The likelihood that Éric Zemmour, an extreme right-wing author, newspaper columnist and television polemicist who has three times been convicted of hate speech, will stand for president of France next April provokes laughter, mockery and deep disquiet in the ranks of Marine Le Pen's far-right Rassemblement National and among leaders of the conservative party Les Républicains.
Polls indicate Zemmour would drain votes from both parties. His core supporters and financial backers come from the entourage of Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, her niece, Marion Maréchal, and LR’s disgraced 2017 presidential candidate, François Fillon, who is appealing a prison sentence for corruption.
Zemmour, the son of Jews who fled Algeria when it gained independence from France in 1962, has built a career on hatred of immigrants and Islam, and on blaming the euro, Europe and globalisation for many of France's problems. "Islam is incompatible with the republic," he said in February.
In March the broadcasting council, CSA, ordered CNews, the French equivalent of Rupert Murdoch's Fox News in the US, to pay a €200,000 fine for failing to cut Zemmour's remark last September that migrants must stop coming to France. "They are thieves. They are murderers. They are rapists. That is all they are. They have to be sent back," Zemmour said. A lawsuit over the same remark is pending in French courts.
No one, aside perhaps from Zemmour himself and a small core of supporters, seriously believes he could become president of France, or even make it to the run-off. But the fact that close to 700,000 people tune in to see him on CNews’s Face à l’Info programme every weeknight, and that 5.5 per cent of respondents in an Ifop poll published last month said they would vote for him, says something disturbing about France.
Zemmour's supporters point out that Donald Trump had less than 5.5 per cent support when he started his campaign. Like Trump, Zemmour combines provocative rhetoric during regular television appearances with a strong social media presence. Like Trump, he has been accused of sexual misconduct. At the end of April, the investigative website Médiapart published testimony from eight women whose accusations ranged from unwelcome text messages to assault by Zemmour. The reports did not dent his support.
Le Pen’s defeat in regional elections on June 27th galvanised Zemmour. That night, a group calling itself The Friends of Éric Zemmour plastered 10,000 posters with the words “Zemmour Président” on walls across France. Zemmour had earlier lunched with the head of the printing company that used to produce Nicolas Sarkozy’s campaign posters.
The Friends of Zemmour registered with the election finance commission on July 1st. Zemmour reportedly intends to name his future party Vox Populi.
The allegations of sexual misconduct and Zemmour’s racist outbursts have been an embarrassment to journalists on the conservative newspaper Le Figaro, where he writes a weekly column. Le Figaro’s director, Alexis Brézet, notes that the women have not filed lawsuits, and says Zemmour will leave the paper if and when he declares his candidacy.
Albin Michel, one of France’s leading publishers, broke its contract with Zemmour last month. His sixth book is two years overdue, and the publisher objected to Zemmour’s plan to use it to launch his presidential campaign. The incident was portrayed as censorship by Zemmour’s supporters. Philippe de Villiers, a Eurosceptic former MEP who was once allied with Declan Ganley’s Libertas party, left Albin Michel out of solidarity with Zemmour.
Zemmour had hoped to wait until next January to declare his candidacy, to take advantage of his Figaro and CNews platforms – without his television performances being counted as a candidate’s air time – Paul-Marie Coûteaux, a staunch Zemmour supporter and former speechwriter to both Le Pen and Fillon told Paris Match magazine. Recent events may force Zemmour to declare much sooner.
Zemmour believes that French society is fundamentally conservative, that Marine Le Pen sold out in the hope of gaining respectability, and that Macron has undermined LR by luring away much of its talent. He dreams of replacing Le Pen as the leader of French "patriots".
Le Pen moved towards the centre when voters were moving farther right, Zemmour said recently on CNews. "People say: 'She has betrayed everything... Marine Le Pen talks like Emmanuel Macron. Emmanuel Macron talks like Marine Le Pen.' They're already in the run-off, since nobody is supposed to exist outside that [predicted] second round. Well, voters reject that."
Zemmour’s supporters refer to Le Pen’s disastrous performance in the last televised debate against Macron in 2017. Zemmour may be nasty and embittered, but he is a much better debater than Le Pen. Macron would welcome his candidacy, because it would deepen the divide between the centre right and hard right, and it would lessen the disastrous possibility that Le Pen’s first-round score could surpass Macron’s.