The followers of French television talk-show provocateur Eric Zemmour like to compare him to America’s former President Donald Trump, believing he is the man to shake up France.
And they were delighted by an opinion poll published Friday suggesting that the 63-year-old Zemmour, an apologist for the Vichy regime which collaborated with Nazi Germany during the Second World War, could edge out far-right champion Marine Le Pen to secure a second-round face-off with President Emmanuel Macron in next April’s election.
Zemmour, who has been convicted twice in France for spreading racial hatred, was in characteristic colorful form as the poll came out, describing at a rally in Normandy the English as “our greatest enemies for a thousand years.” And even though he says he likes the Trump comparisons, he had critical words for the United States, too, saying the 1944 Allied landings may have freed France from the Nazis but that it was also an enterprise of “occupation and colonization by Americans.”
Later he told reporters: “I understand that the Americans and the English want to be considered as liberators but it’s they who supported Nazi Germany against us [between the wars] because they considered that France had too much influence in Europe.” But he added that it was in the past and he praises Britain for leaving the European Union.
Zemmour, the son of Jewish Algerian immigrants who fled to France during Algeria’s war for independence, has yet to declare his candidacy in next year’s presidential race. Nonetheless, he is already shaking up the election and, according to his detractors, adding toxicity.
Next year’s French election had seemed settled with a likely rerun of 2017, when Macron draws support from across the political spectrum to rout Le Pen. Few had expected the controversial Zemmour to emerge as a candidate. His views on French history have drawn widespread condemnation, including his praise for the Vichy regime, which he says protected French Jews by handing to the Germans only foreign-born ones.
That claim is hotly disputed by professional historians and his take on recent history has been denounced by leading members of France’s Jewish community, including Noémie Médar, president of the Jewish association Fonds Social Juif Unifié, who says Zemmour “lies about historical realities.”
Zemmour, onetime host for the French right-wing channel C-News, is now running second and ahead of Le Pen in some opinion polls, apparently doing a better job of attracting both traditional Conservative voters and far-right supporters in a union des droites, or right-wing alliance. Some French commentators wonder whether he can beat Macron in a runoff, saying that with France in such a volatile and angry pandemic mood a surprise Black Swan event, like a terror attack, on the eve of the vote could give him a winning surge.
“His profile, his strategy and the state of public opinion are reminiscent of the election of Donald Trump in the United States in 2016,” according to journalist Bernard Gorce of La Croix, a daily Catholic newspaper. Even so, few believe that even if he blows Le Pen out of the way in the first round of voting in a crowded field of competitors, he has the potential to deny Macron reelection.
Hurt or help Macron?
Macron is polling consistently first in opinion polls, coming in with support from around a quarter of likely voters, and in a run-off not one poll has indicated he would face a serious challenge from Zemmour, or Le Pen for that matter. In fact, Zemmour’s name on the ballot could persuade more left-wing voters to come out to back Macron.
Not that Emmanuel Macron’s aides want to highlight that. They have a vested interest in talking up Zemmour as a political threat. While not admitting it publicly, they acknowledge the electoral rise of the maverick talk-show pundit and so-far undeclared candidate is a blessing in disguise for the embattled French President. They estimate Zemmour, an anti-migrant critic who wants foreign first names banned in France and immigration stopped, will boost Macron’s reelection fortunes and possibly ensure him a bigger win than otherwise. “Zemmour helps us,” an aide told VOA.
Last week, Le Pen, leader of the National Rally, made light of Zemmour’s challenge, pouring doubt on the accuracy of opinion polling. “We know very well that we cannot actually measure the opinion of the French,” she said during an interview with BFMTV. She added she was afraid of no one.
But her support is waning, as Zemmour’s backing grows. “We are witnessing the collapse of the very heart of the electorate of Le Pen,” Jean-Daniel Lévy, of the pollster Harris Interactive, told Le Point magazine.
Zemmour focuses on immigration and Islam. In September on CNews, he announced: “Young people of immigrant background…are all thieves, they are all murderers, they are all rapists.”
He also targets so-called elites and Brussels, Washington, and London, saying France should shrug off their influence. Citing Charles de Gaulle, the legendary late French President, he says France should withdraw from NATO’s integrated military command structure as De Gaulle did in 1966. Nicolas Sarkozy returned France to the command structure more than a decade ago during his presidency. Gay rights and the ‘feminization’ of the West are among his other themes.
“We are caught between exuberant Islamic demography and this deconstructive discourse in the name of the so-called equality of men and women, in the name of freedom of homosexuals,” he said last month at a populist gathering in Hungary. He also warned in Budapest about whites being replaced in their countries and urged them to have more kids.
The pundit, and author of more than a dozen bestsellers mainly on French decline and how to restore France to greatness, makes much of Le Pen’s poor chances of beating Macron, arguing anti-Macron voters should give him a chance. “She cannot win. She made the wrong strategic and tactical choices,” he said recently.
Whether his support will continue to grow is a subject that divides pollsters and commentators, with some arguing that if he does declare formally, he will at some stage or other have to come up with detailed policies on the economy, pandemic control, taxes and government spending which could all too easily shatter his current electoral coalition.