Le Pen’s 28-Year-Old Political Heir Faces Make-or-Break Test

(Bloomberg) -- President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to call a snap election has plunged France into uncertainty — but it may prove to be the making of Jordan Bardella, Marine Le Pen’s 28-year-old selfie-loving political heir.

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Bardella — the butt of jokes on a satirical TV show for his habit of offering to take selfies with people — would likely become prime minister if Le Pen’s National Rally wins a legislative majority next month. That’s after Macron called a ballot following his party’s bruising defeat in Sunday’s European Parliamentary election.

Bardella, the president of the National Rally, was instrumental in its record score in the vote, making the party appear more mainstream. By not carrying the family’s name, he has helped Le Pen’s push for legitimacy by putting even more distance between the party and its founder, her controversial father Jean-Marie Le Pen, known for his antisemitic views. But Marta Lorimer, political science researcher and fellow at the London School of Economics, says no one should be fooled by the “moderation” narrative.

“Bardella has the exact same ideas as Le Pen, it’s just that he’s not called Le Pen and he’s 28,” she said. “The National Rally hasn’t moderated hugely in the last 10 years. There’s nothing that would justify thinking of it as anything else than a radical right party. And Bardella is just a cleaner, nicer face, but he’s not a moderate.”

For Le Pen and Bardella, the challenge will be to show that the economic and social discontent that carried the party in the European vote will also see them through at home. Already in 2022, Le Pen’s party made significant strides by winning nearly 90 seats in the lower house of parliament to become the main opposition.

A poll published Monday of first-round voting intentions puts the National Rally at 34%, with Macron’s group trailing at 19%. The survey suggests that Le Pen’s party could become the National Assembly’s biggest this time.

“We are ready to govern; we have a certain number of texts, draft bills that are obviously ready to come into effect,” Bardella told RTL radio in an interview on Tuesday, adding that he was prepared to take action on spending power, security and immigration.

Inside the National Rally, or Rassemblement National in French (RN), a Le Pen-Bardella ticket is seen as a stronger bet than just Le Pen’s name, according to one of its strategists.

The family brand still has cachet in former communist strongholds like the de-industrialized north of France. But without the Le Pen baggage — although he has dated Marine Le Pen’s niece Nolwenn Olivier — Bardella is seen drawing conservatives who typically vote for the center-right Republicains party. Also, while RN isn’t usually popular with executives, polls suggest Bardella is helping it become slightly more acceptable for this category.

Rising Popularity

His popularity among the young has been bolstered by a strong social media presence including on the video app TikTok, where he has 1.4 million followers — compared with Macron’s 4.5 million. Bardella has been grooming himself for the limelight, taking media training classes from a former journalist.

Bardella, who dropped out of university to focus on politics, likes to burnish his credentials by pointing to his upbringing in the poor, rough and ethnically diverse Paris suburb of Seine Saint—Denis. A recent portrait in Le Monde, however, highlighted how atypical he was for that neighborhood. Although he grew up in a project and was raised by his divorced mother, Bardella — who is of Italian descent — was more privileged than his peers, getting a Smart car as a gift for his birthday and traveling to Miami with his father, according to an unidentified party official cited by the daily.

Named party president in November 2022, Bardella may be outgrowing his mentor, Le Pen — the 55-year-old has ditched her plan to retire at 60. He touts his edge in addressing issues that young people care about, like climate change or artificial intelligence.

And while Le Pen has distanced herself from comments about race, Bardella portrays immigration from Africa as a threat to French culture, alluding to the “great replacement” theory — a view popular with white nationalists around the world that says that they are at risk of being dislodged by people of color.

Although he can rally large crowds at party gatherings, Bardella often comes across as out-of-his-depth in debates. He avoided a debate on key policies like the EU’s green deal, letting an RN lawmaker stand in for him.

During a pre-election debate with Macron’s 34-year-old Prime Minister Gabriel Attal, Bardella appeared tense, struggling to explain his idea of creating a “double border” for migrants. Attal, presented as Macron’s “anti-Bardella” campaigning weapon, baited Bardella on the bloc’s electricity market reform.

Economic Policies

Bardella, who like his boss has expressed a preference for Donald Trump over Joe Biden as US president, is in favor of imposing more tariffs in sectors that are particularly vulnerable to foreign competition, including electric cars and agricultural goods. During the debate, he slammed the bloc’s free trade agreements as well as the European green deal agenda.

When Bardella met with business leaders in March, he noted that the economy needs trust, less red tape and fewer taxes. He also said that growth would help France reimburse its ballooning public debt — a Macron mantra — and that his party had no intention of leaving the EU, a proposal Le Pen ditched in 2019.

To be sure, Bardella’s chances of becoming prime minister are slim. In 2022, Le Pen was about 200 seats shy of a majority in the National Assembly. If her party wants to govern, it may have to build alliances, including with her niece Marion Marechal, who joined the rival far-right party of TV pundit Eric Zemmour, and traditional conservatives, some of whom are still repelled by the party’s history of antisemitism and racism.

Late Monday, Le Pen said on TF1 television that discussions with Marechal have already begun, adding that she’s ready to build a coalition that could also extend to the conservative Republicains.

French national ballots typically don’t echo EU votes, whose voting rules and dynamics are different. But if the party does cobble together a majority, Macron might be able to shine a light on its shortcomings, according to Teneo analyst Antonio Barroso.

“Ultimately, Macron’s goal might be to bring an RN victory forward in time to expose the party’s lack of experience in government and make them confront politically painful decisions ahead of the 2027 presidential election,” he said in a note late Sunday.

One of the trickiest exercises for Bardella, if he were to become prime minister, would be to negotiate the 2025 budget in the fall. Le Pen has sought to shift the image of her party by promoting fiscal responsibility. She has slammed Macron for letting the French debt-to-GDP ratio climb and seized the moment when France’s debt was recently downgraded, characterizing the government’s management of public finances as “catastrophic.”

At the same time, Bardella has laid out costly plans, including the creation of a sovereign fund to invest in energy and defense, higher pensions, lower energy prices and taxes, and boosting low wages by 10% while slashing corporate contributions. As an EU lawmaker, Bardella voted against a proposal to implement a windfall tax on the energy sector.

“The economic agenda is a little bit all over the place,” the LSE’s Lorimer said. “I would be curious to see what happens to it once they’re actually in power and have to negotiate with the fact that the economy is, if not real, at least some kind of constraint on what they’re able to do.”

--With assistance from Alexandre Rajbhandari, Samy Adghirni, Zoe Schneeweiss, Edward Evans, William Horobin and James Regan.

(Updates with poll in sixth paragraph, Bardella comment in seventh paragraph, Le Pen comment in 18th paragraph.)

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