Tue. May 28th, 2024

Inside the well-secured Paris headquarters of France’s far-right National Rally party, an oversized poster in the stairwell shows two figures, their arms raised in triumph and smiling broadly. One is easily recognizable: Marine Le Pen, whose family has defined France’s virulently nationalist group for decades. The other is a tall, young man in a dark suit: Jordan Bardella. “THE TIME HAS COME,” the slogan reads.

[time-brightcove not-tgx=”true”]

At 28, Bardella’s time might well have come—with major implications for France’s future, and Europe’s too. He was handpicked by Le Pen in 2022 as president of the party and her likely successor as leader. For months, Bardella has barnstormed across France as Le Pen’s lead candidate for the European Union’s parliamentary elections on June 9, when about 400 million voters in the 27 E.U. countries will choose representatives to the bloc’s legislature for a five-year term—a vote that could have far-reaching impacts on issues ranging from Russian sanctions to immigration. With a win, Bardella, who already represents National Rally in the European Parliament, will likely still be part of a minority faction in Brussels, since its 720 members come from all 27 member countries. But Bardella’s rise mirrors a steady rightward trend that could come to radically reshape politics in his country.

Read More: How Marine Le Pen Could Become France’s Far Right Prime Minister

“My generation of patriotic activists is a generation that will govern, which was not the case 10, 20, or 30 years ago,” he tells TIME, sitting in the party headquarters one rainy afternoon. “We will not only become winners in the European elections, but we can also win the next presidential election. So that totally changes the future.”

Now, less than a month ahead of the election, there is little suspense in France over the outcome. For months, polls have shown Bardella trouncing President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist Renaissance party by a wide margin, his celebrity exploding as the E.U. campaign began. “The darling of the nationalist youth,” the conservative Le Figaro called Bardella, describing how he launched his youth campaign in a Paris club on a Saturday night. 

In a survey in early May, 31.5% of voters supported Bardella, among 16 politicians listed—nearly double the backing for Macron’s lead candidate, Valérie Hayer. In a separate poll, 38% said they had a favorable opinion of him, far higher than any other politician; in second place was another hardline nationalist, Marion Maréchal, who is Le Pen’s niece.

The support is driven in part by enthusiasm among some youth for a politician from their generation, though many young voters tell pollsters they are indifferent to politics in general; there is widespread fatigue after years of protests, a seemingly intractable war in Ukraine, and steep inflation. The weariness deepened in March when the government reported that France’s public deficit had risen to 5.5%, and predicted tepid growth ahead.

In response, Bardella has railed against Macron, depicting his cabinet as globalist elites hidebound to the European Union’s dictates in Brussels, at the expense of French citizens.

The message, often muddled or rehashed, has hit home for many, with fans mobbing Bardella for selfies at his campaign stops. “Jordan, je t’aime!” one woman yelled repeatedly during his election speech in northern France in late March; when Bardella posted the video on his TikTok feed, several of his 1.2 million followers echoed similar feelings, with hearts and kissing emojis.

There is little serious talk of Bardella becoming French president—yet. But with his charm offensive among youth and traditional conservative voters, his expected victory in June could provide a boost to Le Pen’s fourth presidential run in 2027. 

“Bardella’s young, and young politicians are popular,” says Mathieu Gallard, research director of the polling firm Ipsos. “Look at Macron: He was also young of course, seven years ago.”

In January, Macron, deeply concerned about the rise of the far right, appointed France’s youngest ever Prime Minister, 34-year-old Gabriel Attal, who previously served as his Education Minister. “Appointing a young and dynamic Prime Minister to deal with the rise of Bardella was certainly a factor,” Gallard says. That has set off a fierce battle between two millennial protégés, with warring visions for Europe’s future: Macron’s strong attachment to the E.U.’s borderless common market, with commitments to social justice and climate action, or Le Pen’s anti-immigrant, France First protectionism; she hailed Donald Trump’s presidential victory in 2016 as great news for European politicians such as herself.

For Macron, who fears seeing his achievements reversed once he leaves office in 2027, the threat from Bardella seems all too real. After all, Macron himself swept to power at 39 in 2017, obliterating seasoned politicians in his first-ever electoral race; he won reelection in 2022, and is barred from running for a third term.

For years, Macron has warned voters of a potential Bardella-like phenomenon—a hard-right politician capable of inflicting serious damage to Europe. It was for this reason that he set his first election-night victory rally in 2017 not to the French national anthem, as every predecessor had done, but to the E.U.’s anthem, “Ode to Joy.”  “If you are shy about Europe you will be killed by the extremes,” he told TIME after his 2017 victory, “because they are not shy about their anti-European feeling.” 

The possibility of a populist move against the E.U. seems more likely now than in 2017, when Le Pen’s party had just eight seats in the French parliament; in 2022, she won 89 seats.

“She has very strong legitimacy today, and she continues to progress,” Bardella tells TIME, noting Le Pen’s increasing share of votes over three presidential runs. “The ideas I represent, and that we represent, are becoming [the ideas of] a majority,” he says.

French presidential elections include a second, run-off phase between the top two candidates from the crowded first round. So far, conservative and left-wing voters have repeatedly united in the second round to block Le Pen from winning. But that steadfastness has shown signs of fraying, as a new generation has shrugged off a distaste for hardline nationalist politics, and as memories of the party’s more rabidly racist statements begin to fade. Among the youth, Gallard says, “it is increasingly seen as a party like any other.” When asked if voters still fear the stigma of supporting the far right, Bardella replies, “It is disappearing.”

The same might be said for other E.U. countries. In a marked shift, several countries have voted in anti-immigrant nationalists, including Italy’s Prime Minister Georgia Meloni, and the Netherlands’ far-right anti-Muslim leader Geert Wilders, who stunned Europeans by winning the parliamentary elections last November. Despite strong opposition from E.U. leaders over his anti-gay, Kremlin-friendly policies, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has won successive elections for 14 years, in part by gerrymandering constituencies and voting laws. “The political context in Europe has changed,” Bardella says, describing the surge of support. “The desire is to make a Europe of nations, respectful of national identities.”

Unlike Le Pen, who comes from the wealthy western suburbs of Paris, Bardella had a very different start to life. The only child of a single mother, Bardella grew up in a public housing project outside Paris in Saint-Denis, one of France’s poorest districts, according to government statistics, and home to large communities of African immigrants.

As Bardella tells it, his childhood profoundly shaped his politics. “I had these convictions because I grew up confronted with violence, insecurity and in a very modest, very precarious environment,” he says. He joined the party at 16, imploring his mother for weeks to sign parental permission for his membership. Le Pen soon spotted a rising star.

Previously known as the National Front, the group was founded by Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie Le Pen in 1967, and built its support with racially charged rabble-rousing; the older Le Pen has been repeatedly convicted on anti-Semitism charges. Marine Le Pen, now 55, has lost three presidential races since 2012, two of them to Macron, and has worked to soften the party’s image, including by expelling her own father.

Bardella has faithfully adopted Le Pen’s hardcore anti-immigrant views. At an election rally in northern France on March 22, he tells the crowd:  “we must never lower our guard against the relentless rise of Islamic ideology.” And yet, simply by dint of his dimpled smile and easy laugh, he seems a more electable break from the past. 

If Le Pen wins the presidency, it would be a political earthquake across Europe. The deeply anti-E.U. far-right would then command huge authority over Europe’s second-largest economy, a key NATO member and nuclear power, and a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.

For Bardella, that election three years from now cannot come soon enough. “Life is beautiful, but it will be even more so in 2027,” he wrote on TikTok in March, with a photo of him and Le Pen in warm embrace.

For Bardella, the task now is to galvanize younger voters, tapping into their anxieties over job opportunities and financial security, and a sense that France is losing its distinctiveness; a February poll showed that voters 18-24 years were mostly concerned with the cost of living, and that they trusted Bardella, over other politicians, to address the problem, slightly above their trust in Attal.

On the campaign trail, that has translated into Bardella blaming some of those economic challenges on immigration.“We’ve had successive waves of immigrants from countries that don’t have the same customs, culture, language, traditions, or conception of women,” he tells TIME, citing an official in the city of Nice who believes many crimes there were committed by foreigners. Instead of borderless E.U. rights for its 450 million people, Bardella proposes giving French citizens preference for jobs, housing, and social benefits. He opposes France withdrawing from the E.U., à la Brexit, having seen voters strongly reject that idea when Le Pen pushed for it about 15 years ago. “We want Europe, but not a ball and chain,” he says. “I want to build the Europe of the 21st century.”

And yet, Europe would be radically altered if Bardella’s plans were implemented, including by erecting internal borders to restrict the movement of non-Europeans. “A Syrian who comes to Italy and has a residence permit, should not be able to travel in all of the E.U. countries,” he says.

Such details are far removed from Bardella’s seemingly viral appeal on the campaign trail, as made clear one morning in March at France’s huge agricultural fair in Paris. The annual weeklong event in a vast exhibition space in southern Paris, in which farmers and trade unions converge, along with their produce and livestock, to promote their wares and push officials for better trade deals and subsidies. It is an obligatory stop-off every year for political leaders, particularly during election season, when candidates use the fair to rally support among swing voters situated far from the capital..

This year, the fair opened after weeks of enraged demonstrations by farmers, protesting steep utility costs and a flood of cheap imported foods, including from Ukraine, where the E.U. has suspended import duties.

Over hours at the fair, Bardella inched his way through the crowds, telling farmers that Macron’s government was driving them out of business, and stopping every few seconds to pose for selfies. “I am leaning towards supporting him,” said Thierry Belanger, a farmer from the Normandy region. “I’m very disappointed with everything going on with the president. [Bardella] is new, and he’s young.”

As Bardella made his way through the crowds, a chant picked up across the hall: “Jordan, president! Jordan, president!” Bardella smiled silently, and kept moving.

By

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.