Without even saying whether he will run in the French presidential election next year, Éric Zemmour, the far-right essayist and head of speech on French television, has given all the other parties what to expect. worry. Whatever it decides, the campaign is already certain to focus on the divisive issues that extremists favor.
PARIS – According to a new poll that sent shockwaves in France, Éric Zemmour, the far-right essayist and television headliner, would get 17% of the vote if he appeared at the next one presidential election. This places him in second place, ahead of Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Rally.
Known since the early 2000s for his popular television appearances and regular column in the Conservative newspaper Le Figaro, Zemmour has become an important player in a political game he hopes to destabilize – although he remains vague about his own possible presidential candidacy. Its political megaphone is CNews, an influential television channel backed by billionaire Vincent Bolloré, one of the main owners of the Vivendi group. While its top-rated programs generally attract no more than 800,000 viewers, CNews has doubled its audience in four years, placing it in second place among the four 24-hour news channels in France.
The company’s business model combines news coverage with commentary and debate that simplifies complex issues, often featuring extreme positions. The key to CNews and Zemmour’s recent success is that they have learned a lesson from Donald Trump: be extreme and provocative. Zemmour’s latest high profile outburst, for example, was to call for a ban on “foreign” names like Mohammed.
While the French far right has been obsessed for 30 years with Islam, immigration, academic failure and the alleged decline of French civilization, Zemmour’s extremist rhetoric has brought these issues to the fore. “Extremist” is no understatement: in recent years, Zemmour has been convicted twice for hate speech and incitement to racial violence.
Zemmour emphasizes all of the same inflammatory topics in his new book, France has not said its last word (France has not said its last word). By confusing Islam and Islamism, he hopes to stigmatize all of religion and stir up opposition to immigration. He argues that Muslim immigrants will “overwhelm” and overwhelm the native inhabitants of Europe, and that “the Islamization of city streets” by the new “colonizers” threatens the survival of the French nation. “No small town, no small village in France is safe from the savage groups of Chechen, Kosovar, North African or African gangs who steal, rape, loot, torture and kill,” he wrote.
Not surprisingly, Zemmour blatantly distorts the story. The Vichy regime, aligned with the Nazis, he claims, “protected French Jews” during World War II. His aggressive misogyny and homophobia are the same de rigueur.
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Zemmour wants these themes to be at the center of the debate during the presidential election next spring. The French audiovisual regulator, the Superior Audiovisual Council (CSA), has already decided to treat him like a candidate, tracing his airtime on television so that he cannot claim more than the other candidates.
The Zemmour phenomenon worries French political parties of all stripes, but not for the same reasons. This concerns Le Pen as she hopes to be the candidate representing the far right. Traditionally, the protest vote in France has been divided between populists and non-voters, and at least until the 2017 elections, this trend has mainly favored his party.
To present himself as a legitimate candidate for the 2017 presidential election, Le Pen moderated the party’s message and distanced himself from his father (founder and former party leader) and his reactionary, racist and anti-Semitic rhetoric. The following year, she even changed the name of the party. But moderation did not play well with much of its base, a significant part of which fled to Zemmour. A poll released on September 28 said support for Le Pen was around 16%, up from 28% in the first round of the 2017 presidential election.
Zemmour also worries the traditional center-right party, The Republicans. While many French conservatives would be embarrassed to vote for the National Rally in light of its anti-Semitic past, they might view Zemmour, a Sephardic Jew, as an acceptable spokesperson for the contemporary right-wing stance on immigration.
Even more deceptive, Zemmour also posed as a champion of Gaullism, taking up three of Charles de Gaulle’s favorite themes: national independence, social policy and the idea of Christian France. By playing on the fluid borders between the right and the far right, he is seizing the votes of Republicans that Le Pen could never have hoped to win.
But if a Zemmour candidacy could harm the right, it could also serve them. If Zemmour defeats Le Pen, another right-wing candidate, like Xavier Bertrand, currently favorite in the polls, could win as President Emmanuel Macron’s challenger in the second round of the election. Macron would have much more to fear in a second round against Bertrand, a candidate who could claim broad support, including left-wing and centrist voters who want at all costs to prevent a second Macron term.
Macron could also be hurt by the negative effect that far-right themes will have on the global debate. He will want to highlight his economic and social achievements, his educational measures and his pro-European convictions. But it will not be easy by campaigning against an opponent who has only “Islam” and “immigration” on his lips.
It remains to be seen if Zemmour will show up. Some analysts doubt he can muster the necessary approvals from at least 500 mayors. But the 17% of French voters who support his candidacy cannot be ignored. A significant portion of the public is clearly disillusioned with the current crop of political elites.
Whatever Zemmour’s decision, he, along with CNews and other right-wing media, changed the debate, forcing all candidates to focus on immigration and crime. Macron has also had to adapt, as evidenced by his decision to impose strict restrictions on visa authorizations for Moroccan, Algerian and Tunisian nationals. Without becoming a candidate yet, Zemmour is already a force in next year’s election.