The French disruptor: the rise of Eric Zemmour shakes up the presidential election

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Since Emmanuel Macron was elected French president in 2017, opinion polls predict that he will meet again with far-right leader Marine Le Pen in the second round of voting next year. But the emergence of an insurgent newcomer suddenly opened the race.

Just six months away from the April elections, another far-right figure – anti-immigration polemicist Eric Zemmour – repeated a trick played by Macron in the 2017 contest, who came out of nowhere to storm the polls opinion and ogle the Elysee. In just over a month, he began to outperform all potential candidates except Macron himself in the polls.

The two are very different. Although Macron last campaigned as a revolutionary who was “neither on the right nor on the left” and who wanted to shake up French politics, he is a figure of the establishment. A former banker, he graduated from the elite of the National School of Administration, was Minister of Finance and governed from the center 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 denounces Muslims, immigration, feminism, crime and the supposed decline of France, and whose views are more extreme. than those of Le Pen.

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

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

His ascent “worries [the centre-right] The Republicans, Macron’s main ideological competitors, ”said Chloé Morin of the Jean-Jaurès Foundation think tank. “This worries Marine Le Pen, who has featured prominently in the polls for five years. And this worries the left because it polarizes the debate on immigration and public order while the left is more inaudible than ever.

But the rise of Zemmour also offers an opportunity to certain candidates. If he and Le Pen both stay in the race, the split in the right-wing vote could lower the percentage threshold for candidates hoping to advance to the second round. Assuming Macron maintains his lead, instead of competing with Le Pen, he could run up against Zemmour, a center-right or even left-wing candidate if the parties agree on a unity candidate.

Harris Interactive for Challenges magazine’s latest opinion poll on first-round voting intentions showed Macron in the lead with 24-27%, followed by Zemmour with 17-18%. Neither has yet officially declared their candidacy. The poll put Le Pen – who was expected to win a similar vote share as Macron – at 15-16%.

Polls suggested voters weren’t excited about the prospect of another second-round duel between Macron and Le Pen, Morin said. “So as soon as a new player appears… The ground is in their favor.

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

There were four times more searches on Google 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 expert in digital analytics.

Zemmour’s searches accounted for 53% of the total accumulated by the top 10 potential candidates, with Macron 16%, Jean-Luc Mélenchon from the far left France Unbowed 13% and Le Pen just 4%. “Obviously there is a novelty effect, but it’s still impressive,” said Dubois.

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

His findings suggest that media scholar Zemmour, like Trump, focused on topics that generate strong voter interest – particularly immigration and crime – and presented them in a way that encouraged the spread. viral of his message.

His call to ban foreign names such as Mohammed or Kevin immediately became a hot topic, as did a cover photo of him in Paris Match kissing his campaign advisor Sarah Knafo, 28, at sea off a Mediterranean beach.

Macron’s supporters face a dilemma, reluctant to attack Zemmour for fear of increasing his importance but eager to question what one member of the government called his “pseudo-historical” view of a declining France. “It’s a very divided country and spirits are heating up,” the person said.

Meanwhile, the French electorate, from middle-aged voters weary of “awakening” politics to young people put off by mainstream parties, are keenly interested in what Zemmour has to say.

“I share some ideas with Eric Zemmour and I started to follow Generation Z [a support group of young militants] on social networks, ”says a 22-year-old master’s student in the Paris suburbs. “I immediately liked that young people engage with ideas not represented in mainstream media.” Zemmour was a Gaullist who defended French culture and identity and could unite the right, he said.

Zemmour’s enemies hope his appeal wanes once he declares himself a candidate and has to explain exactly what he would do if elected. He could also struggle to muster the millions of euros in campaign finance he needs and the 500 signatures of elected officials from across France needed to run for office.

“The difference with Trump is that he had the Republican Party behind him, while Zemmour is pretty much alone,” political scientist Benjamin Morel said. “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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