Since 2016, the consequences of populist politics have been on full display on both sides of the Atlantic. With the emergence of Eric Zemmour, the new, right wing, anti-establishment candidate in this year’s presidential elections, will France resist the urge to follow the same path?
Why French presidential elections matter to the outside world
The outcome of presidential elections in France really does matter because of the power and influence that the country holds.
In military terms, France has a nuclear capacity and is ranked the seventh most powerful military in the world, and second only to Russia on the European subcontinent. Along with the US, Great Britain, Russia and China, it is one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.
France has the largest exclusive economic zone on the planet covering 11.7 million km2. It is arguably the de facto leader of the EU now that Merkel has gone and Britain has left the bloc, therefore adding the second largest GDP in the world to its direct influence concerning trade, diplomacy and sanctions.
France is the most visited country in the world and French is the official language in 29 countries worldwide.
So who heads up all of that is very relevant in global terms.
How the French presidential election works
French presidents are elected by direct universal suffrage, whereby each citizen votes directly for their preferred presidential candidate, rather than voting for an MP who stands on behalf of a political party. Députés, the equivalent of MPs, are elected separately.
The president is voted in for a five-year term (reduced from seven years in 2002) and this year the first round takes place on 10 April. Should no candidate obtain an absolute majority, a second round between the two leading candidates takes place on 24 April.
These presidential elections attract numerous hopefuls.
This year there are six leading candidates and another nine who have declared their intention to run. Declaring this intention doesn’t mean they will actually do so. Once declared they have to secure the backing of at least 500 mayors to win a place on the official list of candidates.
This year the main players are Jean Luc Melanchon (radical left), Yannick Jadot (green), Anne Hidalgo, (socialist), Emmanuel Macron (centre/ centre right), Valérie Pécresse (right), Marine Le Pen (far right) and Eric Zemmour (extreme right).
This article will focus on the final character on this list.
Eric Zemmour: following a well-trodden populist path
Eric Zemmour is a newcomer to the political scene. Previously a reporter for Le Figaro newspaper, he has recently risen to prominence featuring in television shows on CNews, the French equivalent of GB News, owned by billionaire Vincent Bolloré.
Zemmour displays typical traits of populist politicians. Constantly pitting ‘the people’ against ‘the elites’ (though naturally he himself is a millionaire), he offers simplistic solutions to complex questions using emotion rather than actual facts, and he speaks without the filter of rationality or tact.
In a debate on the television channel BFMTV last September, Zemmour opined that by 2050 France will resemble the Lebanon, and that people want him to stand because they don’t want to die.
He advocates strict anti-immigration measures, the obligation to give only French names to children, and limiting rights of immigrants.
It is suspected that Bolloré, the aforementioned billionaire business tycoon, is funding Zemmour’s campaign and hoping for a favourable surprise in April along the lines of the 2016 Trump victory in the United States.
Both men share a distaste for modern society, neo-feminism and the demise of the ‘traditional male’. Bolloré has set up a think tank addressing the ‘defence of French identity’.
In Claude Askolovitch’s ‘revue de La presse’ of Nov 17 2021 on the state radio channel ‘France Inter’, sections of the French press discuss how Bolloré talks to Zemmour on a daily basis and thinks he is “La solution pour que Macron ne fasse pas de second mandat’” – the key to preventing Macron winning a second term.
Bolloré harbours a lingering resentment against Emmanuel Macron. Le Monde reports that he is convinced that the president is behind a series of misfortunes that befell him, from being found guilty of corruption in Togo resulting in a 12 million euro fine, to losing a series of business and media takeover bids.
Who would vote for Zemmour?
Marine Le Pen took over leadership of the Front National from her father, Jean Marie Le Pen, in 2011 and went on to oust him from the party believing his views were too extreme to win elections and out of touch with the electorate.
Following her crushing defeat by Macron in 2016, she has since attempted to soften the image of the established far-right movement in France, changing her party’s name to Rassemblement National. She now asserts that Islam is compatible avec la République (compatible with the Republic) and though remaining Eurosceptic, has scrapped policies to leave the euro and the EU.
This has left an electoral void for the hardcore right, who now see Le Pen as too soft. Enter Zemmour.
As with all populist contenders, Zemmour attacks the media whilst depending on it for relevance, he has a dislike of ‘experts’, journalists and feminists. Par for the course, his attitudes to women are decidedly dodgy. There are several accusations of sexual harassment. The French newspaper Mediapart published an article on 29 April 2021 citing numerous women who had come forward to accuse Zemmour of sexual violence against them and he sees nothing wrong with a quick grope here and there.
In his book Le Suicide Français, he laments that before the advent of feminists “un jeune chauffeur de bus pouvait glisser une main concupiscente sur un charmant fessier féminin sans que la jeune femme porte plainte” (“a young bus driver could slip a lustful hand over charming female buttocks without the young woman filing a complaint”).
Then of course, there is the lunatic conspiracy theory.
Just as the American far right Trump worshippers have the baffling QAnon (now spread to the wider world), and the more extreme Brexiters twisted Coudenhove-Kalerghi’s writings to form a ‘plan’, Zemmour is a follower of the Grand Remplacement – a white genocide theory along the lines of that based on the Kalerghi conspiracy, but instead of Jews the enemy is Africans and Muslims.
A bundle of contradictions
Zemmour attacks the media, yet he is a creature born of it.
He obsesses over French roots and traditions, negating his Algerian Jewish background.
He hates the sitting president, but according to this month’s edition of Le Monde des Médias, he longs to be just like him – very young in political terms, very French, rising from nowhere and with no established political party to become president of France.
To rub salt into the wound, Macron is a graduate of the prestigious Ecole Nationale de L’Administration, which rejected Zemmour’s two attempts to apply.
And so we have an embittered polemicist with a chip on his shoulder funded by a disgruntled billionaire with a personal axe to grind.
However, though the French electoral system allows for a very broad church, it also provides a filter. If the first round delivers a shock, the voters come out in droves for the second round. So the good news is, though much can happen in four months, Eric Zemmour won’t win the presidential election in April.