Most French presidential election campaigns throw up a bizarre plot twist. Last time it was the accidental triumph of a smooth young man who had never stood for office before.
This time it is the meteoric rise in the opinion polls of a racist jew of Berber origin , who believes French Muslims should be forced to be called “Jean-Pierre” or “Emilie”: that women should return to the subservient status of the 1950s (or maybe the 1850s); and that the pro-Nazi Vichy regime of 1940-44 was actually quite kind to French Jews.
Is is fair to call Eric Zemmour a racist? Yes. He has twice been convicted of promoting racial hatred. A narrow, and partly racial, conception of national identity and a belief in male supremacy are at the heart of Zemmourism.
He is a French Taliban. He wants to go back to a future in which the French-born descendants of migrants are forced to abandon their religion and culture and the “virility” of men is not sapped by the whining of upwardly-mobile women.
In sum, he is the kind of fringe candidate who might be expected to attract 0.5 percent in the opinion-polls. As things stand, he is given 15 to 17 percent in the first round – and he has yet to confirm that he intends to run in the April 2022 election.
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Should we be scared of Eric Zemmour? In the long run maybe yes. I don’t believe that he can win the presidency next year or any year. But he is skilfully preparing the ground for a radical shift in the right-side of French politics, uniting the far-right and hard-right, which could produce a triumphant, nationalist, anti-European and anti-Muslim movement under another leader in 2027 or beyond.
Zemmour – a political journalist turned doom-laden writer and TV pundit – surfs eloquently on the same kind of genuine distress and fear (and deploys the same kind of half-truths, distortions and lies) which produced Brexit and Donald Trump. He also benefits from, and understands deeply, the mediocrity of most mainstream French politicians, especially on the centre-right.
Above all, Zemmour has brilliantly identified the area of vulnerability in the French character which make his re-packaged far-right extremism seem acceptable.
The British love a toff and they love a joker. A joker who is also a toff is irresistible to (some) Britons although the Johnson joke is now wearing thin.
Americans (or some Americans) are suckers for anti-Washington, anti-state half-truths and lies spun in a vulgar-folksy way by someone who has made millions (however dubiously).
The French are vulnerable to intellectualism or fake-intellectualism. Zemmour floats his half-truths and lies on a glib torrent of historical and literary allusions.
He says France’s natural “grandeur”, its vocation to lead the world as understood by Napoleon Bonaparte and Charles de Gaulle, has been betrayed by generations of corrupt politicians. They have sold out the French nation to Europeanism, globalism and a conspiracy to “replace” the white race by Arabs and Africans.
Unlike Marine Le Pen, or her father, Zemmour has been able to spin an extremist but plausible narrative of national decline and possible national renewal. He appeals to part of the Lepennist constituency but also to the harder end of the centre-right.
Here is one example of how Zemmourism works. He points out, correctly, that France has fallen behind Germany and the United States in the last 40 years in terms of GDP per head. He does not says that this may be caused by high taxation or by the fact that France works less hours on average than its neighbours. He says this is part of the “third-worldification” of France. In other words it is all the fault of the Arabs and the blacks.
Responding to this kind of striking but distorted narrative is difficult – as the opponents of Trump and Brexit discovered. The French media – both for and against – speak of little but Zemmour but rarely point out how absurd and extreme his ideology is: far more so than that of the flailing Marine Le Pen.
Zemmour, 63, is, for the time being, having his gâteau and eating it. By delaying his official entry into the campaign Zemmour is postponing the moment when he will have to convert his obsessions into ideas.
How can France force million of French-born Muslims to give up their religion and accept French Judaeo-Christian culture – and first names? How can France join in a “Big Europe” embracing Russia and Belarussia as they now exist while remaining a member of the European Union? Does Zemmour have any economic policies at all?
As things stand, his 15 percent – 17 percent in first round voting intentions in the polls have been taken from Marine Le Pen, other fringe far right candidates and the harder end of the centre right. Marine Le Pen has fallen from 24 percent to 16 percent. Zemmour threatens to tip her – and the centre-right – out of the two candidate second round.
But almost all the movement in the polls is happening within the far right and centre right. Macron remains stable at 23 to 26 percent. The Left-Greens remain stable at around 30 percent – but riven into seven different camps, including two kinds of Socialist and three kinds of Trotskyists.
The 30 percent -33 percent or so of the first round vote shared, or disputed, by Le Pen and Zemmour is depressingly high but not so very new. Le Pen took 34 percent of the vote in the second round against Macron in 2017.
One second round poll puts Zemmour only 10 points behind Macron; another puts him 30 points behind.
The next volley of polls will be crucial. Will the residual Le Pen vote start to move to him? Will he start to take more votes from the centre-right, who are still quarrelling over who their candidate should be and how he/she should be chosen? Or will the Zemmour bubble start to shrink?
If Zemmour’s support melts, but only a little, he and Le Pen could both be pushed out of the second round by a centre-right candidate (if the centre-right can ever agree on a single candidate).
Macron would be vulnerable in the second round run-off to almost any candidate from the traditional right – so long as there is only one of them. He would defeat either Zemmour or a weakened Le Pen.
Conclusion: as things stand, the rise of Zemmour may be disturbingly good news for Macron. In the longer run, it is worrying news for France.