How Éric Zemmour is shaking up the French presidential election

By Dónal Hassett
15 Oct 2021

Analysis: while the journalist turned polemicist has yet to declare his candidacy, Zemmour has already turned the polls upside down

Since 1988, a candidate of the extreme right has always received at least 10% of the vote in French presidential elections. Until now, that candidate has always been a Le Pen. While the polls for next year’s presidential election place Marine Le Pen, candidate of the Rassemblement National and (estranged) daughter of the titan of the French far right, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in the high teens, a new candidate running to her right is also polling in the double digits.

Éric Zemmour, a journalist turned polemicist, has not yet declared his candidacy, but is already shaking up what had been seen as one of the most predictable elections in decades. Born into a working-class Jewish family of Algerian origin in the suburbs of Paris, Zemmour studied at the elite institution Sciences-Po before entering journalism. Throughout his time as a journalist, he focused on covering the parties of the right in France, frequently critiquing what he saw as their overly permissive attitudes towards immigration, crime, and social questions

From Global Eye on i24 News, how Éric Zemmour has overtaken Marine Le Pen in the polls

In 2006, Zemmour published the first of a serious of controversial essays that would solidify his position as one of France’s most prominent ultra-conservative thinkers. The First Sex, a deliberate play on the title of Simone de Beauvoir’s feminist classic The Second Sex, denounced the supposed feminisation of society. This was followed by the pseudo-history French Melancholy that drew a parallel between the collapse of Rome, which he ascribed to an alleged failure to assimilate the Barbarians, and the impending destruction of France due to mass migration.

His 2014 nonfiction book The French Suicide topped the non-fiction charts in France for months, confirming his status as the intellectual outrider of the extreme right in France. The book traces the supposed decline of France back to the generation of May 1968, who instituted a society defined by oppressive ‘matriarchy’, ‘gay power’ and ‘self-hate’ in which immigrants have priority over ‘native French people’. It also seeks to rehabilitate Marshal Philippe Pétain, the leader of the collaborationist Vichy regime that was complicit in the Holocaust. While The French Suicide was widely condemned by experts in the relevant fields and by political activists on the left, it made him a household name in France.

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Zemmour’s current popularity owes a lot to his media presence. His provocative, often openly racist, homophobic, and misogynist, comments attract controversy and audiences in equal measure. Zemmour has been instrumental in helping the C-News channel outstrip its rivals in the 24 hours news market, with his arrival to host an ultra-conservative news review programme seeing a 170% increase in viewing figures in the prime evening slot.

His relentless pessimism has served him well on TV, but it remains to be seen if it can rally enough voters in the upcoming election

His relative success with audiences has meant that news operators have proven willing to overlook his long history of incendiary comments, including a 2011 condemnation for racist hate speech and sexual assault allegations. Zemmour has used his significant platform to push previously marginal ideas, such as the white supremacist Great Replacement conspiracy theory, into the mainstream of French political discourse.

This use of a captive television audience to build a political base has inevitably led to comparisons with Donald Trump. While both men rail against political correctness and suggest immigrants are responsible for their respective countries’ woes, Zemmour spends far less time talking about a return to prosperity and security than the champion of MAGA.

Whereas Trump always balanced his vision of American Carnage with an endorsement of the American Dream, Zemmour embodies the French phenomenon of déclinisme, a sense that a once great nation is locked into an inescapable cycle of decline. Although his relentless pessimism has served him well as a television commentator, it remains to be seen if it can rally enough voters in the upcoming election.

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From Vice News, 2017 profile of Marine Le Pen

So far, Marine Le Pen is the biggest casualty of a prospective Zemmour candidacy. Since her installation at the head of the largest far right movement in France, she has pursued a policy of normalisation, rebranding the party, sidelining her father, abandoning socially conservative policies on abortion and homosexuality, and embracing left-leaning language, if not policy, on economic and social issues.

While this has allowed the party to establish itself as the number one choice among working-class and younger voters, it has opened a space on the right for a candidate like Zemmour. Le Pen has fallen to her lowest level of support in years. The party has had to row back on its efforts to expand its support beyond its traditional base, pushing hard-line policies on immigration and reaffirming its longstanding policy of ‘national preference’, the priority for French citizens in housing and social services.

Zemmour is causing consternation across the political spectrum. He is consistently outpolling the centre-left candidate, Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, as well as Green candidate Yannick Jadot and has just passed out radical left candidate Jean-Luc Mélénchon. The most recent polls have him neck-and-neck with the candidates competing to represent the centre right.

From Europe1, Charlotte d’Ornellas and Bruno Jeudy discuss the potential for a Macron vs Zemmour duel in next year’s French presidential election

While Emmanuel Macron’s campaign team were initially enthusiastic about a candidacy that undermined their main rival, they are increasingly wary of the rise of an even more radical politician who might destabilise the new political order their candidate ushered in five years ago. His rise also exposes Macron’s failure to reduce the divisions in French society that seem to have been exacerbated during his tenure in the Elysée Palace.

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Zemmour is not yet an officially declared candidate and his chances of emerging as the victor in the presidential elections in May 2022 remain slim. He would not be the first candidate to rise in the polls prior to the official campaign, only to crash and burn on election day.

From France24, the panel look at the French government’s latest announcements on visa restrictions for North Africans in the context of next year’s election

However, his presence has already shifted the grounds of political debate within France even further to the right. The French government’s recent decision to slash the number of visas available to Moroccans, Tunisians and Algerians is seen by many as an attempt to forestall Zemmour’s rise in the polls. Even if Zemmour remains locked out of the corridors of power after the next elections, he will have triumphed if his opponents chose not to fight back against his extreme agenda but try to co-opt it.

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