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PARIS – At first glance, Eric Zemmour missed his Trumpian transformation.
Below the surface it could be a little more complicated.
In his first televised interview as the official French presidential candidate on Tuesday, Zemmour – a former journalist leading an insurgent campaign fraught with cultural wars and anti-immigrant rhetoric – appeared light, tense and defensive. There was no fanfare, no alpha male bravery. And at the end of the prime-time TV slot, he grumbled angrily that he didn’t like the reporter’s questions.
More broadly, the launch of Zemmour’s presidential campaign this week has been like watching a train wreck in slow motion.
First of all, there was an episode of flipping fingers in Marseille. Then there was the campaign launch video that the media couldn’t broadcast because Zemmour’s team didn’t get TV rights approved. Finally, there were allegations that her 28-year-old de facto campaign manager was pregnant with her child – Zemmour is married and campaigned on traditional family values.
As Zemmour spun from moment to moment, the French Twittersphere sparked debate over whether he was doing it on purpose. Is there a method to his madness?
This is the same question that has been asked frequently about another presidential candidate, it’s a joke: former US President Donald Trump. The answer, however, might not be important. As long as people are careful, does it matter?
And with Zemmour – as with Trump – people are careful, even if it’s just to be speechless.
An advisor to Zemmour’s campaign team claimed that the early stages of the campaign were all part of the “storytelling,” theorizing that “the hero must overcome tribulations” to keep the media on their toes. Another admitted clearly that the last two days “have been a bit complicated”.
But what is obvious is that Zemmour is saturating the media landscape with a trashy campaign launch as his conservative rivals The Republicans pick their presidential candidate.
Currently, Zemmour votes 13% against 19% for his colleague far-right candidate Marine Le Pen and 24% for outgoing President Emmanuel Macron, according to the POLITICO poll.
Channeling your inner Donald Trump
In his quest for power, Zemmour has a role model: Trump. A friend and Tory ally said Zemmour responded to advice on how to play politics with a simple answer: he is running “a Trumpian campaign.”
Zemmour even drew the parallel himself.
Trump, he told French television station LCI, “has succeeded in uniting the working classes and the patriotic bourgeoisie. This is what I dream of… for 20 years.
Zemmour hopes that his strident proposals on immigration and French industry will appeal to the working classes and that his connections in Parisian circles will help rally the French bourgeoisie. – a combination that, in part, reflects Trump’s approach.
More directly, Zemmour’s constant provocations, attacks on the media establishment and social media love are a page straight out of Trump’s playbook.
Even Zemmour’s grim campaign launch video plays on a key Trumpian theme: nostalgia, according to Christopher Bickerton, senior lecturer at Cambridge University.
“Trump and Zemmour both appeal to nostalgia in an emotional sense,” Bickerton said. “Populists do not always play on nostalgia, it is sometimes more of a white and exclusive vision. … Zemmour appeals to a certain image of France, just as Trump appeals to a certain idea of the United States. It has a powerful effect.
The video, posted on YouTube, has been viewed over 2.5 million times.
According to Bickerton, one of the lessons of Trump’s first campaign is that the people behind the media are not “necessarily connected” to society at large. It is therefore difficult to measure the success of a populist candidate.
« [Zemmour] could be completely out of step and fall prone, “said Bickerton,” but maybe he’s a lot more in tune with society, it’s hard to say.
With just four months to go, however, turning YouTube views into votes is no easy task.
Lost in translation
On Sunday, Zemmour will organize his first campaign rally in Paris, with more than 15,000 supporters expected, according to a campaign adviser. It will be his first speech as a politician, and opponents hope it could burst the Zemmour bubble.
“There is something animal in politics, you have to project power,” said a close adviser to Le Pen. “Zemmour looks puny behind a desk. “
The adviser said Zemmour was trying to ape another famous French anti-immigrant and law-enforcement politician: Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father.
“He tries to copy Jean-Marie Le Pen, but Le Pen was an orator who could hold thousands of people in suspense, they could cry and laugh, he really held them”, supported the adviser.
Then there are practical reasons why it might be difficult for Zemmour to simply deploy a Trump strategy in France.
The French presidential election takes place in two rounds, with the two main voters in the first round clashing in a second round. For the candidates, the challenge has always been to conduct a campaign vigorous enough to pass the first round, but sufficiently consensual to attract more than 50% of the electorate in the second round.
“Strategically, [Zemmour’s] campaign cannot work, because there are two towers and the extremists, the eccentrics are always eliminated, ”said the same adviser to Le Pen. “The system is built that way.
It is, however, similar to a mantra that Trump’s critics preached in the 2016 US election – that the reality TV star’s pugilistic positions could perhaps break through in the Republican primary but would never be. attractive enough for a general election. They were wrong.
Another challenge for Zemmour is that he campaigns on his own, without the support of an established party with funds and networks across France. Likewise, Trump initially made do with a small group of political neophytes and junkies, while nearly all Republican officials refused to endorse him.
The difference, however, is that Zemmour legally needs the backing of elected officials to run in the French election – 500 of them, in fact. Trump was able to continue on his own in 2016, building on popular support until even most of his Republican rivals had no choice but to back him.
“We have no structure, no party, we fight more than the others,” said Denis Cieslik, responsible for putting together these endorsements for Zemmour. “We are worried and at this stage we are not in a position to say if Zemmour will be able to show up. But we are optimistic.
Meanwhile, opponents had once hoped Zemmour would hesitate at the first sign of such difficulties. Now they are hoping he is becoming unbalanced. More importantly, they did not dethrone him as the main actor in the French media circus.