Rassemblement National: The Le Pen era is coming to an end. Her crown prince takes over her party

End of a political era for France's right-wing populists - or is it part of a larger strategy? With the election of Jordan Bardella as its leader, the Rassemblement National (RN) party will not be led by a member of the Le Pen family for the first time in its 50-year history.

Rassemblement National: The Le Pen era is coming to an end. Her crown prince takes over her party

End of a political era for France's right-wing populists - or is it part of a larger strategy? With the election of Jordan Bardella as its leader, the Rassemblement National (RN) party will not be led by a member of the Le Pen family for the first time in its 50-year history. "We are patriots who know that France needs a wake-up call," Bardella said at the RN party conference in Paris on Saturday after announcing his election victory. The foster son of longtime RN boss Marine Le Pen received 85 percent of the votes in an online vote.

The 27-year-old prevailed against his competitor Louis Aliot. Only 15 percent of the approximately 26,000 party members voted for the mayor of Perpignan. Bardella reiterated the party's pledge to crack down on immigration while fighting inflation.

What the party leadership will mean for Bardella's role in the RN, however, is unclear. Le Pen remains leader of the right-wing populists in the French parliament. It is also believed that she will again be the party's presidential candidate in 2027. "I'm not resigning so I can go on vacation," Le Pen said on Saturday of her resignation from party leadership.

Bardella has regularly publicly pledged allegiance to Marine Le Pen in the past. Nevertheless, it is suspected that he is hoping for his own presidential candidacy in 2027. Le Pen had said that she didn't want to compete a fourth time, but that it wasn't entirely out of the question either.

However, Bardella belongs to the Le Pen clan: he has been in a relationship with a granddaughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen for several years, and in the event of marriage, Marine Le Pen would become his aunt by marriage.

The RN achieved its best-ever result in this year's parliamentary elections with 89 seats. Previously, Le Pen had also lost out in her third run for the presidency.

Her successor at the party leadership supports Le Pen's efforts to ban from the RN the anti-Semitic and extremist views that led to the expulsion of party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2015. Bardella's task now is to anchor the party firmly in the political center. However, critics accuse him of pursuing white identity politics.

Bardella has practiced martial arts for years, and a pair of boxing gloves adorns his office. He grew up in a council estate in a Paris suburb, his family has Italian roots. When he was ten years old, he watched the riots in the suburbs. He later did an internship at a police station. Life in a suburb is "a good school," he once said.

At 16 he joined what was then known as the Front National. He was impressed by Marine Le Pen, who had taken over the leadership of the party from her father Jean-Marie Le Pen a few months earlier. "She says what others don't dare to say. I like her character, her energy, her courage," he said of her.

Le Pen soon became aware of the politically gifted young man and made him her crown prince. Observers believe that this was also a means of keeping her ambitious niece Marion Maréchal at bay, who is repeatedly said to have ambitions to return to politics.

Bardella did political drudgery and made the political talk shows. He regularly got up at 5 a.m. to defend the party line on the morning broadcasts. In 2019 he ran as the leading candidate of the Rassemblement National for the European elections. His list came first nationwide with 23 percent, Bardella became the youngest MEP ever at the age of 23.

Publicly, Bardella avoids offending with extreme views. But he does occasionally hint that he is taking a harder line than Le Pen, who has been trying for years to move the party closer to the center of politics. He commented positively on the "great exchange" conspiracy theory, according to which immigrant Muslims in France are gradually becoming the majority of the population. "I don't use the term, but I recognize that it describes a reality," he says.

The change at the top of the party was overshadowed by the recent scandal in the National Assembly triggered by an RN MP. A xenophobic heckling during a speech by a black MP earned Grégoire de Fournas a two-week ban.

"When the paint comes off, the true face of the RN appears, racism. The poison of right-wing extremism is still hidden under the tie," said socialist party leader Olivier Faure indignantly. He alluded to Le Pen's suggestion that male MPs dress formally and adopt a moderate demeanor. The party should show itself to be "capable of governing" - but this has been thoroughly gambled away in public opinion for the time being.

Bardella also wears a tie. His young face and his gelled short haircut make him appear smooth and true to the lines. But the boxing gloves in his office may be a sign that he has plans of his own.

However, the change in leadership does not mean that Le Pen will step down himself. Because after an extremely successful election year in which it grew to become the largest opposition party in the National Assembly, the party wants more. It should be about more influence in the regions and about the Élysée Palace - specifically the regional elections in 2026 and the presidential election in 2027.

"She thinks she will be most useful for 2027 in the National Assembly because the RN's lack of credibility can only be offset by the quality of the legislative work," says political scientist Jean-Yves Camus of the German Press Agency.

For the right-wing extremism expert Camus it is also conceivable that the new RN boss will be sent into the ring in five years, but Le Pen's renunciation of the party leadership could also be part of her strategy for 2027. Last September, she temporarily handed over the RN presidency to her previous vice and protégé Bardella. The reason: she wants to be a candidate in the presidential election who stands above party-political differences and appeals to all citizens. It is therefore possible that Le Pen now wants to continue exactly this line and thus win over more groups of voters.

The daughter of party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen took over the Front National from her father in 2011, renamed the party and put it through its course of "demonization". She got rid of old racist vocabulary and had her father excluded, when he again described the Nazi gas chambers as a "detail of history". In the meantime, RN is considered to be electable up to parts of the civil rights. While the party was often criticized as clumsy in the past, according to a survey by the Ipsos Institute, the MPs now receive the most approval for their appearance in the lower house of the opposition parties, at around 35 percent.

Macron, who defeated Le Pen twice, is out of office in 2027 after two terms. Who among the Liberals could follow in his footsteps? Uncertain. In the RN, many people already think their own party is the winner. Pollster Jérôme Fourquet from the Ifop Institute believes that a Le Pen victory in 2027 is a hypothesis that can no longer simply be dismissed.

How much leadership Bardella will now take is not yet clear. "The first challenge will be finding your place in relation to Marine Le Pen," says Camus. "Will he be a simple executor, a real potential successor for 2027, or a party administrator letting the old leader do the real political work out of the National Assembly?" For L'Obs magazine, the answer is clear: Le Pen will continue to dictate the political line. With the change in leadership and the large parliamentary group, however, the time when RN was a one-woman show by Le Pen is over.

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