As France licks its wounds from yet another weekend of yellow vest mayhem, the far-Right has placed its hopes of reaping electoral capital from the revolt in the hands of a 23-year old ex-geography student.
On Sunday, Jordan Bardella will be anointed leader of the European Parliament election campaign for the National Rally (RN), the party run by Marine Le Pen and until recently known as the Front National.
In a bid to widen its appeal, the party will confirm it has poached an ex-minister from the mainstream Right and unveil other figures “from the Left” on its electoral list.
As head of that list, Mr Bardella is set to become the youngest MEP in the history of the European Parliament five years after Ms Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, became the chamber’s oldest, at 86. In 2014, the then FN won the most French MEP seats, some 24.
Polls suggest it is once again in pole position.
A party activist since the age of 16 and from a modest housing estate in the run-down Paris suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis, Mr Bardella is a self-styled poster boy of “forgotten France” from where many yellow vests hail and thus, Ms Le Pen hopes, well-positioned to hoover up their vote.
“The popular classes and modest families are often those forgotten by politicians and that’s one of the reasons I was chosen,” said the smooth-talking former head of the party’s youth wing who was catapulted to the post of party spokesman after Ms Le Pen’s electoral defeat.
Some have called Mr Bardella her “puppet” as she will be present at all meetings around France and her face will be on posters alongside her young protege. Seconds into the interview at party headquarters, she burst into his office and made it clear who called the shots.
“In general I pull electoral lists from the top, this time I’m pushing from the bottom as my name is second last,” said Ms Le Pen, who then blasted Theresa’s May’s Brexit plan “a scandal” and said anything but a clear-cut exit from the EU would be a dereliction of democracy in the UK.
“When one tries not to respect the will of the people, each time you move, you sink deeper into quicksand,” she said.
“The British wanted a departure from the EU. They want that vote to be respected. You might as well remain in the EU as it has all the disadvantages of the EU and no advantage.”
Her party is no longer calling for a swift Frexit, convinced it can win back sovereignty from Brussels where David Cameron failed “because without France the EU would collapse”.
Before leaving, Ms Le Pen went on to accuse President Emmanuel Macron of deliberately seeking to exacerbate the yellow vests by pitting the police against them.
“If he carries on this will end very badly,” she warned, adding that the only solution in her view was “to dissolve parliament”. Once she had gone, Mr Bardella said the European elections were “in a way the third round of the presidential elections”, which Ms Le Pen lost.
“Many French were told it was either Macron or chaos. Now they see it is Macron and chaos. We are at a turning point. The French want to take back control nationally and from the European Parliament,” he said.
Like all parties, RN is careful not to be seen to brazenly speak in the name of the gilets jaunes, who again clashed with police around the Arc de Triomphe monument on Saturday, in the ninth straight weekend of protests. “We haven’t sought to claim for ourselves this movement in a dishonest way like other politicians,” Mr Bardella claimed, while in the same breath adding: “We must be the democratic expression of this movement.”
As protesters train their ire against Mr Macron and the far-Left struggles to make political capital from the gilets jaunes revolt, support for the far-Right appears to be rising. Some polls suggest that around 40 per cent of yellow vests are RN voters.
“The demands of the yellow vests, backed by a clear majority of French, are in the political programme we have always defended,” said Mr Bardella. These included, he said “popular referendums, tax cuts, proportional representation in national elections and rises for the low-paid”.
While the gilets jaunes protests have been largely apolitical and an expression of anger over failing to make ends meet by middle France, cutting immigration has not been a central demand. Mr Bardella is banking on persuading them that it is part of their problem.
“The yellow vests are asking where all the money is going? Mass immigration comes at a cost,” said Mr Bardella who is of Italian origin and recently met Matteo Salvini, the Italian populist deputy prime minister.
RN is hoping to forge at the very least a “blocking minority” by allying with other nationalist parties in the European Parliament from countries including Italy, Hungary, Belgium, Austria, Poland and now Spain.
This week, they made it clear that Mr Macron was their main opponent. Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban branded the French president Europe’s “leader of the pro-immigration forces” against those who wish to see “anti-immigration forces” become a majority in all EU institutions, including Parliament and the Commission.
His words came as Mr Salvini travelled to Warsaw in an attempt to forge an alliance with Poland’s ruling populists, expressing hopes that an “Italian-Polish axis” would replace the current “French-German axis.” The Italian interior minister also offered his support to the gilets jaunes.
Speaking to the Telegraph, liberal Guy Verhofstadt, the European parliament’s chief Brexit coordinator, said: “It is worrying that European populists and nationalists, many with strong pro-Kremlin links, for example Matteo Salvini, are clamouring to hijack the yellow vest movement, which may be morphing from a legitimate citizen’s protest into something much more sinister.”
“We must not lose sight of the aim of the Russian state, which is to leverage divisions and destabilise the West through the promotion of nationalist movements.”
“There is a need for a countermovement to defend the international order and liberal democracy in Europe. It falls to pro-Europeans to lead this battle in the build-up to the European elections this year. ”
Mr Bardella said this was simply a clash of “nationals against globalists”. “We’re witnessing a political awaking of the people throughout the world,” he said, citing the election of Donald Trump and Brexit. “In France, we are going through this political moment with the yellow vests.”’