The Rassemblement National has long had a habit of acting differently from other political forces in France, and so it has been with the recent election (by an overwhelming majority) of Jordan Bardella, a 27-year old member of the European Parliament, as its new president. M Bardella is something of a wunderkind.
He was a councillor for his party in Ile-de-France when barely 20; head of the RN’s list in the 2019 European elections and, the same year, aged just 24, became the party’s vice-president, having previously run its youth wing.
Also in 2019 it was disclosed that his petite amie was Nolwenn Olivier, niece of his boss, Marine Le Pen.
They live together, and Mlle Olivier embodies some of the finest old French virtues for which the RN stands: notably, she is said to be a superb cook, which is just as well, as M. Bardella is said to be keen on his food.
Outside France, where those with a casual interest in the country’s politics settled long ago that Mme Le Pen was simply Hitler in drag and have not bothered to think seriously about her, or her party, since, the news that she was standing down as president provoked ill-informed excitement.
Not the end of Mme Le Pen
It was not, of course, the end of Mme Le Pen.
Now the proud possessor of 89 députés in the Assemblée Nationale, she has chosen to concentrate on leading the party and, in an assembly where the President of the republic commands no absolute majority, on making it into a powerful parliamentary force.
It is possible that M. Macron will dissolve the Assemblée Nationale as soon as he legally can – after next June, a year since the previous elections – in the hope of securing that majority.
His popularity is no better than it was in June, despite a recent minor recovery from a nadir earlier in the autumn, so calling such a premature election would bring with it the risk that the President would end up more impotent and marginalised than he is already, and France more divided.
Nonetheless, Mme Le Pen is ensuring that her parliamentary party is fighting fit for the challenge whenever it comes.
And while she is focusing on that, M. Bardella minds the shop not so much as a leader, but more as what those familiar with British politics would recognise as a party chairman: the power rests with Mme Le Pen, and he takes his orders from her.
Mme Le Pen will be increasingly visible in France over the next four years, even more than she has been in the past.
Party’s presidential candidate in 2027
Barring some act of God, she will be the party’s presidential candidate in 2027.
M Macron cannot run again. Les Républicains and the Parti socialiste not only remain shells of their former selves, but have since the elections in June shown no real sign of life.
On the prehistoric left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon and La France Insoumise attract a more substantial following, but the idea of the French electorate putting into office what is effectively a Bolshevik party remains far-fetched.
Less so is the notion that Mme Le Pen might actually win the presidency in 2027.
She showed earlier this year how far the French electorate sympathise with her policies.
There are difficult economic times ahead, and problems in the crucial relationship between France and Germany; and migrants are pouring into France largely unchecked thanks to the absence of internal borders in the EU [we note controls at border points between France and Italy have been stepped up], and not all are being decanted across the Channel to Britain.
She is out there making these arguments already while most of her opponents are scrabbling around on the floor looking for their metaphorical contact lenses.
The 2027 campaign has begun and, unless some hugely popular candidate emerges from the centre, rather as M Macron did in 2017, she is the woman the others have to beat.
Is M Bardella likely to help this?
Well, as the process of dédiabolisation – literally, taking the devil out of the party – continues, he may have something to offer.
Party rooted in French national identity
In a party that has in the past rooted itself in French national identity, and where the only ethnic diversity considered feasible was that reflecting a nation of Franks and Gauls, he is certainly not Français de souche.
His mother’s family is Torinese and settled in France from Italy in the 1960s; earlier in the last century his Algerian paternal great-grandfather migrated to France.
However, like so many of immigrant stock he has now become more French than the French, not least in pursuing his ambitions in his chosen party.
It was certainly unwise of him to proclaim support last year for a group calling itself Génération identitaire, which had been banned by the government for inciting racial hatred; and rather mischievous, to say the least, for him to describe Trappes, in Île-de-France, as an “Islamic republic” and “the European capital of Jihad” when it re-elected a Muslim mayor.
The authorities indicted him for this, giving him a platform to denounce them for stifling freedom of speech and preventing discussion of issues vital to French society.
A few more such martyrdoms and the RN will be well on the road to victory. M. Bardella was unmoved, adding to his reputation by describing some parts of France as more like Afghanistan.
Some of his more enlightened opponents are aware that a substantial number of French now agree with him, and his contention that immigration is out of control and wrecking the Frenchness of France.
In most political parties, a loose cannon such as M. Bardella would be a liability.
In a France tense about what is going on in the banlieue, as well as about many other matters, he could be a formidable weapon in the RN’s armoury.
And more than that, he might even enhance Mme Le Pen by making her look entirely moderate.
* A recent Ifop poll for Le Journal du Dimanche suggests Marine Le Pen would come out top in the first round if this year’s presidential election was repeated six months on, jumping from 23.5% to 30%. In a second round against Emmanuel Macron, she scored 47% in the poll, compared to 41.5% in April’s run-off. The poll was carried out online on 1,125 French people.
Simon Heffer is a regular columnist with The Connexion. He is also a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraph