Rise of a Far-Right Pundit Is Scrambling French Politics
PARIS — He is the anti-immigration son of parents from Algeria. He styles himself as the great defender of France’s Christian civilization, though he himself is Jewish. He channels Donald J. Trump in an anti-establishment campaign. And he is now scrambling the battle lines before France’s presidential election in April.
Until a few weeks ago, most had expected France’s next presidential elections to be a predictable rematch between President Emmanuel Macron and the far-right Marine Le Pen that, polls showed, left voters who wanted alternatives deeply dissatisfied.
Though still not a declared candidate, Mr. Zemmour, 63, shot to No. 2 in a poll of likely voters last week, disrupting campaign strategies across the board, even beyond those of Mr. Macron and Ms. Le Pen.
“The French want to upset a political order that hasn’t won them over, and Éric Zemmour appears to be the bowling ball that’s going to knock down all the pins,” said Pascal Perrineau, a political scientist at Sciences Po University specializing in elections and the right.
Mr. Perrineau warned that voters were not seriously focused yet on the elections and that polls could be volatile.
Yet candidates are not taking any chances.
Mr. Macron’s campaign has focused on winning support on the right and forcing a showdown with Ms. Le Pen, in the belief that the French would reject her party in the second round of voting, as they have for decades.
Now it is far less clear whom he would meet in a runoff: A strong showing in the first round could propel Mr. Zemmour into the second one, or it could split the far-right electorate to allow a center-right candidate to qualify for the finals.
After weeks of ignoring Mr. Zemmour, Mr. Macron is now criticizing him, though not by name, while government ministers and other Macron allies have unleashed a barrage of attacks.
Mr. Zemmour’s rise has been most unsettling for Ms. Le Pen, who is plummeting in the polls — so much so that her own father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the party founder, said that he would support Mr. Zemmour if the writer were in a stronger position.
Ms. Le Pen has for years tried to broaden her base with a so-called un-demonizing strategy of moving her nationalist, anti-immigrant party from the most extreme xenophobic positions that it was known for under her father. Now she finds herself in the unusual position of being outflanked on the right.
Mr. Zemmour became one of France’s best-selling authors in the past decade by writing books on the nation’s decline — fueled, he said, by the loss of traditional French and Christian values, the immigration of Muslim Africans bent on a reverse colonization of France, the rise of feminism and the loss of virility, and a “great replacement” of white French.
As the child of Algerians who settled in metropolitan France, he has presented himself as the embodiment of France’s successful system of assimilation.
He has said that the failure to integrate recent generations of Muslim immigrants lay with the new arrivals, who hate France, and not with a system that others say has not kept up with the times.
Mr. Zemmour’s influence rose to an entirely new level in the past two years after he became the star of CNews, a new Fox-style news network that gave him a platform to expound on his views every evening.
His supporters include voters most deeply shaken by the social forces that have roiled French society more recently and that they now lump into “wokisme” — a #MeToo movement that has led to the fall of powerful men; a racial awakening challenging France’s image of itself as a colorblind society; the emergence of a new generation questioning the principles of the French Republic; and the perceived growing threat of an American-inspired vision of society.
“In its history, France has always had a strong cultural identity, but now there’s deep anxiety about that identity,” Mr. Perrineau said. “People feel that their culture, their way of life and their political system, all is being changed. It’s enough.”
“Éric Zemmour plays on that very well, on this nostalgia for the past, and this fear of no longer being a great power, of dissolving in a conglomerate that we don’t understand, whether it’s Europe or globalization or the Americanization of culture,” he added.
In the 2017 election, Mr. Macron was the new face who overturned the existing political order. But during his presidency, “the new world of Emmanuel Macron has come to look a lot like the old world,” disillusioning voters, Mr. Perrineau said.
Philippe Olivier, a close aide to Ms. Le Pen and a member of the European Parliament, said that French voters seek a larger-than-life figure in their president.
“In the United States, a president could be a movie actor like Reagan or a carnival performer like Trump,” said Mr. Olivier, who is also Ms. Le Pen’s brother-in-law. “In France, we elect the king.”
But the two-round system compels much of the electorate to vote in the runoffs against candidates — and not for someone of their liking.
“In the second round, the point is who is more repulsive,” Mr. Olivier said. “I believe Macron would be more rejected than Marine, but Zemmour would be much more rejected than Macron.”
As France has grown more conservative in recent years, Mr. Macron has tacked right on many issues to try to grab a bigger electoral slice, especially among voters in the traditional center-right Republicans party.
The Republicans, who have yet to select their presidential candidate, are now facing a new threat themselves, because Mr. Zemmour draws support from them as well as from the far right.
In their own bid to attract far-right voters, many leaders on the traditional right have flirted with Mr. Zemmour in recent years, excusing or overlooking the fact that the writer has been sanctioned for inciting racial hatred.
“The traditional right made a serious mistake that is now exploding in their face,” said Jean-Yves Camus, director of the Observatory of Radical Politics. “Because it’s long been in competition against the far right on issues like national identity, immigration and sovereignty, it kept winking at Zemmour.”
Now the traditional right is looking for ways to distance itself from the TV star without alienating his supporters.
Patrick Stefanini, a Republican who ran President Jacques Chirac’s successful 1995 campaign, said Mr. Zemmour was benefiting from divisions within the traditional right on issues like immigration.
“Mr. Zemmour has turned immigration into the single key to understanding the difficulties facing French society,” said Mr. Stefanini, who is now leading the presidential bid of Valérie Pécresse, the head of the Paris region. “The Republicans are having a little trouble positioning themselves because the tendencies aren’t the same within the Republicans.”
Mr. Stefanini attributed Mr. Zemmour’s rise partly to the traditional right’s failure to quickly decide on a candidate, and said he felt confident that the TV star’s ratings would peter out.
But for now, many voters appear to be taking a look at Mr. Zemmour, who has been attracting huge crowds at campaign-like events across France as he promotes his latest book, “France Has Not Said Its Last Word Yet.”
Last week, three residents of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, a wealthy suburb of Paris, came together to attend an event with Mr. Zemmour in the capital.
Françoise Torneberg, who said she was in her 70s, said she liked Mr. Zemmour because “he gives a kick in the anthill,” she said.
Her friend Andrée Chalmandrier, 69, said, “We love France but not the France of today.”
“We’re not at home,” Ms. Chalmandrier said, adding that often when she shops in her suburb, “I’m the only French representative. There are four or five veiled women around me, who furthermore are extremely arrogant.”
“And yet it’s a good neighborhood,” Ms. Torneberg said. “It’s not at all a working-class neighborhood.”
Léontine Gallois contributed reporting.