14 July, 2024
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Who is Jordan Bardella, the new poster boy of the French far right?


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Who is Jordan Bardella, the new poster boy of the French far right?

Tipped to become France’s prime minister, the 28-year-old head of the National Rally is a leading figure of the anti-Islam and anti-immigration nationalist youth

Samia Lokmane

French far-right Rassemblement National (RN) party president Jordan Bardella poses during a photo session in Paris on 31 January (Joel Saget/AFP)

Jordan Bardella, 28, could become France’s youngest and first far-right prime minister since World War Two if the National Rally (RN) that he chairs wins the two-round legislative elections scheduled on 30 June and 7 July.

Last week, the list he led during the European elections came first with 31.4 percent of the votes, a historic score that prompted him to immediately ask President Emmanuel Macron to dissolve the National Assembly.

To France’s surprise, Macron did exactly that, calling snap parliamentary elections.

“The French have given their verdict and it is irrevocable,” Bardella said triumphantly after the results were announced, describing “a president weakened” by votes which express “a scathing rejection” of his policy.

Bardella, the right-hand man of former presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, said the majority of voters chose his list because of its commitment to “the identity and the sovereignty” of France.

The words are two permanent features of the far-right party’s electoral platform, which translate into the rejection of French Muslims and immigrants.

Yet, it was among immigrant communities in the Seine-Saint-Denis department, northeast of Paris, that Bardella spent his childhood and part of his youth. And he has developed an enticing narrative about this past.

Bardella, the only child of a divorced couple, likes to narrate how he used to live in social housing with his mother, a low-income educational assistant.

“Like many families, like many people who live in these neighbourhoods, I was confronted with violence, with difficulty seeing ends meet at the end of the month,” Bardella said.

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However, according to Marylou Magal, journalist and co-author of an investigative book on the new generation of the far right in France, the president of the RN makes the story of his youth darker to create greater proximity with residents of France’s suburbs, an electoral breeding ground for his party.

“We must put Bardella’s story into perspective. Indeed, his mother did not have much financial means. But his father was the manager of a small business who lived outside the suburbs,” she told Middle East Eye.

“He made him attend a private school, travel abroad when he was young, and gave him a foothold in the very classy city of Montmorency.”

In addition to the proletarian image he spreads, Bardella also likes to invoke his Italian origins to present himself as an example of successful integration, while putting aside his North African roots as the great-grandson of an Algerian man who immigrated to France in the 1930s to work as a labourer.

“France is no longer about ‘you become what we are’, it’s about ‘you come as you are’, that is to say, you come with your baggage, your morals, your customs, your traditions, your ways of life, your languages, and then, ‘make room for me’. But I disagree with this logic […], I came from elsewhere but I became from here,” he said.

Bardella champions what he considers to be “the republican effort of assimilation”, a demand clearly stated in Le Pen’s electoral platform for the 2022 presidential election.

A meteoric rise

Marine Le Pen is undoubtedly Bardella’s muse. In 2012, at the age of 16, while he was still a high school student, a young Bardella defended her ideas during an oral expression exercise in the classroom after watching a debate on television between her and Jean-Luc Melenchon, the leader of the left-wing party France Unbowed (LFI).

That year, he joined the National Front, RN’s forebear, which was led at the time by Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father.

In 2014, when Bardella began university studies in geography at the Sorbonne in Paris, he became the departmental secretary of the party, in charge of the suburbs.

While these sensitive urban zones are home to a large number of people with an immigrant background and had known serious unrest in 2005 after the death of two youths chased by the police, Bardella kept on denying the phenomenon of police violence.

Marine Le Pen and Jordan Bardella arrives on stage to address followers after French President Emmanuel Macron announced new general elections on 30 June in Paris (Julien de Rosa/AFP)
Le Pen and Bardella arrive on stage to address followers after French President Macron announced new general elections, on 30 June in Paris (Julien de Rosa/AFP)

Bardella then experienced a meteoric rise within the RN.

After leading the RN youth section (FNJ) in 2018, he was appointed by Le Pen second vice-president of the party in 2019 and became France’s youngest MEP that year.

In 2021, he was promoted to the position of first vice-president of the RN by Le Pen, serving as interim president of the party during her presidential campaign.

Then during the RN’s congress in November 2022, Bardella was elected president of the party, defeating Louis Aliot.

The new generation of identity politics

Bardella has been a vocal proponent of the far-right party’s nationalist ideas of identity, endorsing the conspiracy theory known as “the great replacement”, which raises the spectre of a substitution of the European population by African and Arab immigrants.

“Go for a walk in all the neighbourhoods where I lived in Seine-Saint-Denis,” he said in 2021, speaking of “a demographic sea change” which could “alter the face of France in a few years”.

In the party’s platform for the legislative elections, Bardella defends, like Le Pen, the idea of ​​“national preference” in access to social housing.

In 2021, he also published several messages on Facebook (deleted afterwards) in support of Generation Identitaire, an ultra-right group hostile to migrants and Muslims, which has since been dissolved by the government.

Cultural nationalism is the universe in which Bardella has earned his stripes, Magal told MEE. Other young figures of this political current include Le Pen’s niece and former MEP Marion Marechal, 34, and Sarah Knafo, 31, deputy of Eric Zemmour, the president of the far-right party Reconquete.

In addition to their ease with social media, the protagonists of this movement gained notoriety thanks to the “less constrained expression of hate speech” and Zemmour’s greater visibility in media close to the far right, such as the news channel CNews, according to Stephane François, professor of political science at the University of Mons in Belgium.

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Muslims, in particular, are in Bardella’s crosshairs.

In 2021, he described the town of Trappes, near Paris, as an Islamic republic, which led to his indictment. He also said in 2019 that a third of Muslims in France were in favour of implementing Islamic law.

Political Islam is likewise one of his hobby horses. Bardella has asked for a law against “Islamist ideologies” and called French footballer Karim Benzema an “Islamist” for donning a traditional Saudi dress after his transfer to Jeddah club Al-Ittihad.

“If everyone who wanted an Islamist way of life could go to Islamist countries, perhaps France would be better off,” he said.

Last year, Bardella described pro-Palestine demonstrators as “barbarians”.

“The Islamist ideology, Hamas, is among us,” he said in October 2023 about the Palestinian armed group.

Regarding the Islamic headscarf, Bardella, like Le Pen, is unequivocal: the hijab will be banned from public spaces if the RN comes to power. But not before the 2027 presidential election, he recently clarified.

“We will do now what we can do now, and we will do tomorrow at the level of the presidency what we will be able to do tomorrow,” he said on Monday, in an apparent attempt to reassure less right-wing voters and, perhaps, win the vote of Muslims.

Bardella has perfectly assumed the “de-demonisation” policy of his mentor Marine Le Pen, aimed at making the party more respectable.

“Foreigners who work and pay their taxes have nothing to fear,” he promised, while at the same time opposing the regularisation of undocumented immigrant workers.

By having it both ways, will he succeed in creating the illusion of a moderate party and cementing the victory achieved in the European elections?

Not for certain, according to Nonna Mayer, emeritus research director at CNRS and the Centre for European Studies and Comparative Politics at Sciences Po.

The National Rally particularly targets young voters who could identify with Bardella, she explained. “However, it should be noted that young people are less involved [in politics] and abstain a lot,” she told MEE.

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