Until recent weeks it appeared almost inevitable that in exactly six months President Emmanuel Macron would again go head to head with the far-right Rassemblement National (RN) leader Marine Le Pen for the French presidency. Until, that is, the emergence of media pundit and anti-immigrant polemicist Éric Zemmour, who is threatening to steal Le Pen's far-right cloak and, in passing her out in some of the polls, her place in the election second round against likely front-runner Macron.
Zemmour, a Trump-like TV talkshow star who has yet formally to declare, rails against Muslims, immigration, feminism, crime and the supposed decline of France, using nakedly fascist rhetoric to warn of a "great replacement" of France's white population by immigrants. He has claimed Nazi collaborator Marshal Philippe Pétain saved French Jews rather than aiding their deportation to death camps.
And he castigates Le Pen as a sell-out who has betrayed her father Jean-Marie with her attempted rebranding, or “detoxification”, of his National Front (FN) party. Zemmour’s talking points have dominated the election debate, pushing aside the discredited, crisis-ridden traditional parties of right and left.
His appeal now owes much to the strategy of former president Nicolas Sarkozy of meeting the challenge of the FN by stealing its clothes, apeing its policies, and in so doing legitimising its political discourse. The ground of French political debate shifted towards the hard-right, while Le Pen unsuccessfully responded in turn by moving to tone down her party's rhetoric to make it more palatable to the country's centre-right.
With the result that RN support plummeted in June's regional elections as its disillusioned supporters abstained in large numbers. Zemmour has stepped in to the space vacated on the far-right, although he has yet to secure the 500 signatures of elected officials he needs to contest the election, and has no party organisation or campaign funds. But his heady rise in polls is already a sharp warning for France and for Europe.