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France's new far right

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For half a century, France's far-right party, the National Rally, has been led by a Le Pen - first by the father, then by the daughter - but no more. Marine Le Pen's replacement hails from a much younger generation, and party supporters hope he can attract new voters. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley recently met him.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: (Speaking French).

JORDAN BARDELLA: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: (Speaking French).

BARDELLA: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Jordan Bardella's desk is immaculate, like his appearance. He sports a navy blazer. His dark hair is trimmed close.

BARDELLA: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "Order is an important quality," he tells me. Despite his youth - Bardella has just turned 27 - he seems at ease in his new responsibilities. He describes how growing up in the gritty Paris suburbs turned him on to Marine Le Pen at the age of 15.

BARDELLA: (Through interpreter) Very young, I was confronted by this phenomenon the French face today - insecurity and violence. Our generation was repeatedly told France is doing badly because of terrorism and unemployment. But I wanted to experience the successful, proud France that my parents and grandparents talked about.

BEARDSLEY: Since Jean-Marie Le Pen founded the party in 1972, its central focus has been restricting immigration. Bardella says Marine Le Pen is the only politician with the courage to speak the truth.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARINE LE PEN: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: In November, Le Pen raised Bardella's arm in victory as he was elected president of the party with 84% of the vote. Bardella may not have a college degree, but he's a natural orator, armed with keen, political smarts...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARDELLA: (Speaking French).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: ...And a regular on TV since becoming party spokesman in 2017. It doesn't hurt that he's also in a relationship with Marine Le Pen's niece. Ironically, this son of an Italian immigrant mother feels particularly well-placed to defend his party's anti-immigration platform.

BARDELLA: (Through interpreter) My family assimilated. We melted into the national community, worked hard, learned French. I became French completely. But that's not happening today.

BEARDSLEY: French far-right specialist at Stanford, Cecile Alduy, says Bardella uses his personal narrative to support his party's ideology.

CECILE ALDUY: So he can narrate this storyline of, I am myself a son of immigrant. But there are different kinds of immigration, and a Christian one integrates smoothly within a generation while immigrants from Muslim countries do not.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LE PEN: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Over the last decade, Marine Le Pen has methodically worked to mainstream her party and make it more inclusive. She's broken from her father's extremist positions and embraced an economic platform that helps the working class. She even changed the party's name from the National Front to the National Rally. The strategy has worked. Le Pen has made it twice to the presidential runoff. And in parliamentary elections last June, her party went from six to 89 seats, making it the biggest unified opposition to President Emmanuel Macron.

JEAN-YVES CAMUS: I think Marine Le Pen made a very wise move.

BEARDSLEY: That's political scientist Jean-Yves Camus. He says Le Pen isn't leaving politics, just the daily grind of running her party, which lets her focus on honing her national image.

CAMUS: If you want to become president, you have to stand above the political parties and really be able to be the candidate of people from every walk of life, from the left and the right.

BEARDSLEY: Bardella says his main goal is to support Le Pen by building on the party's grassroots strength in future municipal and EU Parliament elections, where he holds a seat. He says Europe is changing and cites the election of Italy's new far-right prime minister.

BARDELLA: (Through interpreter) The Europe of yesterday is not the Europe of today. We have Ms. Meloni of Italy, the Polish government, Hungary under Viktor Orban and Marine Le Pen, who all want to change the EU and give the power back to the people.

BEARDSLEY: Analysts say Le Pen, with Bardella at her side, is laser focused on the presidential election in 2027. But this time, she wouldn't face Macron again. Term limits will prohibit him from running.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.
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