October 23, 2023   7 mins

Marion Maréchal is 33 and Jordan Bardella, as of last month, is 28. These two young people — well-dressed, good-looking, in many ways archetypal millennials — are the leaders of the two main far-Right parties in France: Bardella of Rassemblement National (RN), once the party of Marine Le Pen; and Maréchal of Reconquête, once the party of Éric Zemmour, who has similarly passed over day-to-day leadership to Maréchal. Between them, these youngsters seek to wrench France from the liberal centrism of President Emmanuel Macron and replace it with a new form of far-Right politics.

Both parties engaged in a campaign to mainstream this ideology, most recently through a rejection of the far-Right’s most infamous association — antisemitism. Faced by the Hamas attack on Israel, they have made a point of affirming their freedom from this taint: Marine Le Pen is one of a clutch of far-Right leaders denouncing Hamas, flatly stating that “the security of the Israeli people is non-negotiable”. Zemmour, himself Jewish, took part in a march in Paris in solidarity with Israel on 12 October. Indeed, it has been Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the radical Left group La France Insoumise, whose ambiguity over the attacks has attracted the most criticism. The French Prime Minister, Elizabeth Borne, whose father survived Auschwitz, called Mélenchon’s stance “revolting”.

However, excising old hatreds is just one part of this new wind which is reshaping French politics. For a start, there is no contradiction between the youth of its leaders and their beliefs, with over 40% of 18-34-year-olds voting Le Pen in the second round of the last presidential election. To be in these posts is doubtless a vast responsibility for a young man and woman with no experience of international relationships or of government beyond local level. Yet, as activists since their teens, they act with the swagger of revolutionaries, dedicated to a radical politics built on Euroscepticism, national sovereignty, minimal immigration, strengthened families, raising Europe’s declining birth rate, and the regeneration of the Christian faith. It is a direct challenge to liberal politics of every stripe, at a time when liberalism itself is under several kinds of attack.

They have a better than even chance of success, with a combined third of the country polling for both parties in the lead up to next year’s European elections, ahead of the Left alliance and Macron’s own party. And if they achieve any elected office, they will transform more than France. They will destroy a Franco-German geopolitical engine, fuelled by constant pro-EU leadership in both states, which has kept the European Union together for decades, and without which most EU officials believe it will sputter and fail. But though they have this ambition in common, Maréchal and Bardella are near-opposites in constitution and character. Between them, they capture two faces of this new politics, and explain how it has managed to attract such a large section of French society.

Marion Maréchal is, in the world of fringe politics, the establishment candidate, brought up within the wealthy Le Pen family. Her grandfather is Jean-Marie Le Pen, who originally founded the Front National but is now 95 and only occasionally heard from. For some years Maréchal took his name and her adoptive father, Samuel Maréchal (married to Yann Le Pen, who has taken no part in her family’s politics), was leader of the National Youth movement. At the age of two, she was already appearing with Jean-Marie in election posters.

She joined the RN, successor to Front National, at 18, and became the youngest member of the French National Assembly at 22. At around this time, Marine Le Pen, daughter of Jean-Marie and Maréchal‘s aunt, inherited the party from her father, and set about trying to rid it of his obsessive antisemitism and white supremacism, while retaining its core nationalist and anti-immigrant positions. In November last year, she passed over the leadership of the RN to her protégé, Bardella, taking for herself the leadership of the much-enlarged party in the Assembly, with the intention of standing once more for the presidency in 2027.

Bardella’s youth was nothing like Maréchal’s — aside from his passion for far-Right politics. He was born to a family of part-Italian origin and grew up on a social housing estate in Drancy, a north-eastern suburb of Paris. He joined what was still the Front National at 16, saying he was inspired by Marine Le Pen, and became a regional secretary at 19, before launching a group called “Patriotic Suburbs”, aimed at reaching out to voters “in the forgotten territories of the Republic”. He would go on to be part of Le Pen’s 2017 presidential campaign and thereafter, supported by her, was raised through the ranks to the leadership.

In the course of that rise, he has learned how to enthuse his own supporters. I bore witness to his abilities when, at a Fête de la Nation in Le Havre on 1 May this year, he declared his party had the ability to govern France “tomorrow”, before he gestured for the audience to rise. Unbidden, they broke into a chorus of the Marseillaise. He continued in his speech, excoriating Macron — then at a low ebb in popularity — and at the end, they sang the Marseillaise again.

But he is also more than capable of taking the fight to his opponents. In August, Macron sought to regain the domestic initiative with a 12-hour discussion with all the party leaders, lasting until 3am. Bardella, in a near 15-minute exchange with the President, reportedly pressed him strongly for better security, stronger controls on migrants and a referendum on the public’s views on immigration — a demand which was met with a neutral response. Along with the other participants (though more politely than those from the Left contingent), he later expressed disappointment that the marathon deliberation had led nowhere.

This is typical of him and the modern RN: committed social conservatism and nationalism, but without the sulphur of Jean-Marie. Bardella doesn’t like same-sex marriage, but when in power, he says he would not ban it, nor tamper with more recent trans legislation. He would, however, refuse access to social services for illegal immigrants: like many in the working or lower-middle class everywhere, low wages and shortage of money have sharpened his eyes for diversion of public money into what are seen as underserving pockets. “My family,” he has said, “didn’t follow politics. If I’m active politically, it’s because I saw injustice very early social: at the end of the month, my mother didn’t have more than €15.”

Maréchal is cut from a different cloth — not just in birth and upbringing, but also in the way in which she has played the hand dealt to her. From the moment of her birth, she became a scion of a family which, uniquely among the far-Right parties of Europe, is a dynasty as well as a centre of activism and ideology. Her father Samuel was close to Jean-Marie, acting as his head of communication when the former leader was still in his prime in the Nineties and early 2000s and who, in his five attempts to win the presidency, positioned himself as the only politician who fully endorsed “a France of national patriotism” — a claim often spiced with derogatory comments about Jews.

Jean Marie led the Front National until he passed over the presidency to Marine in 2011, when Maréchal was 22. After her father separated from her mother in 2007, she remained close to her grandfather. A member of the RN, and a member of the Assembly in 2012 when it had few far-Right members, Maréchal joined the party’s executive board and was talked of as a future presidential candidate. But in 2018, after losing a regional election in the south of France, she retired from active politics and founded a college (the Institute of Social Sciences, Economics and Politics) in Lyon. From 2019, however, she was seen accompanying the well-known Right-wing journalist Éric Zemmour, who founded his party Reconquête as a direct competitor on the far-Right to RN. In 2022 — endorsed by Maréchal, who made her apostasy from the Le Pen family public — he came fourth in the first round of the presidential election.

The split with her aunt was a bitter one: resigning from the RN, she said that Le Pen had brought about “incessant ideological and programme changes… [which showed a] lack of logic and vision”. Le Pen, clearly distressed, said the decision was “brutal, violent and painful”. But this ideological split had been brewing for some time, a product of Marine Le Pen’s attempts to moderate her party. When she fired her father Jean-Marie from the party in 2015 — after he said the Holocaust gas chambers were a “detail” of history and that France should unite with Russia to save the “white world” — Maréchal did not follow her aunt’s lead, failing to condemn her grandfather.

Her social conservatism has more in common with her grandfather than her aunt. A strict Catholic (she has been on at least one pilgrimage, in 2018, from Notre Dame cathedral to Lourdes), she sees Islam as a dangerous opponent to her certain idea of France. She has said that, as a mother of two girls, “the prospect of them growing up tomorrow in a country where the veil and the abaya [a loose-fitting Middle-Eastern female dress] are a daily issue, a country that is shaped by the destruction wrought by riots, rapes, and gratuitous murders committed by illegal immigrants, is a prospect that makes me despair”. Marine Le Pen, who also warns constantly of the Islamist menace, would be unlikely to use such language.

Yet while Maréchal emerges as someone determined to succeed in the far-Right political milieu, she has shown less consistency in pursuing her goal than Bardella, a trait which may mar her leadership. The young man from the Drancy housing estate has been rock-like in his attachment to Le Pen, a careful study and practitioner of stump rhetoric, with a self-confidence which allows him to happily battle the President of France. This will be an asset going forward — Marine Le Pen was demolished by Macron on economic issues in the presidential debate of 2017.

In her affection for her grandfather, her conservative Catholicism, and her alliance with Zemmour (who attributes France’s decline to feminism and egalitarianism, and has been convicted of incitement of hate against Muslims), Maréchal presents herself as on the harder, older Right than Bardella. He has worked diligently to be where he is now, and retains a sense of the unfairness of lower-class life, which neither Zemmour nor Maréchal appear to share. And his seriousness in political debate appears to have impressed Macron — who reportedly told aides that “he was the only one of the party [of opposition leaders] who understood what the exercise was about and who really worked on preparing for it”.

Yet for all the popularity and abilities of their protégés, Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour have made a gamble in promoting them. Firstly, because these bright young things will likely still struggle to do as well as their elders expect; and secondly, because, for all their rhetorical and political strengths, they remain short of experience at the head of a sustained and brutal political battle. Their calibre will be tested next June, in the European elections: after which, should they survive at the top, they will meet an ordeal by fire in the presidential elections. Still, youth will have its fling, as the song from The Mikado goes — and, whether or not they make it to the top, this particular dalliance promises to shake Europe in the years to come.

John Lloyd is a contributing editor to the Financial Times and is writing a book on the rise of the New Right in Europe.