ROBERT HARDMAN: How Macron’s political hissy match has backfired

This should be any nation’s proudest moment — the night when the world tunes in to see local sporting ­legends ignite the Olympic flame.

But what else might be on fire when Paris ­welcomes the world to next month’s opening ceremony of the 2024 Games?

For, as even the fondest Francophiles will admit, this country is now more divided, more ill-­tempered and feeling more uncertain than it has been in half a century.

The stock market is falling as investors press the pause button and riot police roam the capital to keep the lid on trouble, at least until the Olympics are over.

Robert Hardman attempts to ask Jordan Bardella about the British elections, president of the Rassemblement National

Robert Hardman attempts to ask Jordan Bardella about the British elections, president of the Rassemblement National

That did not stop a long-serving Daily Mail photographer from being attacked by a gang and relieved of his cameras in broad daylight this week, right outside the childhood home of the frontrunner in this month’s General Election.

Britain’s plodding election ­campaign is a snooze compared to what is happening across the Channel right now.

A week tomorrow, France goes to the polls to elect a new parliament. Usually, the rest of the world takes little notice of the battle for the Assemblee Nationale, preferring to focus on the presidential race every five years.

This time, though, the national poll is electrifying. It could leave President Emmanuel Macron an impotent figure of fun for the remaining three years of his second — and final — term of office.

Seasoned economic analysts have warned that the future of the French economy and the EU itself are at risk if voters opt for either of the extremist parties now out in front.

Only this week, the European Commission issued a warning that France is spending way beyond its means. If the polls are correct, France is big enough to tip the Eurozone over the edge. If that happens, Macron will have only himself to blame following what much of France regards as his chronically ill-judged hissy fit.

Infuriated by the results of this month’s European elections, in which France (like much of the European Union) took a dramatic lurch to the hard-Right, Macron decided on an equally dramatic response.

Without consulting his own prime minister, the head of state announced a surprise parliamentary election to show the world that France is, deep down, a ­sensible, centrist democracy.

Yes, they might flirt with the hard-Right in a European election. But surely, he calculated, they wouldn’t want their own parliament run by the Rassemblement National (RN) as the rebranded National Front now calls itself? This is an outfit which makes Nigel Farage look like the woollier end of the Lib Dems.

Demonstrators burn rubbish bins during an anti far-Right rally following the European election results, in Toulouse on June 12

Demonstrators burn rubbish bins during an anti far-Right rally following the European election results, in Toulouse on June 12 

The Macron plan has now backfired spectacularly. Having expected the French Left to do the usual thing and split into squabbling factions, the president has actually succeeded in uniting them almost overnight into a broad alliance, the New Popular Front (NFP), selling an economy-crashing package of public sector pay rises, early retirement, price controls and wealth taxes plus open immigration and the full ostracism of Israel.

This bleak prospect is now pushing increasing numbers of former centre-Right voters towards the polar opposite, the RN, with its talk of closing the doors to all but essential migration, penalties for parents of ‘delinquents’ and a France-first policy in flagrant breach of European Union laws.

It won’t commit to Nato beyond the end of the war in Ukraine and is also pledging equally ruinous, unaffordable goodies worth an estimated 100 billion euros — including early retirement, VAT cuts and fuel ­subsidies for all.

Previously, moderates on both Left and Right would have flocked to Macron’s Renaissance party and handed victory to the centre ground. Not this time, it seems, as the polls show a collapse in the centre. Both extremes are gathering momentum towards a finish which has French businesses and the European Union holding their heads in their hands.

As one senior executive told the Financial Times this week, France’s battle between Right and Left is a ‘choice between the plague and cholera’.

Watching the rival parties at this week’s big hustings in front of Paris business leaders, it seems pretty clear to me which way corporate and institutional France is leaning — towards the plague.

Having written off the far-Left as an incurable ideological basket case, they still believe that they can salvage something from the hard-Right. So, when a Jeremy Corbyn lookalike from the NFP pledges fresh taxes and pay rises, there is a chill around this packed theatre. When the man from the hard-Right comes on, however, there is a palpable buzz.

Many stand up with their phones to take shots of a clean-cut, tall young man in a suit. At the age of just 28, Jordan Bardella is now president of the RN, the anointed successor to former presidential candidate Marine Le Pen.

She in turn succeeded her own father, the abrasive Jean-Marie Le Pen, the man who turned the National Front from a hotch-potch of neo-Nazi bruisers into a mainstream political force.

Not that the party likes to be reminded of its murky past. ‘You can stay stuck in the past,’ Bardella told one reporter this week. ‘I’m looking towards the future. And I can see the future.’

Bardella is unquestionably box office as far as the French media are concerned. Every public appearance prompts the sort of media scrum reserved for an A-list celeb at the Cannes Film Festival. He comes with a matching team of heavy-duty minders. Yet, he is also a blank page. No one seems to have any idea of what he really thinks about anything.

For a French politician, he is also curiously expressionless. This, perhaps, is all part of the strategy of a man whose own former spin doctor calls him ‘a cyborg’.

‘He has two great strengths,’ says journalist and film-maker Pierre-Stephane Fort. ‘His name is not Le Pen. And he looks respectable.’

A significant chunk of the French electorate, Fort points out, has always been deterred by the Le Pen brand. Marine Le Pen was all too aware of this when she plucked the teenage Bardella from the party’s youth wing and propelled him in to various party jobs on his stratospheric rise to the top, culminating in the party presidency in 2022.

Few doubt, however, that she is still running the show — with an eye on a fourth attempt for the presidency of France in 2027.

In an explosive new book on Bardella, called Le Grand Remplaçant (The Great Replacement), Fort chronicles the way in which Le Pen and party managers hired a top media coach to craft a new brand around the boy from the Paris suburbs whom Le Pen has reportedly called her ‘lion club’.

‘The goal was to create a smiling facho [French slang for a fascist] and to create a story around Bardella — a kid from a single parent family who rose to the top.’

According to this narrative, here is a party leader who has ­triumphed over adversity and knows about the real world. The Bardella family were Italian ­immigrants and he also has a half-Algerian grandmother.

However, Fort points out that Bardella’s childhood was not all it seems. Yes, his parents split when he was very young and he grew up with his mother, a teaching assistant. Yet his father’s vending machine business ensured that the boy could attend a private Catholic school and had a car when he passed his test.

Beyond a one-month holiday job with his father, Bardella has never done an ordinary day’s work. The Bardella CV reads: party official, councillor, MEP, party leader.

Along the way, his former girlfriends have included the daughter of a senior party figure and a niece of Marine Le Pen.

Fort’s book also includes details of an anonymous Twitter account, with racist messages and memes. He says he has traced this back to Bardella — who has denied any connection.

The strategy has been to keep Bardella vanilla. ‘He is a cyborg. He prepares systematically for everything he says,’ says Pascal Humeau, the former media manager who was hired to mould the new leader before an acrimonious parting of the ways.

Without consulting his own prime minister, Emmanuel Macron announced a surprise parliamentary election to show the world that France is, deep down, a ­sensible, centrist democracy

Without consulting his own prime minister, Emmanuel Macron announced a surprise parliamentary election to show the world that France is, deep down, a ­sensible, centrist democracy

‘If he does not have a pre-prepared line, he will say nothing. He always wrongly thought that his young age was a hindrance to his political ambitions so he compensated with a sort of middle aged senator’s look and behaviour: neat tie, shiny look, good haircut and a seriousness.’

The strategy has clearly worked. ‘Bardella has surpassed Le Pen in the popularity polls. He’s already a level above her,’ Humeau tells me. ‘Thanks to TikTok, he’s got a rock star status amongst the young.’

That could be the game-changer this time around, along with a rise in female votes for the RN. That certainly seems to be the case when I head out of Paris to test the waters in Aisne, a rural department two hours from Paris.

Some of the outlying villages delivered a 62 per cent vote for the RN in this month’s European elections.

In the former factory town of Soissons, I find almost everyone is leaning to Bardella with two clear dividing lines. The old, like card-carrying RN member and retired businessman Jean-Pierre Bourgeois, tell me they are keen on the party’s anti-immigration line.

The young, like four trainee nurses — Loane, Noemie, Sophie and Zoe — like Bardella’s youth and his promises to lower rents.

‘We don’t watch the news. We watch social media and he speaks to us,’ says Loane.

This town might have a centre-Right mayor but the centre-Right is not even fielding a candidate in the parliamentary elections. The result seems a foregone conclusion.

Back in Paris, I follow Bardella around the colossal Eurosatory defence fair at the vast Parc des Expositions. Accompanied by another chaotic media circus, he tours stands selling tanks, guns and helicopters — as long as they are French, of course.

What is fascinating is his lack of interest in people, including the large numbers of French troops here. Whereas Emmanuel Macron would be grabbing hands and waving like a demented monkey, Bardella breezes by most of them without a word.

He says very little, beyond asking a question about exports to whichever suit is talking him through the next armoured car or drone. I barge my way through the scrum a few times to get alongside him and ask (in both French and English) if he has any thoughts on the British election. Has he had any contact with the Reform Party? Could he work with Sir Keir Starmer?

There is not a flicker of a response, no small talk or even a bonjour. Just a vacant look.

Perhaps, as his former coach explained, he cannot locate the requisite pre-prepared line.

At teatime, I turn up at his old school, not far from the Stade de France. It’s an old Catholic lycee with students of every creed and colour pouring out. I suspect that there will probably not be a half-holiday if the school’s most famous old boy does indeed become PM.

The head teacher tells me that no one can remember Bardella and advises me to contact the board of governors for further comment.

A mile away, I find his old home on the Gabriel Peri council estate in the northern Parisian district of St Denis. It is a block of flats above a bakery, tattoo parlour and supermarket. Tattooist Virginie Thuiller tells me that this place used to vote communist.

A few people remember Bardella, including supermarket worker Mohammed, 30, who says he would never vote for him. ‘We vote Left here,’ he says

I meet Nyezhnam Miziane, 73, emerging from the Bardella apartment block. ‘I remember Jordan. He was very nice, very pleasant, no problem,’ says the retired electrician, adding that he will probably vote for his former neighbour.

Retired civil servant, Cherifa Zidane, 70, says Bardella will not get her vote but adds: ‘I am less afraid of Bardella than the Left because they want to spend money we don’t have.’

So what was he like as a boy? ‘Very nice, very correct, very bien élevé [well brought-up]. I still see his grandmother.’

This is a multi-racial area, predominantly North African I am told. It is not the poorest of Paris neighbourhoods but there is unquestionably an atmosphere.

Daily Mail photographer ­Murray Sanders is snapping the Bardella block when, suddenly, a car of armed police screeches to a halt and officers demand to know what he is doing. They drive off after he explains.

Five minutes later, two youths pounce on him and grab his cameras while two more appear, one with what looks very like a knife in a sheath. Pulled in two directions by his camera straps, he knows better than to pick a fight.

His pair of Nikons vanish into the estate. When we file a report at the local police station, we realise he has had a lucky escape. The officer tells us that 30 people have been wounded in knife attacks in the area this month alone.

France is hoping it can put all these problems to one side for a fortnight when the world arrives next month for the Games. Whether that happens could depend on the final round of ­voting on July 7.

For much of the planet, that is of considerably more interest than what happens here three days earlier.