This election will also be a great referendum on mass immigration.”

Outside the convention centre, I chatted with Alain Jamet, who helped to found the National Front in 1972 with Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s much brasher father who has been convicted multiple times for hate speech against Jews, Muslims and Roma people. “We’ve kept alive the foundations of the movement and I’m a representation of that,” said the 90-year-old Jamet, who proudly pointed out that he has a Flamme d’Or, an honorific title bestowed by Le Pen père. “Essentially that’s France and the French first.”

When I suggested that many think the party has abandoned its roots, he interjected. “There is a continuity,” he said. “It’s just that the way of presenting our platform has changed. While the father never thought he’d arrive in power, the daughter has adopted a language that allows her to hope for victory.”

“While the father never thought he’d arrive in power, the daughter has adopted a language that allows her to hope for victory.”

The change in France’s political environment has also helped. In recent years, the RN has benefited from a lurch to the Right in France’s media and political landscape that has put topics such as immigration and insecurity at the centre of national debate. This is partly thanks to ultra-conservative billionaire Vincent Bolloré who, since 2016, has acquired prominent media outlets and transformed them into vehicles for Right-wing commentary: radio station Europe 1, newspaper Journal du Dimanche, and most famously, TV channel CNews, often likened to Fox News. The network’s most famous pundit, Éric Zemmour, went on to run for president in 2022 and now heads a party even further to the Right of the RN: Reconquête, which polls at around 5% for the European elections and boasts Marine Le Pen’s niece, Marion Maréchal, at the head of its ticket. Compared with figures like these, the RN can come across as somewhat moderate.

Wallerand de Saint-Just, a member of the RN’s national bureau, the head of its group in the Île-de-France regional council, and the party’s national treasurer from 2009 to 2021, acknowledged that press coverage has become more favourable to the RN, though he chalked it up to the party’s growing support nationwide. “They’ve evolved because they have to acknowledge that more than 30, 35% of the population supports us,” Saint-Just told me.

He also admitted CNews offers relatively sympathetic coverage, even if he argued the network is more favourable to Zemmour. “We have good relationships with them, we’re better treated on CNews than [other channels], but it’s not a media of the National Rally either.”

When asked if Reconquête helps the RN appear more mainstream, Saint-Just was having none of it. “I’m going to be a bit coarse and vulgar, but Reconquête’s programme is ‘death to the poor, death to Arabs,’” he told me. “That’s not who we are. We care about social justice. And concerning ‘death to Arabs’, the Muslim community in France and even around the world knows we’ve always had a very balanced position on this topic and with respect to them.”

After the rally, though, at a highway road stop north of Perpignan, I bumped into Julien Sanchez, mayor of the southern town of Beaucaire and member of the RN’s 12-person executive bureau, who suggested the difference between his party and Reconquête is largely one of style. “We’re not into excessiveness or insults,” he told me. “We defend our positions, we defend our project, we’re obviously opposed to mass immigration, but there’s no point in doing so with excess.”

This strategy poses a conundrum: the more RN tries to present itself to voters as a mainstream opposition party, the harder it can be to understand its plans for governing France. Ever sensitive of their image, RN leaders have tossed to the wayside an impressive number of former idols and allies: Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin are no longer celebrated for obvious reasons, but in recent months, RN top brass have also criticised Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni (seen as too friendly with Brussels) and the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party (seen as too friendly with Moscow). “I don’t think we have any particular model,” Sanchez told me. “I think we’re building our own model and it’s pretty unique in Europe.”

What about Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, often cited as a source of inspiration by European nationalists? “It’s a model of a country that is courageous on the topic of migration, because they said ‘no’ to the European Union and that’s harder to do when you’re Hungary than when you’re France,” replied Sanchez, carefully choosing his words. “I think they’re people we’re going to be talking to in the next few years.”

What’s clear, in any case, is that Bardella and Le Pen have not only succeeded in remaking their party, helping to set the terms of the debate on issues including immigration and insecurity. Macronists’ attempts to reclaim these topics have fallen flat — which has, if anything, strengthened the RN’s legitimacy. Meanwhile, divisions have prevented bickering Left-wing parties from delivering a coordinated response necessary to peel away potential RN sympathisers and win over some of the disillusioned working-class voters now abstaining from politics altogether. It’s unlikely that a fight-back will take shape before next month’s European Parliament elections — and by then, the RN will likely have yet another feather in its cap.


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Dick Barrett
Dick Barrett
15 days ago

Bardella is just another Meloni, and like her, he will not pose any significant threat to the powers that be in Brussels.

Clueless
Clueless
15 days ago

Basically tho , you have failed to mention that the left in France , the LFI are Islamogauchists which means it s more difficult for them to keep their working class voters who find the RN more attractive.
Also CNews is nothing like Foxnews.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
15 days ago

I suspect a one-eyed, toothless, incontinent donkey could “seduce France”, given France’s track-record of falling for any old hee-haw.

Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
15 days ago

If there were an an equivalent party to the RN in the UK with a charismatic leader it would immediately grab half of the Conservative vote, plus quite a few from disenchanted Labour seats in the northern cities facing the prospect of Galloway and his Islamist friends holding power. C’mon Nigel, get your act together.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
15 days ago
Reply to  Rocky Martiano

Hard to imagine any ‘charismatic leader’ with a name like ‘Nigel’. I certainly can’t think of one.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
15 days ago

RE: Meloni, while many of the populist parties support welfare states(for most) apparently she cancelled overnight by text a form of basic income which plunged millions(especially in the South/Sicily) in real poverty. Appalling act…

Chris Maille
Chris Maille
15 days ago

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin are no longer celebrated for obvious reasons

Vladimir Putin is without the slightest doubt the most competent and loyal political leader of the past 50 years.

Roger Inkpen
Roger Inkpen
14 days ago
Reply to  Chris Maille

Yeah. Loyal to himself

Chris Maille
Chris Maille
14 days ago
Reply to  Roger Inkpen

No, loyal to his nation and its citizens. Can’t say that of Biden, Micron, Scholz and Sunnak.
The west has treated Putin in an extremely disrespectful way, when it should be him that treats western leaders this way.
Well, I guess he does now that he has finally accepted that he is not talking to adults but hysterical teenagers and schoolyard bullies at best.

Roger Inkpen
Roger Inkpen
14 days ago

I blame Brexit