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A look at Jordan Bardella, the far-right 28-year-old who could be France's next PM

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In France, the far-right National Rally Party is in the lead, ahead of the left and President Emmanuel Macron's centrists heading into Sunday's second round of legislative voting. If the far right gets an absolute majority in Parliament, its young leader and rising star would become the next prime minister of France. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley tells us more.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Jordan Bardella's face is everywhere, from campaign posters to television screens, where he's been making the rounds of political talk shows. He's sharp, quick, and at ease in his repartees. At only 28, he's also free of political baggage, says analyst Jean Yves Camus.

JEAN YVES CAMUS: Because he's a fresh face, because he does not have a past of being a militant in some French far-right group. I mean, he's given some kind of political virginity, like people want to - they want to try.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JORDAN BARDELLA: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Bardella says Macron and his elites, who he calls Macronistes, have destroyed France in the last seven years. They see no link between the explosion of crime and mass immigration, he tells the crowd. They claim to defend democratic values while letting radical Islam threaten our freedoms.

(BOOING)

BEARDSLEY: But it's not all dark. Bardella is also playful. When a fan yells out, we love you, Jordan, he jokes, you're not going to do this to me every time. The tall, trim, clean-cut darling of the far right gets whistles when he takes off his blazer in the heat of one rally. Bardella's ascension on the French political scene has been meteoric. In 2017, at the age of 22, he became spokesman for the party. Five years later, he took over as president from Marine Le Pen. But such youth and ambition cuts both ways.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED TV HOST: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Don't you get it? - asks one TV host. It's worrying that someone so young, who's never had a real job or real-life experience, is so close to power.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARDELLA: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Bardella shoots back, doesn't 33% support show that I understand the lives of the French?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BEARDSLEY: (Speaking French).

BARDELLA: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: (Speaking French).

I sat down with Bardella a year and a half ago, just after he took over as president of the party. He told me his childhood had shaped his politics.

BARDELLA: (Through interpreter) Very young, I was confronted by this phenomenon the French face today - insecurity and violence.

BEARDSLEY: It's a story he's told over and over, of growing up in the public housing projects in a northern Paris suburb, and how, in his view, these neighborhoods are being degraded by mass immigration and Islam.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARDELLA: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "I've felt the pain, like millions of French, of becoming a foreigner in my own country," he tells this crowd.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in non-English language).

BEARDSLEY: Ironically, Bardella is himself the son of an immigrant - an Italian mother who integrated, by his telling, becoming wholly French. He draws a contrast with Muslim immigrants, who, he says, refuse to integrate. Bardella joined Le Pen's party at 16. Later, he dropped out of the Sorbonne University to work with the National Rally full time. Political scientist Jean Yves Camus says that could even be an asset.

CAMUS: We have seen so many ministers who studied in the best universities and who fail miserably, that nowadays, saying, well, I am like you. I do not have a university degree. I was born in a lower-middle-class family. It can be an asset.

BEARDSLEY: Bardella is a force on TikTok, with more than a million followers. He's attracting young people to the party in droves, says veteran political journalist Jerome Godefroy.

JEROME GODEFROY: It's a bit shallow, but in the time of TikTok and social media, he's good looking. He speaks quite well. He has the look. So when you have the look these days in politics, it works.

BEARDSLEY: Some of the far-right's plans are already causing controversy, like banning dual-nationality citizens from certain sensitive government positions. The town of Crepy-en-Valois lies about an hour north of Paris, surrounded by wheat fields. Its citizens voted overwhelmingly for the far right in the first round. Nineteen-year-old resident Aldi Chopti says he doesn't understand why.

ALDI CHOPTI: That's not logical to vote far right in a city where there is no immigration and no violence, no problem.

BEARDSLEY: But there is fear as people from the outskirts of Paris move here, like Chopti's family did seven years ago. He says Bardella is huge with young people and shows me one TikTok video that's gone viral.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BEARDSLEY: To the tune of a current hit, Bardella vaunts his win over Gabriel Attal, scrolling the word eliminated across the outgoing prime minister's face.

CHOPTI: Nine million views.

BEARDSLEY: So young people are falling for this?

CHOPTI: Yes. Sure. I have a friend of mine that just follow them and votes for them.

BEARDSLEY: So are you worried about this election?

CHOPTI: Sure. I'm not only French. I have the double nationality, Algeria. So I'm their target. I am their target.

BEARDSLEY: Polls predict the far right will not get an absolute majority Sunday. But even if Jordan Bardella doesn't become prime minister this time around, he's got a long career ahead of him.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Crepy-en-Valois, France. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.