November 7, 2022 - 3:45pm

All is not what it seems in France’s powerful far-Right party. And all is not well. Marine Le Pen has been replaced as party president by Jordan Bardella, a plausible and good-looking man of 27. He becomes President of the Rassemblement National (RN) but not its spiritual leader. Le Pen will continue to lead the party’s 89-strong group of deputies in the National Assembly. She will no doubt run, for the fourth time, for President of the Republic in 2027.

Bardella, an anti-immigration politician of Italian and partly Algerian origin, will do the hard work of running a near-bankrupt party. His promotion to become the first leader of the party in half a century not to bear the name Le Pen will in theory make Marine stronger, not weaker.

Bardella’s rapid ascent (assisted at every step by his predecessor) has marginalised a whole generation of more experienced RN leaders, including some of Le Pen’s closest allies in her parliamentary constituency in northern France. That, it seems, is what she wanted.

Le Pen may have blundered. The ambitious Bardella is showing signs of being his own man. His triumphant election by party members on Saturday, with 85% of the vote, threatens to cause the biggest split in the Rassemblement National in two decades.

One of Bardella’s first actions, against Le Pen’s wishes, was to purge from the party’s executive the de facto leaders of the party’s “northern” wing, Steeve Briois and Bruno Bilde. In the last 20 years they have guided Le Pen, with considerable electoral success, away from her father Jean-Marie’s roots in anti-state and low-tax politics towards a kind of interventionist, Right-wing socialism. 

Their ejection suggests that the RN under Bardella is about to move towards the so-called “southern wing”: more anti-state, more identitarian and in some respects more overtly racist.

Steeve Briois is the mayor of Hénin-Beaumont, a former mining town just south of Lille. The member of parliament for Hénin-Beaumont is, as it happens, Marine Le Pen. After his expulsion from the 12-strong executive, despite coming fourth in a party ballot, Briois denounced what he called a “re-radicalisation” of the party. He accused Bardella of ditching Le Pen’s mantra of “neither Right nor Left” in favour of “Right-wing posturing”.

The northern barons have never disguised their contempt for Bardella, whom they regard as an upstart with no knowledge of the “real”, blue-collar France. Briois once called Bardella “un petit con”, or “little idiot”. They campaigned in the party election for Louis Aliot, former RN number two and Le Pen’s one-time romantic partner.

The northerners oppose what they see as Bardella’s attempt to reach out to the ultra-nationalists and identitarians on whose vote Le Pen could once count. They abandoned her earlier this year for the briefly successful presidential campaign of the far-Right newspaper and TV pundit, Éric Zemmour.

Personal and political factors also explain Le Pen’s support for Bardella. He may not share her surname but he is part of the “family” in what remains a family business. He is in a relationship with Nolwenn Olivier, the daughter of Marine’s older sister Marie-Caroline.

Le Pen also wanted to undermine Zemmourism. She wanted to rejuvenate the RN. She wanted to weaken, but not lose, the older party barons. Not for the first time, she may have miscalculated. Bardella is not an immediate threat to her pre-eminence but he could explode the enlarged political base that gave her relative electoral success since she succeeded her papa in 2010. France’s far-Right could be about to splinter.

John Lichfield was Paris correspondent of The Independent for 20 years. Half-English and half-Belgian, he was born in Stoke-on-Trent and lives in Normandy.