How Zemmour performance is “trumping” Le Pen
The far-right television star, writer, and journalist is surging in the polls. How high his numbers can go is hard to say. But all presidential candidates will have to contend with his nationalist agenda.
Zemmour is not yet an official candidate, but he is all over television publicly mulling his presidential bid. Meanwhile, the darling of the far-right is also attending rallies with his “reader voters.” And he has taken the time to visit right-wing Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. No other “candidate” attracts media attention like him. As he promotes his new book (“France Has Not Yet Spoken Its Last Word”), he also debates potential challengers to the presidency like left-wing populist Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
His rapid political rise is drawing parallels to President Donald Trump. That could get weird soon enough. There are a lot of differences between them. Zemmour is a writer. The former president is a poltiical animal but not an intellectual. Trump was the candidate of a political party, while the French writer and journalist has no party behind him. The Republican president was known for his weak linguistic skills. Zemmour uses an elevated style of language, quoting scholars and writers and laying out his own — but profound — view of French history.
Still, there are some important similarities. Zemmour, too, is a product of the media. TV invites him to stir up controversy and profit from it. For example, in a live debate on CNews, he said the underage migrants were “thieves,” “murderers” and “rapists.” Like Trump, the French writer enjoys a media over-presence that aids his own “branding.” Like Trump, the French writer uses an inflammatory rhetoric about immigrants and Muslims.
Like Trump, pollsters and political pros did not initially take a Zemmour candidacy seriously. And now, in a Harry Interactive poll, Zemmour overtakes far-right leader Marine Le Pen for the first time, “virtually” qualifying for the second round of the French presidential election.
So, how did we get here?
A political journalist for the conservative newspaper Le Figaro, Zemmour rose to prominence in the mid-2000s. He was a regular guest on On n’est pas couché, a popular French talk show broadcast on France 2. For five seasons, he had a platform to make public his hostile remarks against immigrants and Muslims, as well as his crusade against the “feminization of society”. During the show TV, he clashed with several celebrities and personalities, making him a right-wing television star.
After his fame, Zemmour profited from the television show and published several books to great success. They all sparked controversy and aroused the curiosity of the media. Premier Sexe (2006), Petit Frère (2008), Mélancolie française (2010), Suicide Français (2014), Destin Français (2018): his works portray a decadent France threatening to topple under the weight of uncontrolled immigration.
The son of French-Jewish parents originally from Algeria who came to France during the Algerian War of Independence, Zemmour has been at the center of French cultural and political debate for more than a decade. He sparks controversy with his radical ideas. He is obsessed with the loss of French identity. In Zemmour’s roman national — his narrative of France’s past — French identity seems to be the result of an uninterrupted history from legendary King Clovis to Charles de Gaulle.
After de Gaulle’s death, the libertarians of May 68 infiltrated the state and made it submit to feminism, anti-racism, individualism, and globalized capitalism, whose goal is “to break nations into a mosaic of consumers”. According to Zemmour, French progressives on the right and the left have returned the nation to the war of races and the war of religions. The French state has thus become “a weapon to destroy the nation and enslave the people.”
Worse than that. In Zemmour’s view, progressives have fueled immigration to replace the French (and whites). This is the Great Replacement theory, a conspiracy theory that says the elites are planning to replace whites demographically and culturally with non-European peoples, through mass migration.
This is why he thinks the French should fight against the “Islamization” of France. For him, the young people of immigrant background in the suburbs are either criminals or potential jihadists. And in the suburbs, the (white) French are already fighting a “civil war”.
His solution is to re-immigrate, end family reunification, abolish the rigid framework of asylum law. The French (whites) are in a war they must win, he says. No external constraint — neither the European Union nor international conventions — should prevent France from exercising its right to self-defense.
He even went so far as to call for the Frenchization of names: people living in France should have French names. Better, Christian French names.
This is nothing new in French history. These ideas are part of the baggage of the reactionary right and the extreme right of the country. Before Zemmour, to some extent, even far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen presented France with a historical and cultural narrative that he said explained the country’s “decline.”
So, why is Zemmour a danger to France today?
1The fragmentation of the French party system. Macron’s victory in 2017 was a political earthquake that destroyed the two major parties that had shared power for the past fifty years. The center-right party — Les Rèpublicains — managed to fight back. But it has since been caught between attempts by Macron and Marine Le Pen to wrest voters from them. Recently, however, Le Pen herself has also been struggling. The French far-right leader had already taken a lot of criticism for her defeat in 2017. Many voters do not consider her electable, even if they share some of her credos. And that’s a problem. Le Pen’s fragmentation and weakness are helping to “lower” the threshold for entry into the second round and boosting Zemmour’s chances.
2 Macron’s popularity. Sixty percent of voters express disapproval of the French president. That sentiment could boost turnout for some voters and lower it for others. It could prove decisive in the second round of the presidential election. In France, the “Republican front” against the far right is a common strategy. In 2002, it worked well. In 2017, it worked less well. And today it seems even more compromised. Some leading politicians on the center-right have also declared that they will vote for Zemmour if there is a choice between Macron and the writer.
3 Zemmour’s personality. By his admission, he is more radical than Marine Le Pen. But voters perceive him differently. For traditional center-right voters, he is a more electable option than Marine Le Pen. Probably, as a former journalist of the center-right newspaper Le Figaro, he has a greater potential among center-right voters than Le Pen. Zemmour himself explained the reasons for this in an interview with Le Parisien. The limit of the far-right leader, he said, is in the name: Le Pen. That is a brand against which “theatrical anti-fascism”, as Zemmour calls it, is mobilized. The electability argument could prove very powerful.
For all these reasons, Zemmour may indeed be the personality to bring down the wall built against the far right. And should he make it to the second round, anything is possible given the French electoral system.
Even if he does not succeed, however, Zemmour has made a point. He is forcing the presidential candidates to confront the question of identity as he defines it on his terms. Most importantly, he is forcing the center-right parties to make a choice. To adopt his nationalist vision or Macron’s tolerant and open ‘republican’ identity.
Could the new election be a battle for the soul of France?