Éric Zemmour, the xenophobe who messes up the French presidential elections

Éric Zemmour, the xenophobe who messes up the French presidential elections
Éric Zemmour, the xenophobe who messes up the French presidential elections

October 22, 2021 11:36 am

“You are the French Trump” once ruled an ally of the former US president addressing Éric Zemmour. Or at least that’s what the controversial journalist enemy of immigration declares in his latest book, best seller. Until a few weeks ago, such a claim seemed far-fetched and opportunistic. But a recent leap in popularity suggests that this TV personality, nostalgic for collaboration with the Vichy regime Nazis, has taken French politics off guard. Zemmour even aims to overturn nationalism and overtake Marine Le Pen on the right, trying to make her appear too soft.

On October 6, Zemmour finished second, ahead of Le Pen and behind Emmanuel Macron, in a poll for the April presidential election. The news turned the talk show commentator into the main topic of television shows. Just as he wanted, a radical nationalist convicted of incitement to racial hatred. Polls continue to give Macron a first-round favorite and a run-off winner, but they also suggest that Zemmour, who hasn’t confirmed his candidacy yet, could shatter several presidential aspirations on both the right and left.

More of a politician than a journalist
Zemmour, 63, has been a controversial figure for more than 25 years. His “declinist” books herald the collapse of French civilization, with titles such as French melancholy (French melancholy) e French suicide. He recently drew attention to CNews, a cable channel some compare to US-based Fox News. Posters with the slogan “Zemmour president” have been posted on street lamps and walls across the country. In September, Zemmour had to leave his daily television program because French laws require broadcasters to grant equal space to all political figures. The audiovisual regulatory agency has assessed that Zemmour is now more of a politician than a journalist, and that his appearances will need to be quantified in this regard.

Zemmour’s popularity may prove ephemeral, but he seems to have found an effective approach

If Marine Le Pen has tried to clean up the racist image of the Rassemblement national away from its origins, Zemmour wants to radicalize, provoke and frame the debate based on her obsessions. He is an anti-feminist and anti-progressive who mixes erudition with indignation, simple sentences and angry tirades. Of Algerian-Jewish descent, Zemmour stated that Vichy France protected French Jews, that some foreign names (such as Mohammed) should be banned, and that Islam is not compatible with France. Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of the party currently led by his daughter, said with satisfaction that Zemmour “says things that no one else has dared to say, except me”.

Zemmour’s popularity may prove ephemeral, but the future candidate, who presents himself as a Gaullist, seems to have found an effective approach. Zemmour mixes a veneer of intellectual respectability with crude populism, relating the ultra-Catholic bourgeois vote to that of the working class. Le Pen, on the other hand, only targets economically fragile people, from the populist right to the ex-communist left. In 2017 Le Pen got 34 percent of the votes in the second round, defeated by Macron. But he lost his edge after the defeat at the last regional. Now Le Pen and Zemmour are competing for the same slice of the disillusioned far-right electorate. Zemmour could grab the votes of traditional nationalists as much as Le Pen, and threaten to oust her from the ballot.

It could even help Macron by splitting the far-right vote and awakening the traditional right

Zemmour’s rise is further confirmation of the weakening of political parties in the context of the French presidential struggle. In 2017 Macron spectacularly demonstrated that in the fifth republic it is possible to win the presidency without having a consolidated party behind it. “There will be a ‘before’ and an ‘after’ Macron,” says one voter. “The old parties of the right and the left no longer exist. People no longer identify with them and feel lost ”.

In 2017 the candidate of the Socialists (PS), Benoît Hamon, had not gone beyond 6 percent, and today the PS does not fare better despite the strong candidacy of Anne Hidalgo, mayor of Paris. The Green candidate, Yannick Jadot, also appears to be in trouble. A number of other candidates are even more biased on the left and no one seems willing to step aside. Even if they did, they would not allow the left to get to the ballot.

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In the center-right, the Republicans (Lr) will choose the candidate on 4 December. The three favorites are Xavier Bertrand, president of the northern Hauts-de-France region, Valérie Pécresse, president of the Île-de-France region, and Michel Barnier, former EU Brexit negotiator. Bertrand seems the favorite of the French in general, but 70-year-old Barnier, less well known in France than in the UK, is trying to grab the anti-immigration vote. For party members, who will choose the candidate and tend to be more right-oriented, Barnier could be the ideal man. Meanwhile, Edouard Philippe, former center-right prime minister, unveiled his new party, Horizons on October 9, but vowed to devote his forces to helping Macron in 2022.

No poll so far indicates that Zemmour could win a second round. Indeed, it could even help Macron by splitting the vote of the far right and awakening the traditional right. “He’s attracting attention as an outsider,” says Emmanuel Rivière, of the polling firm Kantar. “But managing a real election campaign is much more difficult than appearing on TV or participating in the presentation of a book”. Be that as it may, six months into the first round and with France in a state of turmoil, Zemmour seems ready to contribute to an inflamed and divisive electoral campaign.

(Translation by Andrea Sparacino)

This article appeared in the British weekly The Economist.

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