THE French expected Marine Le Pen, leader of the populist Right, to be the biggest threat to President Emmanuel Macron’s re-election next May. Now a wild card has emerged who is not a real danger to Macron but could torpedo Le Pen and her party’s future.
By splitting the Right-wing vote and stealing Le Pen’s place in the run-off, polemical journalist Eric Zemmour could turn Macron’s restoration to the Elysée into an unexpectedly easy stroll.
If he stands, that is. For the moment, Zemmour is an undeclared candidate who has all shades of the political class from blue to green and deep red holding their breath for a decision that could have momentous consequences for France. Despite a growing clamour for him on the Right, he says he hasn’t made up his mind but teasingly leaves the prospect open.
Zemmour, an impish gadfly, has it within his grasp to do what the mainstream Right and Left have failed to achieve for the last 40 years: puncture the rise and rise of the Le Penist Rassemblement National(RN) which was known as the Holocaust-denying Front National when Marine’s father Jean-Marie ran it.
His swift rise to second place among the hopefuls this month has been at Marine’s expense. He took off from a low of 5 per cent of intentions to vote and is now credited with 17 per cent, overtaking Marine, who since the summer has collapsed by 13 points to 15 per cent. Macron himself hovers serenely in the mid-20s.
The RN, after a losing slog against the barriers put in its way for so long, has been showing signs of fatigue. Failure to reach the second round of the election – the then-surging Le Pen competed head-to-head with Macron in 2016 – would be a devastating setback for the party. Despite wide popularity among working- and lower middle-class voters, it has never broken through to power.
Until now, the Le Pens have been shut out by the political establishment who have used every political and judicial wile to keep them on the outside looking in even when their party topped the polls. How ironic if a political tyro – who shares the RN’s criticisms but with more verve and depth – does the élites’ job for them.
The explosion of support for Zemmour, a prolific author, newspaper columnist and television talking head, terrifies liberals who have been giving him the boycott treatment and derision previously reserved for the Le Pens.
He has been forced out of his controversial commenting slot at CNews by the official broadcasting oversight body rather than having his time on air counted as electioneering, even before a declaration of candidacy.
Another sign of media sabotage, rather amusing this one, was a Paris Match cover picture of the long-married, 63-year-old Zemmour splashing in the Mediterranean with his pretty chief aide; as if that would shock anyone nowadays when presidential infidelity is taken for granted.
Zemmour, a newsmaker as well as writer, is not entirely an outsider. He has a column at the staid, centre-Right daily le Figaro whose readers are pleading with him to run. The column is provocative and follows the themes of his 2014 best-seller ‘Le Suicide Français’, a lament for the pre-immigration France of yesteryear exemplified by Charles de Gaulle whom he admires along with Napoléon. De Gaulle’s line ‘une certaine idée de la France’ could be his own.
He says and writes all the things that modern, multicultural, Bobo (bourgeois-bohemian) France does not want to hear, including the idea that mass Muslim immigration from North Africa – whence his Jewish parents migrated during the Algerian war – was a huge mistake.
Zemmour’s constituency, like Le Pen’s, is the French men and women orphaned by modernity and fearful that the unchecked flow of immigrants will eventually replace the white population.
This fear prompted Michel Barnier, the former EU Brexit negotiator who is a candidate for the Gaullist Les Républicains (LR) party’s nomination, to call for a moratorium on further immigration and evidenced the hitherto unmentionable fact that the influx also worries the respectable Right.
Between them, Zemmour, Le Pen and Barnier have ensured that immigration will be an issue in the presidential campaign whether the élites want it or not. Macron, who has denounced the refusal of many Muslim immigrants to integrate, will not shy from the debate.
The mainstream Right and Left parties are still in disgrace with the French after the disappointments of the Sarkozy and and Hollande presidencies, though the Right shows more signs of coming back to life. The LR front runner is Xavier Bertrand on 14 per cent followed by Valerie Pecresse on 12 per cent. Either is within striking distance of Le Pen and Zemmour for the coveted second-round spot.
It’s unlikely that Zemmour could defeat Macron – who already governs from the centre-Right – or that he has the skill-set to be president. His legacy, if he runs, could be bursting the Le Pen bubble for which many people who now disdain him would owe him a debt of gratitude, since they would be the beneficiaries.