French far right picks Le Pen protege as new party chief

France's far-right National Rally on Saturday elected its 27-year-old rising star, Jordan Bardella, to succeed Marine Le Pen as party chief, tasked with pursuing the group's efforts to anchor itself in the political mainstream.

Bardella, who was widely expected to win as Le Pen's protege, is the first person outside the Le Pen family to lead the RN in its 50-year history.

Questions remain over what value the RN presidency has for him, given that Le Pen formally leads its cohort in parliament and is widely expected to again be its presidential candidate in 2027.

"I am not stepping down so I can go on vacation," Le Pen told the party conference in Paris.

Bardella obtained 85 percent of the votes from around 26,000 party members, beating Louis Aliot, a party veteran and mayor of the southern city of Perpignan, who garnered 15 percent.

His nomination comes on the heels of the party's best-ever showing in parliamentary elections earlier this year, when it won 89 seats even after Le Pen failed to unseat Emmanuel Macron in her third run for the presidency.

"We are patriots, who know that France needs a wake-up call," Bardella said after his election, vowing to help the country "heal its divisions."

He reiterated the party's promise to crack down on immigration, not least by restricting welfare benefits to French citizens, while also tackling inflation and growing concerns "about being able to make it to the end of the month."

Bardella has embraced Le Pen's efforts to shed the virulent anti-Semitic and extremist views fomented by her father, party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, who was excluded in 2015.

But critics accuse Bardella of encouraging white supremacist groups and emphasising us-versus-them "identify politics" at the expense of pocketbook issues more pressing for working-class voters.

This past week, Bardella and Le Pen defended one of its parliamentarians accused of racist outburst that saw him hit with a rare suspension.

Steeve Briois, a popular RN mayor in northern France whom Bardella quickly ejected from its executive committee, warned Saturday of a "re-radicalisation" of the party that would keep it at the margins of the political spectrum.

Bardella also faces the daunting task of getting the party on solid financial footing as it faces inquiries over alleged misuse of public funds by party members, including Le Pen.

- Next generation -

Brought up in a gritty Paris suburb by his Italian-born mother, Bardella has proven himself a polished media presence, rarely seen out of a tailored suit and impressing both admirers and critics with sharp performances in election debates.

The party leadership can be a stepping stone for Bardella when "MLP" finally bows out from the political scene.

Populist parties are gathering steam across much of Europe. Both Bardella and Le Pen will have their work cut out for them in convincing French voters that the party is a respectable mainstream force, capable of uniting and governing the country.

This week one of their MPs, 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 parliament voted for a 15-day suspension and pay cut, only the second time since 1958 a lawmaker has been handed the assembly's harshest punishment.

Bardella has also given credence to the so-called "Great Replacement" conspiracy theory of a surreptitious "Islamisation" of Europe orchestrated by its elites -- something Le Pen has shied away from.

In an open letter last month, Aliot slammed "extremist nostalgia" and "the excesses of the National Front of a long-gone era".

Bardella responded by accusing Aliot of "bitterness and bad faith", insisting that his goal is to win over more supporters from traditional parties on the right and left.

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