Advertisement

John Lichfield For Members

OPINION: The French far-right's 'empty vessel' Bardella is set to win big in Europe

John Lichfield
John Lichfield - [email protected]
OPINION: The French far-right's 'empty vessel' Bardella is set to win big in Europe
French far-right Rassemblement National party President Jordan Bardella. Photo by JOEL SAGET / AFP

Here is a safe prediction - writes John Lichfield - Jordan Bardella, an empty vessel with boy-band good looks, will “win” the French section of the European elections on June 9th.

Advertisement

Bardella, 28, is a university drop-out who has worked for Marine Le Pen’s Far Right Rassemblement National (RN) since he was 19. Five years ago, his list of candidates came only just ahead of President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist alliance. Next month, if opinion polls are accurate, he will take one in three of the votes cast in France and defeat Macron’s Renew list by 15 points.

Why such strong support for a superficially eloquent young man, who has refused - until now - to debate against his rivals and declined last week to take questions at a press conference?

The obvious, but inadequate, explanation is that the high polling scores for Bardella and the RN are generated by seven years of accumulated anger and disappointment with Emmanuel Macron.

European elections in France, with only one round of voting and no direct consequences for domestic policy, have become an occasion for kicking whoever happens to be in power.

Advertisement

That is true but not the whole truth. It would be foolish to underestimate the consequences of a 15-point victory for Bardella and the RN on June 9th. It would be equally foolish to underestimate Bardella, who is the perfect Tik-Tok politician for the early 21st century.

Jordan Bardella, Marine Le Pen’s de facto Number Two, succeeds because he manages to be everyone and no-one. He is popular because of who he is. He is also popular because of who he is not.

He is appealing because he looks like a well-scrubbed boy-next-door. He has a talent for speaking in calm, pre-cooked soundbites on 24-hour TV (and on Tik-Tok, where he has one million followers). His admirers say that he seems like an ordinary kind of guy, in other words not part of the governing elite.

He is trusted because he has not been to the usual political finishing schools. He does not speak in officialese. He is not Macron. He is not Sarkozy. He is not a Le Pen.

There is something of Boris Johnson or Donald Trump in Jordan Bardella. He does not have Johnson’s mendacious humour nor Trump’s mendacious aggressivity. But he, like them, is able to bottle and sell simplistic solutions to complex problems and point out convincingly where the complex solutions have failed.

Like Johnson and Trump, Bardella’s success depends on evasion and misrepresentation. He is not whom he seems.

He may not be a Le Pen but he is part of the family business which has dominated the Far Right of French politics for 40 years. His romantic partner is Nolwenn Olivier, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s grand-daughter and Marine’s niece.

He is not a “trained politician”. But he has been a professional politician since he was 19. He has never had another job (unlike Marine Le Pen, Sarkozy or Macron).

He is seen as a moderate and modern alternative to the Le Pen dynasty but his past positions suggest that he is a more sincere racist than Marine. In 2021, he posted statements on social media defending the ultra-right splinter group Génération Identitaire when it was banned for inciting racial hatred and violence.

Advertisement

Bardella, like the Le Pens, father and daughter, makes immigration the mother of all evils, but three of his grandparents were Italian and one of his great-grandfathers was Algerian.

In the last few days, there have been signs of the beginning of a French media revolt against Bardella’s impostures – and yet no sign of a dip in his opinion poll scores.

Last Thursday, he called a press conference to unveil the Rassemblement National “programme” for reforming the European Union. He stumbled through a 20-minute presentation, sounding as if he was reading the text for the first time. He then refused to take any questions.

If you read the programme on the RN campaign site, it is easy to see why Bardella was reluctant to defend it. The RN has, in theory, abandoned its vote-losing proposals to leave the EU and the European single currency. This is another imposture. The RN wants to stay in the EU but not THIS EU.

The programme calls for the replacement of the law-based Union by “freely agreed cooperations between member states, according to their interests and comparative advantages”. There is no mention of the Euro.

Advertisement

That is a project that Nigel Farage could defend, masquerading as EU reform. It relies on the widespread ignorance of French voters about how the EU works. The single market would be “maintained” but destroyed by allowing national preference (ie protectionism). EU supranational powers would end but Frontex, the common EU border protection force, would somehow become more powerful.

Bardella will be confronted by these contradictions when he faces Macron’s lead candidate, Valérie Heyer, in a one-on-one debate on BFMTV on Thursday night. Alarmed by the robust RN lead in the opinion polls, the Macron camp has also decided to reverse its refusal to accept a debate between Bardella and the 35-year-old Prime Minister, Gabriel Attal.

Will this mark the end of Bardella’s period of grace? I doubt it. He shares the populist force-shield once enjoyed by Boris Johnson and still possessed by Donald Trump. As a champion of anti-elitism, anti-politics and anti-Macronism, he is immune to the usual penalties for incompetence or mendacity.

The debate with Attal, if it happens, will be fascinating: a confrontation between two young men who have rocketed to the forefront of French politics. One is a not-quite-classic product of the system; the other is the plausible, pretty face of the anti-system.

In theory, Attal should eat Bardella alive, as Macron destroyed Marine Le Pen in the presidential debates of 2017 and 2022. In practise, Bardella might gain more than he loses from being placed on the same level as the Prime Minister.

Bardella will top the voting on June 9th. The only question is by how many points?

Advertisement

The “Marinist” RN tends to poll better than its eventual election scores. The present 15-point gap at the top may narrow a little. On the other hand, the Macron list may falter and fall – calamitously for the President – to third place behind the centre-left candidate, Raphael Glucksmann .

Either way, this “European” election could have dramatic consequences for national politics. A defeat for Macron and Attal by 10 points or more means, I believe, a national, parliamentary election before the year’s end.

Could Le Pen and Bardella win that election? Probably not. Bardella would be campaigning to be Prime Minister because Marine Le Pen is unlikely to want that poisoned job. He would be held to a much higher standard than “plausible boy-next-door”.

The likely result would be an even more splintered National Assembly, followed by two years of muddle/chaos and an agonisingly close Presidential election in 2027.

More

Comments (2)

Join the conversation in our comments section below. Share your own views and experience and if you have a question or suggestion for our journalists then email us at [email protected].
Please keep comments civil, constructive and on topic – and make sure to read our terms of use before getting involved.

Please log in to leave a comment.

Tim BLAKE 2024/05/02 20:01
Glamorized journalism
Pierre Guillery 2024/05/02 16:24
Wise as usual. But for one thing. I don't believe for a second that Macron will call a parliamentary election ("dissolution"). For him, lots of downsides, zero upside. Why would he do that?

See Also