Who is the 28-year-old vying to be France’s PM, and what might his far-right party do in power?

CNN — 

Jordan Bardella’s rise to the peak of French politics has been so swift he is still asked about his teenage years spent playing “Call of Duty.” Next week, at the age of just 28, he could become France’s prime minister – and Europe’s youngest for more than 200 years.

He’s the fresh face of an old party that has striven to make itself new. Handpicked as leader by National Rally (RN) doyenne Marine Le Pen in an effort to purge the far-right party of its racist and antisemitic roots, Bardella has taken it closer to the gates of power than ever before. On Sunday, the RN smashed President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist alliance in the first round of a snap parliamentary election.

Whether the RN forms a government and Bardella becomes prime minister after the July 7 runoff is not clear. Despite the surge in support for the RN, France’s left and centrist parties have called on their supporters to vote tactically to deny the far right an absolute majority in the 577-seat National Assembly. This week, more than 200 parliamentary candidates from Macron’s alliance and the left-wing New Popular Front (NFP) stepped down in a bid to avoid splitting the vote in the second round.

Close-up of the hand of a voter who places his blue envelope containing his ballot in the ballot box in the polling station of the Kergomard nursery school in Valence in the south east of France, June 30, 2024. First round of voting legislative elections.

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But as Paris wraps a week of political bargaining, one thing is clear: France – and the rest of Europe – must reckon with the prospect of a far-right French government, headed by a popular but untested leader. So, who is Bardella, and what might his party do in power?

The only child of Italian immigrants, Bardella was brought up in Seine-Saint-Denis, a working-class suburb of Paris. He joined the RN at 16, and later began a geography degree at the prestigious Sorbonne university, before dropping out to climb the party ranks.

He did so briskly. After becoming party spokesperson, he became the RN’s lead candidate for the 2019 European Parliament election at the age of just 23. In 2022, after Le Pen narrowly lost the presidential election to Macron, he succeeded her as party leader, leapfrogging the party’s long standing vice-president and Le Pen’s former partner, Louis Aliot.

Le Pen and Bardella address a crowd of RN supporters in Paris, after Macron called a snap election, June 9, 2024.

Le Pen and Bardella address a crowd of RN supporters in Paris, after Macron called a snap election, June 9, 2024. Julien De Rosa/AFP/Getty Images

Freed from the day-to-day management of the party, but almost certain to run again for the presidency in 2027, Le Pen has been able to freshen the RN’s image and untether it from its reputation. Le Pen began her yearslong effort to detoxify the RN by ousting her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen – a convicted Holocaust denier – from the party he founded, and later changing its name.

The appointment and subsequent rise of Bardella may represent the completion of her mission to bring the party into the modern age. For many older voters, the prospect of a far-right government – reminiscent of the collaborationist Vichy regime during World War II – remains terrifying. But among young people, not weighed down by this historical baggage, the party has proved hugely popular.

While the RN’s messaging has remained similar, the messenger has changed entirely. Suave, composed, unflappable, a child of the screen generation, Bardella has built up a huge TikTok following, where young voters can watch him tasting wine and doing shots. Even a video of him eating a bon-bon has been viewed 7.5 million times.

In just two years, Bardella has helped to give the RN an acceptable – and potentially electable – face. Whereas Macron’s Ensemble alliance has sought to distance itself from the president’s image, the RN’s election manifesto is filled with splashy portraits of the prime minister-in-waiting.

Fantasy promises?

But campaigning and governing require different skills. If he becomes prime minister, Bardella will face the problem common to parties that make the leap from protest vote to credible governing force: How, after making extravagant promises as they rail against the mainstream, to avoid disappointing people once in office?

Despite its freshened image, its decades-old philosophy remains the same: Immigrants threaten France’s social fabric. The RN is committed to abolishing the birthright to citizenship for children of foreigners born on French soil, and to discriminate in favor of French citizens in welfare and public employment.

French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte Macron visit a polling station to vote in the first round of the early parliamentary elections in Le Touquet-Paris-Plage, on June 30, 2024.

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But on other things in its 21-page manifesto, the RN is more vague. Detailing how it intends to “preserve French civilization,” it says it will enact “specific legislation targeting Islamist ideologies,” without elaborating, and that it will “experiment with the creation of a voluntary national heritage service.”

But already, the RN has begun to temper some of its more extreme nativist positions. After initially advocating to ban dual-citizenship, Bardella softened this stance, but maintained that “the most strategic positions” within government will be reserved for French citizens.

“Can you imagine Franco-Russians working at the Ministry of the Armed Forces today?” he said ahead of the first round.

But the party has not yet provided a definition of “strategic positions.” Could, for instance, the Spanish-born Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo remain in post, or would she have to renounce her Spanish citizenship?

Mocking the vagueness of the RN’s pledges, Jean-Luc Mélenchon – the far-left leader of the France Unbowed party, which belongs to the New Popular Front coalition – has asked: “What does Mr. Bardella want? We don’t know. He says nothing. He’s a good-looking guy, but what’s his program? Throwing immigrants into the sea.”

Bardella prepares to cast his first-round vote in a Paris suburb, June 30, 2024.

Bardella prepares to cast his first-round vote in a Paris suburb, June 30, 2024. Julien de Rosa/AFP/Getty Images

Critics have said Bardella’s chronic absence from key votes while he was a member of the European Parliament, and his lack of grasp of policy details, make him unfit to govern. In a recent debate with Gabriel Attal, the outgoing French prime minister and Macron’s protege, Bardella confessed, with a smirk, to not having read the text of a bill he had voted against.

On the economy, the RN has pledged to slash value-added tax on electricity, fuel and other energy products from 20% to 5.5% and suspend it entirely for scores of basic necessities.

While this may be appealing to voters, it has alarmed both Brussels and the financial markets. France is running one of the highest deficits in the eurozone and now risks falling foul of the European Commission’s new fiscal rules, which had been suspended to help countries recover from the Covid-19 pandemic and energy crisis. French government spending could soon be brutally constrained by Brussels, despite the lavish promises of the RN.

“Tightening will be necessary next year, to bring France into compliance with EU expectations and rules,” Mujtaba Rahman, the managing director for Europe at political risk consultancy the Eurasia Group, told CNN.

If the RN falls short of the 289 seats required for an absolute majority, Bardella might choose not to govern. In bullish speeches before the first-round vote, he ruled out leading a minority government, which would require the support of allied parties to pass laws. While France might escape a far-right government for now, it faces the growing prospect of Le Pen becoming president in 2027, and then calling parliamentary elections to see Bardella installed as prime minister.

The Meloni model?

Since 2022, formerly fringe nativist parties hoping to govern have found a model to follow. After the technocratic government led by Mario Draghi collapsed in Italy, triggering a snap election, Giorgia Meloni became Italian prime minister, becoming the country’s most far-right leader since Benito Mussolini.

Before she took office, Rome’s allies thought a hard-right Italian government could compromise Western unity on support for Ukraine, pointing to Matteo Salvini, Meloni’s deputy prime minister and a longtime admirer of Russian President Vladimir Putin who used to don T-shirts emblazoned with his image.

But Meloni’s premiership has proven more moderate than many feared at the outset. While she has pursued hard-right policies domestically – seeking to limit abortion, surrogacy and even removing lesbian mothers’ names from their children’s birth certificates – she has largely toed a mainstream line on foreign policy issues.

Meloni and Macron stand with other Western leaders at the G7 summit in Italy, June 13, 2024.

Meloni and Macron stand with other Western leaders at the G7 summit in Italy, June 13, 2024. Antonio Masiello/Getty Images

Might the RN adopt this bifurcated strategy?

The RN is notoriously euroskeptic, but talk of a “Frexit” has cooled – perhaps because Britain’s departure from the European Union proved an act of serious economic self-harm, and perhaps because hard-right leaders – like Hungary’s Viktor Orban – have shown it is easier to weaken the bloc from the inside than from without.

With that aim, the RN has promised to cut funding to the EU by up to 3 billion euros ($3.2 billion), partly to fund tax cuts at home. But, with EU budgets agreed on a seven-year basis and the current one running until 2027, the RN cannot legally renege on France’s spending commitments.

Bardella has also ruled out sending French troops to Ukraine – an idea floated by Macron – and said he would not allow Kyiv to use French military equipment to strike targets inside Russia.

But a Bardella premiership could tip France into a constitutional crisis. While the National Assembly is responsible for passing domestic laws and the prime minister controls the budget, the president determines the country’s foreign, Europe and defense policy. When the prime minister and president belong to different parties – in a rare arrangement known as “cohabitation” – things can grind to a halt.

With Macron set to see out his term, which finishes in 2027, the line between domestic and foreign issues may become blurred. If Macron pursues a foreign policy that requires parliament to pass large spending bills, it is not clear whose preferences would prevail: his or Bardella’s.

Source : The CNN

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