France’s far-right National Rally elects new president to replace Le Pen

Jordan Bardella, 27, who joined the party as a teenager and is a protege of Marine Le Pen, replaces her as leader

France’s far-right National Rally (RN) has elected a 27-year-old from the Paris banlieue who joined the party as a teenager as its new president to replace Marine Le Pen.

The result means that for the first time since the party – originally the National Front – was created in 1972, it will not be run by a Le Pen.

Jordan Bardella, Le Pen’s protege, who has been caretaker president for a year, beat Louis Aliot, 53, the mayor of Perpignan, a party heavyweight as well as Le Pen’s former partner, by 85% to 15% of party members who voted.

There were cheers and a standing ovation as Le Pen announced the result. The handover comes at a tense time for the RN after one of its MPs was suspended from parliament for a racist outburst last week.

Addressing the party, Le Pen said that after more than a decade it was time to make way for someone new. Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, handed the reins to the youngest of his three daughters in 2011, who changed its name at a party conference in 2018.

Marine Le Pen is standing down as RN president to concentrate on directing its actions in the national assembly. She is still expected to wield significant power within the party’s leadership.

“I am not leaving RN to take a holiday. I will be there where the country needs me,” Le Pen told Saturday’s party convention. She is widely expected to make another presidential bid in 2027.

In legislative elections earlier this year that robbed Emmanuel Macron of his parliamentary majority, the party won a record 89 seats.

Bardella, known as a smooth orator who is rarely seen publicly out of a sharp navy suit and tie, has been standing in for Le Pen while she campaigned in this year’s presidential election, which she lost to Macron in a run-off in May this year, a repeat of the 2017 result.

In February, Bardella was put under investigation after describing the banlieue town of Trappes, home to a large immigrant community, as an “Islamic Republic” within France. He is a firm Eurosceptic, though the party under Le Pen has dropped campaigning for Frexit.

After Giorgia Meloni won the Italian elections, Bardella described it as a “lesson in humility for the European Union”, accusing it of trying to influence the vote. “No threat of any kind can stop democracy. The people of Europe are lifting their heads and taking their destiny in hand,” he said.

Born in the Paris banlieue of Seine-Saint-Denis to a French father and an Italian mother, Bardella has risen rapidly through the ranks of the far-right party he joined when he was 16, first coming to public prominence in 2017 when he became its spokesperson. He enjoys a privileged and personal relationship with the Le Pen family as his partner is Nolwenn Olivier, Le Pen’s niece.

While Bardella is an idealogical hardliner, Aliot had positioned himself as the man to continue the process of “de-demonising” the party that Le Pen began more than a decade ago.

After Le Pen took over the FN she set about cleaning up its image, at the time inextricably linked to the xenophobic, shaven-headed neo-Nazi thugs who supported her father. Members were expelled for racist and antisemitic remarks or for defending Philippe Pétain, the head of France’s Nazi-collaborating Vichy government in the 1940s. In 2015, after several warnings about his behaviour, she expelled her own father.

Critics said the laundering operation was more about style than substance, but it worked. In 2012, Le Pen polled 17.9% of votes in the first round of the presidential election. In 2017 that rose to 21.3%, and in 2022 to 23.15%. In 2014, the RN’s list of candidates, headed by Bardella, won the European elections in France, with 24.9% of the vote, sending 25 representatives to the European parliament.

However, the RN was one again at the centre of a racist row last week as its MP Grégoire de Fournas was banned from parliament for two weeks and fined half his salary for two months after shouting “Go back to Africa” when a black member of the lower house was questioning the government about migrants.

Asked last week who she would support in the party leadership race, Le Pen refused to say. “I said I’d remain neutral,” she told Télématin television. Appearing on BFMTV she added: “There’s no difference in [political] line between Jordan Bardella and Louis Aliot.”


Kim Willsher in Paris

The GuardianTramp

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