PARIS - France’s far-right National Rally (RN) party will on Saturday choose a successor to its longtime leader Marine Le Pen.
The overwhelming favourite is 27-year-old Jordan Bardella.
Ms Le Pen failed to unseat Emmanuel Macron in April’s presidential vote.
She has nonetheless turned her party into a sizeable force since taking over from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, 11 years ago.
Efforts to shed its legacy of virulent anti-Semitic and extremist views helped see RN candidates win 89 seats in the National Assembly after Mr Macron’s re-election, depriving his centrist party of an absolute majority.
By stepping down as party chief, Ms Le Pen will focus on leading the RN group in parliament, where she will have a powerful platform for a potential fourth run at the presidency in 2027.
Party sources told AFP the only uncertainty is the “size of the victory” of Mr Bardella over his rival Louis Aliot, a party veteran and former partner of Ms Le Pen.
Brought up by his mother who was born in Italy, Mr Bardella promotes a slick image, rarely seen out of a suit and impressed this year with sharp performances in election debates.
But shadows from the past remain for the party. This week Ms Le Pen and Mr Bardella, already serving as interim chief, had to defend one of their members of parliament who was suspended over claims of a racist outburst against a colleague.
Gregoire de Fournas yelled “back to Africa” to a black lawmaker who was challenging the government’s response to migrants rescued at sea in the Mediterranean.
He later said he was referring to the boat, not his fellow lawmaker.
But Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said on Friday that Mr Bardella had shown his complicity in “everyday racism”.
There are also questions over what value the RN presidency has for Mr Bardella, given Ms Le Pen formally leads its cohort in parliament and is widely expected to be its presidential candidate in 2027.
But the party position can also be a stepping stone for when “MLP” finally bows out from the political scene.
Mr Bardella has also been criticised in the last weeks by Mr Aliot, who as mayor of Perpignan is the only RN politician to run a city larger than 100,000 people.
Mr Aliot has accused him of encouraging white supremacist groups that should be unacceptable for a party trying to prove it can unite and govern the country.
Mr Bardella also gave credence in August 2021 to the so-called “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory of a surreptitious “Islamisation” of Europe orchestrated by its elites – something Ms Le Pen has shied away from.
In an open letter last month, Mr Aliot slammed “extremist nostalgia” and “the excesses of the National Front of a long-gone era”, a reference to the party’s original name.
Mr Aliot later said he was targeting the supporters of Eric Zemmour, the far-right pundit who siphoned off many RN voters with his more extremist positions in April’s presidential contest.
Mr Bardella accused him of “bitterness and bad faith”, insisting his goal is to win over more supporters from traditional parties on the right and left.
Further scrambling the French political establishment, the RN has voted alongside the far-left France Unbowed party in favour of no-confidence motions brought against the government in fierce budget debates. AFP