The French disrupter: rise of Eric Zemmour shakes up presidential race

Ever since Emmanuel Macron was elected French president in 2017, opinion polls have predicted that in next year’s contest he will again meet far-right leader Marine Le Pen in a second-round run-off. But the emergence of an insurgent newcomer has suddenly thrown the race wide open.

Only six months before the April election, another far-right figure — anti-immigration polemicist Eric Zemmour — has repeated a trick performed by Macron in the 2017 contest, coming from nowhere to storm up the opinion polls and eye the Elysée Palace. In little more than a month, he has started to outrank every potential candidate except Macron himself in the polls.

The two are very different. Although Macron campaigned last time as a revolutionary who was “neither right nor left” and who wanted to shake up French politics, he is an establishment figure. A former banker, he graduated from the elite Ecole Nationale d’Administration, served as finance minister and has governed from the centre as a liberal internationalist.

Zemmour looks like a typical member of the French intellectual elite — the 63-year-old writer and commentator has written more than a dozen books on history, politics and society. But critics see him as a dangerous, Donald Trump-style provocateur — a TV talk-show star who rails against Muslims, immigration, feminism, crime and the supposed decline of France, and whose views are more extreme than those of Le Pen.

Of Algerian Jewish and Berber origin himself, Zemmour has twice been convicted of religious or racial provocation.

It is still early days, and not all the potential candidates have officially declared they will run, but Zemmour’s popularity has already played havoc with their electoral calculations.

His rise “worries [the centre-right] Les Républicains, the main ideological competitors of Macron”, said Chloé Morin of the Fondation Jean-Jaurès think-tank. “It worries Marine Le Pen, who was high in the polls for the past five years. And it worries the left because it polarises the debate on immigration and law and order while the left is more inaudible than ever.” 

But Zemmour’s rise also offers some candidates an opportunity. If he and Le Pen both remain in the race, the split in the rightwing vote could cut the percentage threshold for candidates hoping to qualify for the second round. Assuming Macron maintains his lead, instead of competing against Le Pen he could come up against Zemmour, a centre-right candidate or even one from the left if the parties agree on a unity candidate.

The latest opinion poll of first-round voting intentions from Harris Interactive for Challenges magazine showed Macron in the lead with 24 to 27 per cent, followed by Zemmour with 17 to 18 per cent. Neither has yet officially declared their candidacy. The poll put Le Pen — who had been expected to win a similar vote share to Macron — on 15 to 16 per cent.

Polling suggested voters were unexcited by the prospect of another second-round duel between Macron and Le Pen, said Morin. “So as soon as a new player emerges . . . the terrain is favourable for them.”

Zemmour’s early success is measurable not only in opinion polls but in the buzz online.

There were four times more Google searches last month for Zemmour than for Macron and 16 times more than for Le Pen, according to David Dubois, associate professor of marketing at Insead and an expert in digital analytics.

Searches for Zemmour accounted for 53 per cent of the total accrued by the 10 leading potential candidates, with Macron drawing 16 per cent, Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the far-left France Unbowed at 13 per cent and Le Pen at just 4 per cent. “Obviously, there’s a novelty effect, but it’s still impressive,” said Dubois.

Bar chart of share of online searches from September 1 to 30 2021 (%) showing the 10 most searched French election candidates

His findings suggest that the media-savvy Zemmour, like Trump, has focused on topics that attract intense interest from voters — especially immigration and crime — and packaged them in ways that favour the viral spread of his message.

His call for a ban on foreign first names such as Mohammed or Kevin immediately became a hot topic, as did a cover photograph of him in Paris Match embracing his 28-year-old campaign adviser Sarah Knafo in the sea off a Mediterranean beach.

Macron’s supporters are in a dilemma, reluctant to attack Zemmour for fear of increasing his prominence but eager to challenge what one member of the government called his “pseudo-historical” vision of a declining France. “It’s a very divided country and tempers are running high,” the person said.

Meanwhile, the French electorate, from middle-aged voters weary of “woke” politics to young people turned off by the traditional parties, are taking a close interest in what Zemmour has to say.

“I share some ideas with Eric Zemmour and I’ve started to follow Génération Z [a support group of young militants] on social networks,” said a 22-year-old master’s student on the outskirts of Paris. “I immediately liked that the young are engaging with ideas not represented in traditional media.” Zemmour was a Gaullist who stood up for French culture and identity and could unite the right, he said.

Zemmour’s enemies are hoping his attraction will wane once he declares himself a candidate and has to explain exactly what he would do if elected. He might also find it hard to muster the millions of euros in campaign financing he needs and the 500 signatures from elected officials across France required to stand in the election.

“The difference with Trump is that he had the Republican party behind him, while Zemmour is pretty much alone,” said political scientist Benjamin Morel. “But if he gets the money and the signatures — then he becomes a serious candidate.” 

Additional reporting by Domitille Alain in Paris

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