Photo: Francois NascimbenI/AFP/Getty

Three months from the French presidential election, France’s political landscape is as fragmented as ever. One man in particular has shaken up the race in dramatic fashion: Éric Zemmour.

In April, the script for the election had appeared to be written. Polls of voting intentions gave both President Emmanuel Macron and the far-right Rassemblement National’s Marine Le Pen 25% in the first round. The two contenders in the runoff of the 2017 election were far ahead of any other prospective candidate.

But election years are full of surprises.

Attacking Immigrants, Creating a Mythical France

Despite being a political newcomer, Zemmour is a familiar face for the French public as one of the country’s most prominent media figures: writer, polemicist, pundit, and political journalist both on TV and for the conservative newspaper Le Figaro. In recent years, he has been a centerpiece of CNEWS, a television channel described by many as a Fox News à la française.

Zemmour has courted controversy, particularly as a megaphone for the great replacement theory that elites are using immigrants to displace the native population. He links his diatribes against mass immigration to declarations of a clash of civilizations with Islam supplanting a French Christian Greco-Roman tradition and society. Immigration, he claims, “exacerbates every issue that faces France”.

Rumors of a possible presidential candidacy circulated after the publication of Zemmour’s most recent book, “France Hasn’t Said Its Last Word.” On November 30, he finally kicked off his campaign.

Rather than launching his run with a speech or an interview, Zemmour used a 10-minute video on social media to draw attention and provoke comment. Its alarmist rhetoric, defining his campaign, boomed that “the time has passed to reform France, the time has come to save her”. The polemicist portrays an agonizing and decaying nation faced with cultural replacement, making “the extinction of French civilization the most important issue at hand”.

Zemmour’s culprits are legion: the incompetent political class — both from the left and the right — elites, the media, sociologists, academics, and “Islamo-leftists”. He declares that he will lead the valiant battle to defeat them: “We will not be replaced.” For his quest, he appropriates France’s past grandeur, its historical successes, and the works of great writers, artists, and intellectuals.

The candidate does not try to present himself as a man of the people, at least not in the manner of populist leaders. Zemmour is still part of a French intellectual and media elite with an education in political science at one of France’s most prestigious universities and almost 20 years at Le Figaro. He is above the populace in a mastery of the French language and an eloquence displayed on TV for years, evoking national pride and the longing for an idealized past.

The Extremism of a New Party

Zemmour portrays his decision to run as the recognition that there was no candidate ready to carry the torch of the ideas that he defended in his books and media career. He has succeeded with enough of the electorate to be considered a major figure in the French political landscape.

Emmanuel Macron is still receiving about 25% support from those intending to vote in the first round of the election. However, the race for second place is open, with three candidates on 15% or 16%: Zemmour, Marine Le Pen, and Valérie Pécresse, the candidate of the center-right party Les Républicains.

Zemmour’s rise is not just a story of far-right politics. In his own “great replacement”, he has outflanked Le Pen with his willingness to promote extremist positions.

Taking over the reins of the RN from her father Jean-Marie, Le Pen sought an appeal to a broader electorate with her attempt to dédiaboliser (“de-demonize”) the party, then known as the Front National. She refused on numerous occasions to embrace openly the great replacement theory, going so far as to claim she did not know what it was in 2019.

Zemmour’s advantage is that he has not yet been stained by the turf of politics – a point he likes to stress as he accuses opponents of years of political craftiness, cunning, and lack of effect. While more established parties like Les Républicains and the Rassemblement National have in the past been embroiled in scandals of corruption and of misuse of public funds, Zemmour’s newly founded Reconquête — like Macron’s En Marche when it was created in 2016 — still enjoys a clean slate.

Zemmour uses this to assail the existing structures and parties of the political right, calling on supporters of the Rassemblement National rather than having their ideas “vegetate in a sterile political opposition”. He invites the endorsement of the electorate of Les Républicains by declaring that the party has not kept its promises in the past 30 years.

He pursues a campaign of extremism even as the French legal system finds him criminally liable. Last week he was convicted of inciting racial hatred and sentenced to a €10,000 fine over comments that child migrants.”are thieves, they are murderers, they are rapists, that’s all they are, they must be sent back”.

All Eyes on the Right

With the French left still in a state of disarray and deeply divided since the unpopular Presidency of the Socialist François Hollande between 2012 and 2017, the contest for the Elysée Palace is undoubtedly on the right side of the political spectrum.

On issues of national identity, Macron, Pécresse, Zemmour, and Le Pen are each seeking a distinctive edge. The Government celebrated the beginning of the French Presidency of the Council of the European Union with a giant European flag under Paris’s Arc de Triomphe, right above the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, on December 31 and January 1.

In response to the Europhile symbolism, Le Pen and Zemmour both took to Twitter to express outrage and Eurosceptic views. The former said she was shocked by a provocation and insult to those who fought and died for France. The latter announced an affront.

Surprisingly, the center-right Pécresse took a similar line of attack against Macron, announcing the erasure of French identity. She did not ask the President to remove the European flag, given her party’s great contribution to and ongoing favor of the European project; however, she tweeted her call for the reinstatement of the French flag over the Tomb.

The rise of Zemmour has led both Macron and Pécresse to realign their rhetoric and policy focus, particularly on issues of security and delinquency.

On January 10, Macron declared his intention to double the police presence on the streets until 2030 to combat insecurity. Four days earlier, Pécresse said the time had come to “get the Kärcher [pressure washers, popularized by President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2005] out again” to “clean up the suburbs which have become areas of lawlessness” and to “hunt down thugs”.

Will Éric Zemmour become the next French President? Most probably not. But his rapid rise has erased and then redrawn the French political map. By challenging the status quo on the right, he has created a rift within the far-right electorate and turned the focus of the country and of public debate further towards his positions.

Three months from the Presidential election, how far can he — and France — go?