Le Pen's investment in far-right Bardella pays off ahead of French election

Jordan Bardella, President of the French far-right National Rally arrives at the RN party headquarters in Paris

By Tassilo Hummel

PARIS (Reuters) - Jordan Bardella has helped steer France's far-right National Rally (RN) toward its first real chance of power, the rapidly emerging fresh face of a party that has sought to clean up its image and widen its appeal in recent years.

Bardella, 28, owes his initial ascent to a long-shot bet by Marine Le Pen, who was looking to breathe new life into her party when she made Bardella, then an unknown 23-year-old, the lead candidate of the RN's 2019 European election ticket.

The gamble has paid off.

Bardella, now the RN's leader, would become France's youngest prime minister if the RN wins a majority in Sunday's run-off parliamentary vote. Opinion polls show that majority is unlikely, and he has called that a condition to accepting the premiership.

But the party still appears set to win most votes and Bardella is widely seen as a potential future prime minister if the RN stays in the ascendancy.

Bardella's spokesperson, Victor Chabert, did not immediately respond to a request for comments on this story.

Bardella's rise is partly down to his rare political gifts, according to interviews with half a dozen people who know him.

But, they said, it is also due to investment in him by a party run with increasing efficiency as it sought to shed a long-running reputation for racism and antisemitism.

"From a pure marketing perspective, he is an excellent product," said Christophe Gervasi, a political consultant who has been compiling surveys for RN leaders since 2016.

He described Bardella as "kneadable," or able to be moulded into shape, while also being enough of "a blank page" for voters to project their own views onto him. Citing his own poll findings, Gervasi said Bardella had opened up whole new voter segments for the far right, including older and middle-class voters for whom the Le Pen name has long been toxic.

Bardella grew up in the poor and multi-ethnic Seine-Saint-Denis department north of Paris and has said his experience as the son of a hard-working single mother from Italy motivated him to get into politics.

He joined the RN's youth wing as an adolescent. Mathilde Androuet, an RN lawmaker in the European Parliament who got to know the teenage Bardella between 2012 and 2013, said his potential was apparent even back then, when they became friends.

"Jordan is very organised, almost fanatically so," she said.

Although his father owned a small business and lived in a wealthier area, allowing Bardella to go to a local private school, his upbringing made him favour hardline law-and-order politics, Androuet said.

"He doesn't like the France of the suburbs, where everyone lives in their communities, because when these communities clash, it's getting violent", she said.

During the campaign Bardella repeated his "hand won't be shaking" mantra as he promised to reduce immigration through increased expulsions and border controls. He also calls for cutting welfare payments for families who include serial youth offenders.

The RN has watered down some of its policies in recent years but has kept most of its proposed hardline measures on immigration and Islamism, which opponents criticise as being xenophobic.

RISING THE RANKS

Bardella first met Le Pen around the time he dated the daughter of Frederic Chatillon, a far-right figure closely connected to the RN. Bardella also later dated one of Le Pen's nieces. He quickly rose through the party ranks.

Pascal Humeau, a former TV journalist who was hired by Le Pen to give Bardella media training, said she immediately latched on to his "perfect" personal narrative and good looks.

Le Pen made him part of her campaign team in 2017, two years after she broke with her father Jean-Marie Le Pen and began to reshape a party previously known as the National Front.

Then, after losing a 2017 presidential election bid to Emmanuel Macron, she turned Bardella into the poster boy of her plan to revitalise the RN. Bardella became party chairman in 2022.

Humeau was brought on board to prepare Bardella for the 2019 European vote, and called it a steep learning curve.

"They called him the cyborg in the party headquarters. He was cold, mechanical, physically stiff, never smiled, never relaxed," Humeau said. Early sessions focused on getting Bardella to say "Bonjour" with a smile in TV interviews.

Androuet said Bardella worked hard.

"Ahead of every TV interview, still today, he spends afternoons or entire days on his fact sheets and the sentences he could say ... to make sure it's the most catchy and gets into people's heads rapidly," she said.

Bardella briefly studied geography at the public Sorbonne University before dropping out to do politics full time.

"The fact he has no nice degree doesn't go against him," said Gervasi, the RN pollster. "In his party, there's an anti-elite sentiment."

Humeau noted Bardella's vibrant presence on social media, where he has 1.8 million TikTok and 800,000 Instagram followers, more than some of France's soccer stars. That allows him to reach youth voters, and others who don't typically care for politics.

However, Bardella is secretive about his private life, Androuet said.

"He's like many of these young people who grew up in the rough suburbs and know things can get dangerous, so you need to be careful," she said.

(Reporting by Tassilo Hummel; Editing by Gabriel Stargardter and Frances Kerry)