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Wed Oct 13, 2021, 02:24 PM

Rise of a Far-Right Pundit Is Scrambling French Politics

Éric Zemmour, an anti-immigrant writer and TV commentator, is surging in opinion polls before presidential elections next year — and he is not yet a candidate.


PARIS — He is the anti-immigration son of parents from Algeria. He styles himself as the great defender of France’s Christian civilization, though he himself is Jewish. He channels Donald J. Trump in an anti-establishment campaign. And he is now scrambling the battle lines before France’s presidential election in April. The meteoric rise of Éric Zemmour, a far-right author and TV pundit, has turned France’s politics upside down. Until a few weeks ago, most had expected France’s next presidential elections to be a predictable rematch between President Emmanuel Macron and the far-right Marine Le Pen that, polls showed, left voters who wanted alternatives deeply dissatisfied. Though still not a declared candidate, Mr. Zemmour, 63, shot to No. 2 in a poll of likely voters last week, disrupting campaign strategies across the board, even beyond those of Mr. Macron and Ms. Le Pen. “The French want to upset a political order that hasn’t won them over, and Éric Zemmour appears to be the bowling ball that’s going to knock down all the pins,” said Pascal Perrineau, a political scientist at Sciences Po University specializing in elections and the right. Mr. Perrineau warned that voters were not seriously focused yet on the elections and that polls could be volatile. Yet candidates are not taking any chances.

Mr. Macron’s campaign has focused on winning support on the right and forcing a showdown with Ms. Le Pen, in the belief that the French would reject her party in the second round of voting, as they have for decades. Now it is far less clear whom he would meet in a runoff: A strong showing in the first round could propel Mr. Zemmour into the second one, or it could split the far-right electorate to allow a center-right candidate to qualify for the finals. After weeks of ignoring Mr. Zemmour, Mr. Macron is now criticizing him, though not by name, while government ministers and other Macron allies have unleashed a barrage of attacks. Mr. Zemmour’s rise has been most unsettling for Ms. Le Pen, who is plummeting in the polls — so much so that her own father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the party founder, said that he would support Mr. Zemmour if the writer were in a stronger position. Ms. Le Pen has for years tried to broaden her base with a so-called un-demonizing strategy of moving her nationalist, anti-immigrant party from the most extreme xenophobic positions that it was known for under her father. Now she finds herself in the unusual position of being outflanked on the right.

Mr. Zemmour became one of France’s best-selling authors in the past decade by writing books on the nation’s decline — fuelled, he said, by the loss of traditional French and Christian values, the immigration of Muslim Africans bent on a reverse colonization of France, the rise of feminism and the loss of virility, and a “great replacement” of white people, a conspiracy theory that has been cited by gunmen in multiple mass shootings. As the child of Algerians who settled in metropolitan France, he has presented himself as the embodiment of France’s successful system of assimilation. He has said that the failure to integrate recent generations of Muslim immigrants lies with the new arrivals, who hate France, and not with a system that others say has not kept up with the times. Mr. Zemmour’s influence rose to an entirely new level in the past two years after he became the star of CNews, a new Fox-style news network that gave him a platform to expound on his views every evening.

His supporters include voters most deeply shaken by the social forces that have roiled French society more recently and that they now lump into “wokisme” — a #MeToo movement that has led to the fall of powerful men; a racial awakening challenging France’s image of itself as a colorblind society; the emergence of a new generation questioning the principles of the French Republic; and the perceived growing threat of an American-inspired vision of society. “In its history, France has always had a strong cultural identity, but now there’s deep anxiety about that identity,” Mr. Perrineau said. “People feel that their culture, their way of life and their political system, all is being changed. It’s enough.” “Éric Zemmour plays on that very well, on this nostalgia for the past, and this fear of no longer being a great power, of dissolving in a conglomerate that we don’t understand, whether it’s Europe or globalization or the Americanization of culture,” he added.


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