Marine Le Pen Passes Party Torch to a Young Leader, and Hints at Presidential Bid

The decision of France’s rightist party, National Rally, to hand leadership to a 27-year-old will — ironically — move Jean-Marie Le Pen’s daughter closer to her main ambition, president of the republic.

AP/Lewis Joly
The French far-right leader, Marine Le Pen, celebrates with newly elected chief of the National Rally, Jordan Bardella, during the party congress at Paris, November 5, 2022. AP/Lewis Joly

The French National Rally has chosen 27-year-old Jordan Bardella to replace Marine Le Pen as its party chief, marking the first time that leadership of the far-right party will pass to someone who is not from the Le Pen family. In party voting, Mr. Bardella defeated the 53-year-old mayor of Perpignan, Louis Aliot, by 85 percent to 15 percent. 

Mr. Bardella’s rise signals not only a passing of the torch for the party founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen in 1972 as the National Front, but will also move Mr. Le Pen’s daughter Marine, now 54, closer to her main prize: the French presidency. 

“The fact the party president will not have the name Le Pen is the sign of openness and confidence that Marine has in the new generation,” Mr. Bardella told the Agence France-Presse.

Mr. Bardella joined the National Front at the age of 16 and has long been considered as a protégé of Marine Le Pen. He had already been serving as caretaker president of the National Rally for a year, which allowed Ms. Le Pen to focus on a presidential bid — her third — earlier this year. 

Although she lost to incumbent Emmanuel Macron, her party fared exceedingly well in subsequent legislative elections, with the National Rally winning a record 89 seats — making it the biggest opposition party in the lower house of parliament, or National Assembly. Opposing far-right and far-left factions now pose a major stumbling block to President Macron’s domestic agenda.

That is where Ms. Le Pen is digging in. The rising profile of a French politician who is  even younger than Mr. Macron — Mr. Bardella is 17 years the president’s junior — is just one shot across the bow of the Élysée Palace’s current occupant. With Mr. Bardella at the helm of the day-to-day management of the party, Ms. Le Pen will now prioritize deepening the party’s footprint in the National Assembly — partly as a stepping stone. 

On Saturday at the party convention that saw Mr. Bardella take the reins, Ms. Le Pen said as much: “I am not leaving the National Rally to take a holiday. I will be there where the country needs me.”

Ms. Le Pen captured a record 41.5 percent in April’s election run-off against Mr. Macron, and France 24 reported over the weekend that Mr. Bardella will support a fourth Le Pen presidential run.

France’s next presidential elections are slated for 2027, but with the country increasingly polarized over issues ranging from the economy and energy to crime and immigration, there is little question that the next French political drama will come sooner than that. As the Sun reported previously, one such crisis is likely to be precipitated by a looming showdown over pension reform. Lacking a parliamentary majority, Mr. Macron is expected to push his reform through with a procedural technicality instead of by a vote — but if he does, parties on both the right and left will pounce.

On the hot-button question of illegal immigration, one of the core issues of the National Rally, Mr. Bardella and Ms. Le Pen will likely tread a more cautious line. This is partly to avoid more scandals like the one last week in which a National Rally lawmaker caused an outrage when he shouted that migrants “should go back to Africa,” triggering disciplinary actions including a two-week suspension from parliament. 

There could also be an element of wait-and-see. The Brothers of Italy party of the new Italian premier, Giorgia Meloni, rose to prominence in large part because of its tough line on illegal immigration. Yet as the outwardly eurosceptic Ms. Meloni methodically moves some of her far-right politics more to the mainstream, Ms. Le Pen may be taking notes on how the public reacts. Erstwhile black-and-white matters could take on more ambiguous shades in France, especially if Mr. Macron follows through on pledges to crack down on illegal immigration. 

In a television interview last week, Mr. Macron said in remarks that surprised some, “If we look at crime in Paris today, we cannot fail to see that at least half of the crime comes from people who are foreigners, either illegal immigrants or those who are waiting for a residence permit.”

For her part, Ms. Le Pen knows how to clean house when the time is right. In 2015, as part of a widely publicized “de-demonization” campaign to make some of the more far-right ideological lines of the party then still known as the National Front palatable to more voters, she expelled her own father from it. She also spearheaded efforts to expel party members who made antisemitic comments or commended the Vichy government of France, which collaborated with the Nazis in the 1940s.

Mr. Bardella, born in the scruffy northern Paris suburb of Drancy, is in keeping with National Rally tradition a charismatic public speaker. However, though he has thus far been less gaffe-prone than Jean-Marie Le Pen, who is now 94, he is not immune to the occasional faux pas. Last February Mr. Bardella  was handed an indictment for referring to the small French town of Trappes, outside Paris, as an “Islamic republic” in a radio interview. A Muslim had been re-elected as the town’s mayor the year before.

To what extent Mr. Bardella’s longtime mentor Marine Le Pen will try to coach him on calibrating his public pronouncements going forward, if at all, remains to be seen. With the French political picture in so much flux, all of France, Mr. Macron included, will be listening. 

The New York Sun

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