Le Pen and Bardella: France's far-right double act zero in on power

By Gabriel Stargardter

PARIS (Reuters) - In a glossy video released days before the European Parliament elections, France's far-right double act appeared side by side in brilliant white shirts to deliver their final address.

"Do your patriotic duty," said Marine Le Pen, the leading figure of the National Rally (RN) party and de facto frontrunner for the 2027 presidential election. "I ask you to go to vote for Jordan Bardella. Offer France the most beautiful victory."

The video has notched nearly 5 million views since it was posted on Bardella's wildly popular TikTok account two days ago. It's part of a slick political rebrand, overseen by Le Pen and her 28-year-old party president Bardella, that has allowed the RN to shed its racist reputation as the former National Front, and storm to victory in Sunday's vote.

The RN's strong showing, which forced Macron into calling a snap legislative election that could finally hand the far right real power in France, is partly due to the formidable political tag team that Bardella and Le Pen have formed, experts said. They have fused youthful enthusiasm with battle-hardened experience to devastating electoral effect.

"They're very complementary," said Philippe Marliere, a French politics professor at University College London.

The sharp-suited Bardella, son of an Italian immigrant mother who grew up in the rough outskirts of Paris, has polished the RN's reputation, Marliere said. Bardella also broadened its appeal by attracting younger, blue-collar voters hit by inflation and job insecurity to a party once known for an older, middle-class and arch-conservative clientele, he added.

The RN won in every major age group in Sunday's election, except among the over-65s, where it was tied with Macron's ticket, according to a BFM TV exit poll.

Overall, the RN won 31.37% of the vote, the official tally showed, more than double the Macron coalition's 14.6%.

Emile Chabal, professor of contemporary history at the University of Edinburgh, said Bardella and Le Pen had detoxified the RN by retooling it as the party of the working class.

"While they have retained many aspects of the party's DNA - especially its anti-immigration policies and a hostility to Islam - they have managed to wrap these up in a protectionist language ... (that) appeals particularly to a younger middle-aged demographic," he said. "In 2024, the RN can fairly lay claim to being the party of the French working classes."

Bardella will be the party's candidate for prime minister in the upcoming early election to be held on June 30 and July 7, RN deputy chairman Sebastien Chenu said on RTL Radio on Monday.

On his TikTok account, where he has 1.5 million followers, Bardella often posts videos of himself with adoring young fans. In acerbic TV appearances, he has distinguished himself as Le Pen's clean-cut attack dog, Marliere said.

"It's a convenient arrangement for political purposes to let Marine Le Pen fully concentrate on the big prize, the (2027) presidential election," he said.

However, alongside his pugnacious media presence, Bardella has often let himself down with unforced errors and gaps on the nitty gritty of policy, Marliere said. Le Pen might fret that as prime minister, Bardella's inexperience could lead to charges of incompetence, potentially dooming her 2027 chances, he added.

And even before the snap vote, Bardella is likely to face a grilling on issues outside his comfort zone, especially on economic policy and Ukraine, a source close to Macron said.

"For legislative elections, he will be more exposed," the source said. "He will be asked: Who do you name for finance minister? What do you do for your first 100 days?"

Alternatively, if Bardella shines, Le Pen, 55, may fear being eclipsed by her young protege.

"If he looks more appealing or successful, there might be attempts to make him the 2027 presidential candidate," said Sudhir Hazareesingh, a French politics expert at Oxford University, especially as Le Pen has already lost three presidential elections, two of them to Macron.

"But Bardella is still very young so he can afford to wait a little, and let her fail rather than look too ambitious."

(Reporting by Gabriel Stargardter; additional reporting by Michel Rose; editing by Mark Heinrich)