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Marine Le Pen’s ‘Perfect Soldier’

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Jordan Bardella and Marine Le Pen launching the National Rally’s European election campaign, Paris, France, January 13, 2019

Chesnot/Getty Images

Jordan Bardella and Marine Le Pen launching the National Rally’s European election campaign, Paris, France, January 13, 2019

In April 2017, after qualifying for the second round of the French presidential election against Emmanuel Macron, Marine Le Pen temporarily stepped back as leader of the Front National, or National Front, her far-right party. It was a symbolic move aimed at transcending partisanship: she would still be the party’s candidate, she said, but “the president is the president of all the French people.” The party’s first vice president, Jean-François Jalkh, a longtime ally not only of Le Pen but of her father and predecessor as leader, Jean-Marie, was tapped to fill her shoes on an interim basis.

No sooner had Jalkh stepped up, however, than a French journalist unearthed an old interview in which Jalkh said that, while he wasn’t a Holocaust denier, it didn’t seem possible to him that the Nazis had used Zyklon B gas to carry out mass exterminations of Jews. Jalkh threatened legal action to defend himself, but renounced the interim leadership. Le Pen—whose efforts to distance herself from her father’s own sordid legacy of Holocaust dismissal were already muddied when she’d said, ahead of the election’s first round, that the French state was not responsible for rounding up Jews because the wartime Vichy regime was “not France”—went on to lose to Macron, who won two thirds of the runoff vote.

Four years later, Le Pen is once again standing aside as her party’s leader to focus on a presidential campaign. This time, the election is seven months away, and the field is still taking shape, but recent polls indicate that she could present a much stiffer challenge to Macron in a rematch for the presidency. In her place she will leave an interim leader with a profile very different from Jalkh’s: Jordan Bardella, a relative newcomer of a much younger generation. It was Le Pen, not her father, who inspired Bardella to join the party in 2012, when he was sixteen years old and needed parental permission to sign up.

Still only twenty-five, Bardella has already become one of the party’s most visible faces in the French media. By one count, he made more appearances on morning TV and radio shows in the first half of 2021 than any other French politician, with the exception of a spokesman for Macron’s government. Bardella is adept at staying firmly on message during such interviews, punching home his party’s talking points with the brio of a seasoned political hack. As he takes over the interim leadership this month, Bardella incarnates, in some ways, the disciplined, professional image that Le Pen has sought to project for her far-right party, especially since her 2017 defeat. In many other respects, though, he is a testament to how little the party has changed its old hard-line politics, despite a slick new coat of paint on top.

At the time of the 2017 election, Bardella was already a regional council member in Île-de-France, the region around Paris where he grew up, and soon afterward, Le Pen named him a party spokesman. His effectiveness as a communicator led Le Pen to promote the twenty-three-year-old—over more senior colleagues who had been angling for the position—to be the party’s leading candidate for the 2019 elections to the European Parliament. Unlike numerous party elders, who risked being tainted by a scandal that saw several French parties accused of using European funds to pay assistants to work on domestic politics, Bardella’s youth and relative inexperience made him appear a clean asset. (During the campaign, two French news outlets reported that Bardella was also a suspected beneficiary of such a scheme; in 2015, he briefly held a part-time job in Jalkh’s European Parliament office. Bardella dismissed the story as politically motivated nonsense.) The ticket led by Bardella finished in first place.

If Bardella’s image was fresh, his message was familiar. Throughout the European campaign, he espoused hard-line positions on immigration and security, longtime National Front shibboleths. He accused Macron and European officials of wanting to “impose” migrants on “our towns and villages.” During one debate, he described the entire continent of Africa as a “demographic bomb”; during another, candidates were asked to present an object that they felt represented Europe, and Bardella held up a red plastic sieve, explaining that it was a metaphor for the EU’s susceptibility to mass immigration, terrorism, and cultural erosion.

Since then, Bardella has used his position as a senior messenger for his party during the pandemic to reiterate harsh rhetoric about borders. Last year, after a gruesome incident in which a terrorist decapitated a French schoolteacher who had shown his students cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, Bardella demanded that the government shutter hundreds of mosques that, he claimed, were under Islamist influence, adding that “we are at war.” (When, a month later, a viral video showed French police officers beating up a Black man, Bardella said that those responsible for the assault represented “a minority” of officers; as shocking as the incident was, he said, people shouldn’t generalize.) Most recently, in a TV interview this past August, Bardella explicitly endorsed the “great replacement” theory, a slogan—popularized by the French writer Renaud Camus and taken up enthusiastically by white nationalists everywhere—that holds that immigrants are displacing the native population; the phrase, Bardella said, is unclear and overly intellectual, but points to an accurate reality.

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Bardella’s messaging usually echoes Le Pen’s; he is, by all accounts, extremely loyal to the leader who has sponsored his meteoric political rise. (He has also, since 2019, been the boyfriend of her niece, making him, in effect, family—a handy tie in this traditionally dynastic party.) Bardella has drawn criticism from some quarters for lacking any clear positions of his own; Florian Philippot, a former deputy of Le Pen’s who once worked alongside Bardella but quit the National Front in 2017 to found a rival party called Les Patriotes, recently told Le Monde that while Bardella “has talent, I think he has very few real convictions.” Philippot claimed that Bardella once privately agreed with his stance that the party should broaden its agenda to cover economic and social issues, only then to redouble his public anti-immigrant rhetoric.

In June, Bardella again stood for election, this time seeking the presidency of the Île-de-France regional council. The party expected to do well in numerous regions, but failed to win a single one, and lost nearly a third of its regional councilors nationwide. Bardella was among those to underperform expectations, and seemed to have been dented by the defeat, as did Le Pen by the overall results. And yet, in early July, at a party conference in Perpignan—a provincial city near the French border with Spain where, in a major breakthrough for the party, a Le Pen ally won the mayoralty last year—Le Pen was reelected as leader with scarcely a murmur of dissent, and Bardella was confirmed as her stand-in during the presidential campaign. He also topped a poll of members to win a seat on a party council—a reflection of his internal popularity, even if the council has little authority in practice.

If Perpignan was a reliable indicator of Le Pen’s current grip on the party, Bardella’s ascent can be seen in the same way. Before he was driven out of the party, Philippot had distinctive intellectual credentials and an ideological project of his own, as did a second party eminence, Marion Maréchal, another niece of Le Pen’s who is even further to the right than her aunt and has been referred to as Jean-Marie Le Pen’s “true darling.” Maréchal ostensibly retired from frontline politics in 2017, though still in her late twenties. But she has continued to lurk offstage, and not only in the feverish imagination of the French political press. In 2018, she spoke at CPAC, the increasingly unhinged conservative conference in the US, where Steve Bannon credited her with giving the “best speech” but for Trump’s. Some retirement.

Bardella, by contrast, is a loyal lieutenant, without much political capital of his own. Despite the leadership handoff, he will not be his party’s true standard-bearer for the coming election cycle—as Félicien Faury, a political scientist at Paris-Dauphine University who has studied the party, told me, “Jordan Bardella is really the perfect soldier for Marine Le Pen.” The likely result of the coming war—and the reckoning within the party that could follow the presidential election, both for Bardella and Le Pen—is an altogether more complex matter. In the end, their fortunes could depend less on how much their party has changed and more on how the French political landscape has changed around their party.

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Joel Saget/AFP via Getty Images

Bardella, then just twenty, campaigning in his home district of Seine-Saint-Denis ahead of regional elections, Aulnay-sous-Bois, France, November 5, 2015

Jordan Bardella was born in 1995 and grew up in public housing in Seine-Saint-Denis, an impoverished département next to Paris. He has painted a bleak picture of the area, speaking of drug dealers and gangs, and making his upbringing there a cornerstone of his political biography. Defending his recent “great replacement” remarks, he challenged his interlocutors to see for themselves where he grew up; and when one of them objected to a comment Bardella made comparing the treatment of Muslim women in France and Afghanistan, Bardella replied, “I’ll take you to Saint-Denis.” Bardella’s parents, who separated when he was young, are respectively an Italian immigrant and the child of an Italian immigrant; they scrimped to send Bardella to a private school, and he later went to the Sorbonne to study geography, before dropping out to focus on his political career. As a new face of his party, he represents youth, social mobility, and “good” immigration from Europe—attributes and values popular among many of the party’s voters, including those less comfortable with the harder-edged ultranationalism of Jean-Marie Le Pen.

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A significant section of the party’s base, as it stands today, is blue-collar but sees itself as respectably so. Voters in the twenty-five-to-thirty-four age cohort, to which Bardella belongs, are increasingly attracted to the party: polls suggest that nearly 30 percent of them would vote for Le Pen today, up from 23 percent in 2017. That year, Macron wiped the floor with Le Pen in major cities; Le Pen was more popular in many less densely populated areas, performing well in her party’s southeastern bastion and even better in the northeast of France, where she found support among white, working-class voters. Lower levels of education have always correlated strongly with the party’s support, and that remains the case. A typical voter is “not the most precarious economically,” Sylvain Crépon, a political scientist at the University of Tours, told me, but “just above and scared of falling.”

After 2017, Le Pen quickly set about trying to expand her coalition by accelerating her long-term project of dédiabolisation, or “de-demonizing” the party’s brand. The month after her loss to Macron, she said in a TV interview that she wanted to “change everything” about the party. In 2018, she proposed rebranding the National Front as the Rassemblement National, or National Rally (NR), saying that the old name had become a “psychological brake” for many voters and implied belligerent opposition from the margins, whereas to “rally” evoked unity and consensus. (For some, the new name has a sinister connotation of wartime collaboration with the Nazis, when a party called the Rassemblement National Populaire supported the Vichy regime.) Party activists approved the change, as well as scrapping the honorary presidency, a position somehow still held by Jean-Marie Le Pen even though Marine Le Pen had driven him out of the party in 2015 over his Holocaust comments. (“She’ll only be able to break with me by killing herself,” Jean-Marie Le Pen retorted. “It’s my blood that runs in her veins.” He is now, once again, standing trial for inciting racial hatred, at the age of ninety-three.)

Despite continuing with antiestablishment posturing, Marine Le Pen has made a series of symbolic concessions to convention: paying homage to Charles de Gaulle; dropping her 2017 pledge to hold a quick referendum to end France’s use of the euro currency; and pledging to pay down the national debt. The party’s underlying platform, however, has remained consistent: a tripartite bedrock of immigration, identity, and security. “What they [the NR leadership] had in mind, when they talked about dédiabolisation, was the one thing that made them a party you cannot vote for: it was anti-Semitism,” Nonna Mayer, of the Center for European Studies and Comparative Politics at Sciences Po/CNRS, in Paris, told me. “As far as immigrants, Muslims, Roma are concerned, they are exactly the same old National Front as before. They haven’t changed.”

The National Rally has had some successes since 2017, not least the European election campaign that Bardella fronted in 2019. The results of municipal elections the following year were more mixed for the party, but it held control of numerous towns that it had won in the previous elections, and also took Perpignan, where it built support across class lines. More generally, the party has made important gains among women voters since Le Pen took over the leadership. But older, better-educated, and more affluent voters are still staying away from the National Rally—as Jérôme Fourquet, of the polling firm IFOP, wrote in the wake of the better-than-expected Republican showing in the 2020 US presidential election, the socioeconomic diversity of Trump’s coalition, not to mention the benefits he reaped from America’s two-party and Electoral College systems, may simply be beyond Le Pen.

France’s regional elections in June were marked by very low turnout—an across-the-board phenomenon that may have hit the National Rally disproportionately since younger and blue-collar voters tend to vote at lower rates than older and more affluent groups. Mayer and others caution, though, that it’s especially hard to draw firm conclusions from the regional elections. More people will surely vote in next year’s presidential election. And uncommitted Macron voters, who saw him as a lesser evil than Le Pen in 2017 but have since been disillusioned by his presidency, might not bother turning out again in a hypothetical rematch.

In local elections, the party has often suffered from high turnover and a shallow bench of talent: between the municipal elections in 2014 and 2020, a quarter of its elected councilors stood down; ahead of the latter poll, the NR slate of candidates in one area, wanting to demonstrate the diversity of its support, put a stock photo of a woman on its campaign poster. But when Le Pen herself is on the ballot, the NR looks stronger. As Crépon told me, the party’s perceived lack of administrative competence, a central issue in local elections, is less of a problem in a national climate marked by mistrust of the political system and antiestablishment sentiment. “Five years ago, I was convinced that Le Pen had no chance of being elected president,” Crépon said. “Now I’d be a little more prudent.”

Not that such sentiment is a surefire boon for the National Rally. Another narrative among some French political commentators in the wake of the regional elections held that the NR is now perceived by some of its traditional supporters as insufficiently radical, and increasingly itself a party of the establishment. Le Pen’s dédiabolisation project has made it hard for her to co-opt the angry, often ugly populist street movements that have driven the French political agenda in recent years. Despite an early poll bounce and some clear ideological overlap, the NR has not been a clear or lasting beneficiary of the gilets jaunes movement, which protested a gas tax and a messy assortment of other grievances in 2018. More recently, as far-right anger has exploded across France in response to the government’s imposition of Covid-19 passports for everyday social activities, Philippot has attacked the program with greater zeal than Le Pen, who has called the passports “liberticidal” but kept her distance from a street movement that has been associated with anti-Semitic imagery and anti-vax slogans.

According to this line of thinking, Le Pen may not only fail to expand her coalition next year, but could actually lose votes to an insurgent candidate to her right, potentially splitting off former NR voters and imperiling her path to the presidential election’s second-round runoff. Eric Zemmour, a TV polemicist repeatedly convicted of hate speech, is all but in campaign mode; Philippot recently confirmed his candidacy. Le Pen, it seems, is having to thread a needle familiar to many establishment politicians—broadening her appeal without alienating her base—all while her core supporters threaten to undermine her efforts to detoxify the party.

To an extent, she’s succeeded in assuaging fears that the National Rally is an extremist threat to democracy, but according to a recent poll, nearly half of French people still see it in such terms, and not without reason: a 2019 survey found that 60 percent of NR voters and those who consider themselves to be “very right-wing” think that another political system could be as good as democracy (compared to 36 percent of the general population). National Rally supporters are also particularly susceptible to conspiracy theories, with more than a third believing in the existence of a global Zionist plot, another 2019 survey found. Le Pen “does not want to establish a dictatorship; she does not want to come to power through street gangs or violent action,” Jean-Yves Camus, a prominent expert on far-right radicalism who meets occasionally with Le Pen, told me. “Nevertheless, many people within the party are not the kind of ‘democrats’ I would really like to see in the Élysée Palace.”

Le Pen’s vision for the National Rally, in short, faces a squeeze from both the center right and the outside right. France’s political establishment, however, seems determined to help her get out of this political bind by steering the entire center of gravity of French politics rightward. If the NR has become as respectable as any other political party since the 2017 election, arguably it’s been on terms the NR itself has dictated. Le Pen, Rim-Sarah Alouane, a scholar of French law and religious freedom, told me, “has not achieved much, if anything” in electoral terms, but she has succeeded in getting everyone to play the game on her own, far-right turf: “In the end, the people who amplify Marine Le Pen are mainstream parties.” Those politicians may think they’re neutralizing Le Pen’s appeal, but they risk legitimizing and growing it. As Jean-Marie Le Pen liked to say, “voters always prefer the original to the copy.”

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Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images

Bardella preparing for a TV debate ahead of France’s regional elections, Paris, June 14, 2021

During one of his many media appearances, this past March, an interviewer asked Bardella outright whether Le Pen has really changed or whether she’s putting up a facade to win power. Bardella argued that the party had “evolved” on a number of issues, not least on the euro and membership in the European Union, but he said Le Pen’s strong standing in the polls was due not to change on her part, so much as voters coming round to her way of thinking. “Lots of people realized,” Bardella said, “that she was perhaps right.”  

A case in point is a bill recently introduced by Macron’s government that purported to protect laïcité, a distinctively French doctrine of official secularism, from the menace of “Islamist separatism,” in particular. As French lawmakers debated the legislation, the National Rally argued that the government isn’t going far enough. In January, Le Pen unveiled a counterproposal that, among other provisions, proposed banning Muslim women from wearing the veil in public, a favorite far-right theme that the NR has continued to hammer on in recent months. Ahead of the regional elections, Bardella tweeted a picture of a campaign flier that showed Sara Zemmahi, a candidate for Macron’s party, wearing a hijab, adding the caption “Is this how you fight separatism?”

This was predictable politicking, but Macron’s party seems increasingly eager to armor itself against such jabs: Stanislas Guerini, a senior party official, quickly retweeted Bardella’s post with the warning that the “ostentatious wearing of religious symbols on campaign literature” is “incompatible” with his party’s values. As early as 2019, Macron chose to give an interview to Valeurs Actuelles, a far-right magazine. More recently, government ministers have adopted the loaded terms islamo-gauchisme and ensauvagement: the first refers to an alleged complicity between left-wing intellectuals and Islamists; the second to a supposedly growing “savagery” in French society, which can be understood as code for Islamist terrorism like last year’s killing of the schoolteacher and for the supposed generalized criminality in immigrant communities and the banlieues.

In February, Gérald Darmanin, Macron’s interior minister, debated with Le Pen on TV and remarkably escalated his party’s attempt to outflank her on the right by accusing her of being “soft” on Islam. Le Pen parried by saying that she had no problem with Islam, only with Islamism, but both politicians were relying on this definitional boundary being fuzzy in French political discourse. “The blurry lines are actually done on purpose—because in this country, whether we like it or not, we always make sure to confuse Islam and extremism,” Alouane told me. “Muslims have always been seen as a population who cannot integrate. When someone says, ‘it has nothing to do with Islam,’ the whole debate is about how Muslims practice their religion.”

Setting the political agenda will never be enough for those in the National Rally who covet institutional power, and Le Pen and her allies, including Bardella, will see their standing weaken if that does not materialize. Despite her historically strong performance in reaching the second round in the 2017 presidential election—nearly doubling her father’s second-round vote share in 2002, which was the only time he made it that far—Marine Le Pen’s ultimate defeat, prefigured by a poor performance in the final debate against Macron, sapped her authority within the party, at least for a time. As Faury told me, the NR lacks a robust internal democracy and ways of resolving factional tensions. The party’s dynastic tradition, which is one index of that, may protect Le Pen, but it’s conceivable that she could step aside or be pushed out in a putsch—and, while her vision for the party could live on via Bardella or someone else, that is by no means guaranteed. Maréchal—who, unlike Bardella, is a Le Pen by blood even if she has stopped using the family name hyphenated with her father’s—remains in the wings. And, again unlike Bardella, she will have kept her distance from the result in 2022, if it turns out adverse.

Both Maréchal’s fortunes and Bardella’s would thus seem to ride on Le Pen’s mission to make the far right electorally viable. The biggest risk to Bardella, perhaps, is that he is so closely tied to Le Pen that if she fails at the polls in 2022, he may sink with her—the “perfect soldier” who never gets his own Napoleon moment. The battle of ideas, of course, matters more, and many observers fear that the National Rally has already won it. Alouane points out that to give Le Pen’s father a TV platform was once considered taboo. Today, her protégé Bardella is a talk show fixture.

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