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Le Pen wants to hand over the French far right to a 26-year-old

(Bloomberg) — The rising star of Marine Le Pen’s far-right party is taking her presidential ambitions to corners of France that feel left behind.

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As 26-year-old Jordan Bardella arrived in Oléron, an island off the west coast, on the morning of June 2, he shook hands, gave media interviews and spoke with fishermen about their most pressing concerns. – the European quotas on their catches and the rise in the price of fuel.

Officially, the purpose of the visit was to promote a local candidate in the legislative elections which begin on June 12. In reality, it was part of a campaign to make himself known at the head of the National Rally. And at the port at least it seemed to work.

“I’m sure you’ll be our next president!” shouted fisherman Benoit Lavaud, 33. “You are the only person I would vote for!”

Bardella has played a key role in helping Le Pen reach more younger voters, especially in rural and suburban areas. He has been acting party leader since September, when she stepped down to focus on her ultimately failed third bid for the Elysee Palace and she backs him as her successor. But criticism of his nomination has exposed growing divisions over the party’s future.

Two members, who requested anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic, said Bardella was too young and sometimes too radical, pointing out that his use of language undermines Le Pen’s efforts to cover up the movement’s racist roots founded by his father.

“Le Pen is trying to see how he passes with the rest of the electoral base,” said Marta Lorimer, an expert on France’s far-right at the London School of Economics. “She might just come back if she realizes the party can’t survive without Le Pen at its helm.”

The legislative poll presents a challenge for Bardella. New priorities are likely to emerge, along with other potential successors, depending on how the party fares, people say.

The RN, as it is known in France, is expected to win far fewer seats than the parties backing recently re-elected President Emmanuel Macron, who appear set to maintain their position as the largest bloc, or the alliance grouped around a extreme left brand. Jean-Luc Melenchon, who should get the second highest total.

But his earnings will likely be enough to give him formal legislative status, it is projected, for only the second time since the 1980s. a milestone in Le Pen’s decade-long effort to bring the party to the center of French politics.

“What we want is to bring the people into the National Assembly and ensure that our ideas are represented,” said Bardella, who is not running himself for a seat, after speaking with the fishermen. “I want our ideas to take power.”

Of Italian descent, Bardella was born and raised in Seine Saint-Denis, a harsh, poor and ethnically diverse suburb of Paris, and dropped out of college to focus on politics. He quickly rose through the party ranks, becoming a party MP in 2019.

Bardella plays on his background and presents himself as the polar opposite of the average French politician. He has helped Le Pen “integrate” the party since she took it over from her father, focusing on the rising cost of living and reframing her views on women.

“We had a woman as a presidential candidate and we have a 26-year-old guy as acting boss, it shows how modern and open-minded we are,” said Louis Aliot, mayor of the southern city of Perpignan. and vice-president of the party.

At the same time, Bardella has opinions that even Le Pen has been careful not to express.

While Le Pen moved away from comments about race, Bardella portrayed immigration from Africa as a civilizational threat. It’s an allusion to the “great replacement” – a conspiracy theory once confined to far-right racist tracts that fuels deadly gun violence around the world. He is defended by Eric Zemmour, who came fourth in the presidential election and was sanctioned for hate speech.

“I agree with some of Zemmour’s views, I know the topics he talks about because I grew up in the suburbs,” Bardella said in a separate interview on Thursday, before adding “Zemmour doesn’t bring any response to people’s problems.

At the port, Bardella was followed by his official photographer, who is taking images as part of the campaign to make him appear presidential, according to the newspaper Le Monde. The visit, the first by a national politician in a long time, meant a lot, said Lavaud, the fisherman. “Macron’s people didn’t even come.”

Some party members do not believe the RN will perform well in the general election, and they are attacking a system they say does not reflect the will of the people. “It’s because the National Assembly doesn’t deal with people’s problems and ideas that people come out into the streets,” Bardella said.

If he wins an internal party vote in the fall and is confirmed leader of the RN, he will have two elections to prepare: to the Senate in 2023 and to the European Parliament the following year. Only then can he start focusing more on the 2027 presidential election.

“I hear the internal critics say I’m too young but that won’t stop me. Napoleon said “we grow fast on the battlefield”, Bardella said, “and I inherited the resilience of Marine Le Pen”.

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Hazel J. Edmonds

The author Hazel J. Edmonds