Tuesday, July 23, 2024

France’s Jordan Bardella, the immigrant’s son who would target migrants

SAINT-DENIS, France — Filled with the savory scent of kebab shops and the lilting sounds of foreign-accented French, this sprawling suburb north of Paris is the hometown of a not-so-proud son: Jordan Bardella. In scathing critiques, the 28-year-old seeking to be this country’s youngest prime minister cites the multiculturalism here as an example of everything that is wrong with today’s France.

“I grew up in a humble project where I experienced, to my very core, the feeling of becoming a foreigner in my own country,” Bardella told French media last month. “I’ve experienced the Islamization of my neighborhood. I’ve experienced the insecurity. I’ve experienced the search-and-frisk when you enter your building and you’re confronted with drug trafficking.”

Bardella is now the youthful face of the resurgent National Rally — a once-toxic anti-immigrant movement that posted a first-place finish in last weekend’s legislative vote. If his party can sufficiently expand its support in Sunday’s runoff, Bardella — who has pledged to bar dual citizens from sensitive posts and hold a national referendum on migration — would become France’s first far-right head of government since World War II.

“This is the time to give Jordan Bardella an absolute majority in the French Parliament,” Bardella’s boss, French nationalist Marine Le Pen, told supporters.

A victory could see Bardella, under Le Pen’s guidance, turn France into a laboratory in the heart of Western Europe for aggressive anti-migration policies, including accelerating deportations and making citizenship harder to obtain. His words suggest he separates immigrants into two camps: desirable ones, like those of his own predominantly Italian family, who assimilate, learn French and love their adopted nation; and those — particularly from Islamic countries — he views as rejecting French values, language and culture.

The Bardella who appears at campaign rallies and poses for selfies with adoring fans is the product of media trainers and party mentors who fashioned him as the smiling, besuited subordinate of Le Pen — a political figure he came to know as he dated young women in her orbit.

Le Monde assessed that he had an “ideal son-in-law profile.” For National Rally, he is an ideal spokesman: a TikTok-friendly, postmodern politician passionate about his party’s issues who can talk firsthand about the ills of immigrant-dominated neighborhoods. At the same time, he is young enough not to bear the taint of open racism that defined the party in the past.

But several people who know him — including a childhood friend and a former political mentor — say that image does not tell the whole Bardella story. They wonder how a son of immigrants became so anti-immigrant himself and call him a chameleon who changes his colors to suit the political mood.

“The man I see talking now does not seem like the Jordan I knew,” said Chloe, a 28-year-old of mixed race who went to school with Bardella. She spoke on the condition that her last name be withheld, because her job as a civil servant requires political neutrality.

A photo she recently posted on X shows the two of them at McDonald’s during her 6th-birthday party. In an interview, she recalled visits to the small apartment in the drab urban housing bloc where Bardella lived with his divorced mother, an Italian who had arrived in France as a child. Bardella would also sometimes stay with his father, an entrepreneur who reportedly paid for his son’s private education.

She remembers the studious, even shy boy at Saint Vincent de Paul elementary, a private school for more-privileged children in the neighborhood. She said Bardella began to bloom once they transferred to Jean Baptiste de La Salle middle school. He played soccer, cracked jokes.

They were in primary school in 2005 when riots exploded in their department of Seine-Saint-Denis after the deaths of two Muslim boys hiding from police in a power substation. She had lost touch with Bardella by the time the ringleader of the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks was gunned down by police here. But in all the years she knew him, she said, she couldn’t recall him uttering a single negative word about the multicultural world they lived in.

“In Saint-Denis, there were Arabic people, Italian people, Portuguese people, people from everywhere, and we were all friends,” Chloe said. “So I cannot believe it when I hear him talk now. I thought at first he was just playing a role, like he wanted to belong and find a place where he could be loved. I just didn’t believe that he was thinking like this, saying these things. But I have started to believe he has really changed.”

Lea, 28, who is also a civil servant and asked that her last name be withheld, offered a different view. She said she spent ages 12 to 14 in class with Bardella and recalled an incident in which a teacher scolded her and took away her cellphone after it went off during a lesson. As she began to cry, she said, Bardella leaned forward from the desk behind her and whispered, “You deserved it.”

“He was always the one respecting the rules without an understanding of others,” she said.

Bardella, through a spokesman, denied a request for an interview. He has been remarkably opaque in his public accounts of his background.

He has called himself a Frenchman who is “75 percent Italian,” but rarely talks in specifics about his family history. Jean-Louis Beaucarnot, a lineage expert considered the “Pope of Genealogy” in France, said his research showed that of Bardella’s eight great-grandparents, six were Italian, one was French and one — a paternal great-grandfather — was Algerian.

For a leader and party that promote degrees of Frenchness, his background could seemingly pose a hurdle. He has in the past glossed over his roots. But Bardella has recently begun emphasizing them, portraying his Italian family as living proof that culturally compatible immigrants can seamlessly become “French.”

“He is first and foremost a Frenchman; we don’t consider him to be a son of immigrants,” said Edouard Bourgeault, who runs National Rally’s youth league in Paris. “He is European, and that is important to say, because Europeans share the same culture and are welcome.”

Bardella, who did not attend university, has often demurred when asked about his party’s early years as a magnet for Nazi apologists. It was co-founded in 1972 by Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marine Le Pen, who was repeatedly convicted of hate speech and of dismissing the Holocaust as a “detail” of history.

Bardella has said that he does not think the elder Le Pen was antisemitic, retorting to an interviewer last year that questions about the party’s past are “about a time I never knew.”

Bardella joined the National Rally — then known as the National Front — in 2012 at age 16. By then, Marine Le Pen had taken over as party president. But within the movement, her father remained an idolized figure known to young militants like Bardella as “Papi” — grandfather.

Pierre-Stéphane Fort, who wrote a book on Bardella, quotes a photographer who took a photo of an 18-year-old Bardella with Jean-Marine Le Pen in December 2013, a time when the elder Le Pen’s polemics were well known. The photo was taken at an event in which young party activists patiently lined up in the Paris cold for two hours for the chance of a Le Pen memento.

“You have to remember that for all the young militants, Jean-Marie Le Pen was an icon,” the photographer, Anthony Micallef, recalled in the book. “He embodied the FN, they’d all seen him on TV, they’d grown up with him. In fact, they all affectionately called him “papi” (grandpa). Often, these were young people lacking family reference points; they found in the FN a substitute family, they felt they belonged to something.”

In his book, Fort also claims that Bardella kept a secret Twitter (now X) account that spewed racist, homophobic content. Bardella has denied any link to the account.

His introduction to Marine Le Pen, the doyenne of French nationalism, was initially uneventful. Florian Philippot, a former National Rally vice president and now head of a rival nationalist party called the Patriots, recalls a meet-and-greet “in a corridor somewhere at party headquarters” in Paris in 2013. But Philippot saw a spark in the clean-cut and earnest Bardella — who had a face the camera loved — and opted to promote his career.

Bardella would receive professional media training. But Philippot also coached him, scheduling him for a first TV interview on a late-night news show. Philippot remembers calling the young man and offering him a detailed critique. The upshot: Smile more, sharpen your points. Bardella gratefully absorbed the advice and promised to do better.

So much so that by 2016, Philippot hand-selected Bardella to serve as the head of a party collective to rally backers in the suburbs under the slogan “Muslims maybe, but French first.”

At the same time, Bardella was growing closer to Le Pen, a woman he honored on election night last weekend by wearing a “marine blue” suit during a public address. Philippot recalls Bardella dating the daughter of Frédéric Chatillon, a longtime Le Pen adviser who was president of a now-disbanded far-right youth group known for spewing xenophobic and racist vitriol. Later, Bardella began dating Le Pen’s niece.

Philippot said he began to sour on Bardella, especially as he saw him shed his support for France leaving the European Union — a change backed by Le Pen to broaden her party’s appeal. Philippot saw the shift as a betrayal of French nationalist roots.

“He was very sovereigntist, but that only lasted for a while,” Philippot said. “And then I quickly realized that he was a chameleon. He was a good politician, but he didn’t have many convictions.”

By 2019, Bardella had “arrived” — elected as a member of the European Parliament at age 23. He became interim president of National Rally during Le Pen’s failed presidential run in 2022, and he received the title permanently after a party ballot in which he won 85 percent of the vote.

Now he could be prime minister. This week, more than 200 centrist and left-wing candidates in three-way races with National Rally pulled out of Sunday’s runoff, hoping to consolidate support against the far right. Yet keeping it out of government might also allow the far right to thrive in opposition, giving Le Pen momentum in the 2027 presidential race. Should she win, she is likely to name her young protégé as prime minister herself.

Bardella would prefer not to wait.

“The time is now to put at the head of our country leaders who understand you, who respect you and love you as much as they love France,” Bardella said Sunday night in a Parisian venue that bills itself as a throwback to the 1930s. “Victory is possible, and change is within our grasp.”

Virgile Demoustier and Elie Petit contributed to this report.

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