France's Trump Is Imploding But Only After Remaking the French Right
Putin's invasion of Ukraine likely means an end to Éric Zemmour's presidential bid but his impact in Western Europe and America could be long lasting
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“The political phenomenon of the fall”: This is how many French commentators described last autumn’s rise of Éric Zemmour, a far-right pundit and journalist recently turned politician and presidential candidate. From a starting point of 5% to 7% support in August, the polls in October gave him as much as 18% support in the upcoming French presidential elections taking place this April, leaving him vying for second place against incumbent French President Emmanuel Macron, who sat at 25%.
In just a couple of months, the French political landscape had changed, and there were disturbing signs that Zemmour’s rise in the polls would not be the end of the transformation. Had Russian President Vladimir Putin not invaded Ukraine and thereby tarred his admirers — including Zemmour — by association, Zemmour might well have brought about the Trumpification of the center-right in France, leading the way for a similar process in Western Europe as a whole. Indeed, Zemmour’s initial success illustrates the quandary Europe’s center-right political establishment faces from charismatic mavericks from the far-right — a problem that could resurface following the end of the Ukrainian conflict.
Zemmour the Provocateur
Of course, the rise of an Éric Zemmour is not new to Europe. National populism à la former U.S. President Donald Trump is currently championed by heads of state or government in Hungary, Poland, and other formerly communist central European countries. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, although in slightly less pronounced terms, probably fits the description, too. But until very recently, continental Western Europe had largely been spared. Even the prominent Trump-like nativist Marine Le Pen was relegated to the role of a perennial also-ran amid a divided right wing.
Zemmour, too, is inspired by Trump. In mid-February, Zemmour proudly announced that he had spoken to Trump for about 40 minutes, receiving advice from the former U.S. president. Just like Trump, Zemmour is a political outsider whose fame is based on his regular television appearances and provocative claims. Most important, both men are national populists with nativist ideas and an obsession with immigration.
Despite Zemmour’s family origins — he’s descended from North African Jews who moved to France in the 1950s — Zemmour has only one priority: to combat Muslim immigration. He subscribes to the idea of the “Great Replacement,” a conspiracy theory that gained notoriety in the United States during the 2017 riots in Charlottesville. This theory is in fact of French origin, and it stipulates that the West is under an existential threat from Muslim migratory “invasions” that are welcomed by a global elite and forced upon the West’s unwilling citizens, who are being displaced. It is no coincidence that the name of the political movement Zemmour just created is Reconquête. This is the French version of the Spanish word Reconquista, which refers to the Christians’ recapture of the Iberian Peninsula from the Muslim Moors of North Africa, a campaign that ended in 1492 with the fall of the last Arab stronghold in Granada.
Due to the French colonial past in North and West Africa, France has a large community of people of African descent. Even if many of them do not practice Islam or even believe in God, their names and appearance frequently reveal their Muslim origins. They are often children or grandchildren of workers recruited to France as manual laborers for the booming French industries of the 1950s and 1960s. Zemmour exploits a sentiment among parts of the majority population that the existence of this minority group on French soil presents not only a problem, but the principal challenge of French society. In 2015, just after the Islamic State terrorist attacks in Paris, Zemmour said that instead of bombing the Syrian city of Raqqa to combat ISIS, France should bomb Molenbeek (part of the Belgian capital Brussels), where most of the perpetrators had grown up.
Along that line, Zemmour’s campaign has so far been dominated by his defence of the preposterous statements he has made over the years. For example, he has argued that Philippe Pétain, the leader of the French puppet government during the German occupation of World War II, saved Jews from the Nazis; that women, as politicians, don’t embody power; and that Islam is not compatible with the French republic. Zemmour has been convicted three times for inciting racial hatred. And yet he had a real chance to vie for France’s top political spot.
Not that he would have won it. The French presidential election is a complicated affair that takes place in two rounds. First, voters choose between a dozen or so candidates. If none of the candidates gets more than 50% of the vote — the usual outcome — the winner and the runner-up face each other two weeks later in a second round. For most of Macron’s five-year term, political experts have expected, and the polls have indicated, a repetition of the 2017 election — namely, Macron easily beating the right-wing veteran Marine Le Pen in the second round.
Zemmour’s Attack on the Achilles Heel of France’s Center-Right
Zemmour, the new guy on the block, changed all that. True, Macron, the centrist, pro-European Union and pro-globalization incumbent was still safely ahead in the polls, and there was no imminent threat of a nativist takeover of France, the EU’s second-largest economy and its only nuclear power. There seems to be no stopping Macron from getting a second term.
However, the French political right was being reshaped. Traditionally, the French right has been made up of two parts. On the one hand, there has been the center-right Gaullist movement, which has been moderate and has actually held power. Its current party incarnation is called Les Républicains; Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy are two of its most well-known contemporary presidents. On the other hand, there was the extreme right wing, run by the Le Pen family — initially The National Front under Jean-Marie Le Pen, and now The National Rally, led by his daughter Marine.
For decades, there has been a cordon sanitaire between the center-right and the extreme right. Few people have switched camps, and there has been little political cooperation between the two. In fact, in elections, it is customary for all other political parties to join forces against the extreme right in a so-called Republican Front, meaning that they agree to vote for anyone else in the second round of most elections — presidential, legislative, regional, and local — to keep the national populists from power, to save the Republic.
Zemmour argues that this idea is something the left has duped the right into accepting. He strives for a union of the two wings on the right, merging the center-right and the far-right national populists into one single political force. This idea was gaining real traction. Since Zemmour’s economic policies, in contrast with Le Pen’s big-government welfare statism, are free-market oriented by French standards, Zemmour fits more easily than Le Pen with the right wing of the Gaullist movement. If Zemmour had outcompeted The National Rally and moved on to the second round, as his polling numbers suggested he would, he could have sent Le Pen into political retirement and taken over as the French national populist.
Zemmour’s success could also have meant the death of Les Républicains. Like all big political parties, it consists of several groups — in this case, moderate conservatives, authoritarians, and liberals (in the European anti-government, free-market sense). Most leading liberals have already left the movement to join the current president. In fact, both of Macron’s two prime ministers, as well as several other senior members of his cabinet, are former Républicains. And now quite a few of the authoritarians — Zemmour calls them “bourgeois patriots” — have been joining Reconquête.
The Gaullist center-right is a movement that is used to being in power and that really dislikes exile. If it fails to win again in April, which is likely to be the case, Les Républicains will have had 15 years in opposition, and the party will have lost momentum. An entire generation of its political talent will never have had the opportunity to serve in ministerial positions, and they may well go elsewhere if they haven’t left already. France’s political parties are less stable than those in most other Western democracies, and they are usually tied to a specific person. In the near future, then, the dominant French right-wing political party might very well have been Reconquête under Éric Zemmour.
Les Républicains’ candidate in the presidential election, Valérie Pécresse, originally belonged to the liberal, centrist branch of the party. Indeed, a couple of years back, she was so unhappy with the authoritarian direction of the party that she left it to create a movement of her own. And yet both to please the hardliners in the party and to meet the electoral challenge set up by Zemmour, she has been running on an authoritarian platform. Recently, in a major speech, she even used the expression “The Great Replacement.” This is yet another sign that Zemmour was Trumpifying the French right, with a real chance to draw a larger, stronger right-wing political movement under his own personal leadership.
Zemmour’s Welcome Collapse, but the Center-Right’s Uncertain Future
The war in Ukraine has changed all this, at least for now. Europe’s extreme right has traditionally maintained good relations with Russia and Putin, and Zemmour and Le Pen have been no exception. Now, they are both busy backtracking on admiring statements they’ve made about Putin in order to limit the political damage. Zemmour’s support in the polls has fallen to 11% to 12%, a six- to seven-point drop in a few weeks, and it seems likely voters will punish him at the polls in April for his Russophilia.
Yet the dramatic changes that were occurring in France’s political landscape won’t be forgotten in the rest of Europe. Other European nations follow the developments in French politics closely.
In many countries, for decades, the center-right has been hesitant about which attitude to adopt towards the extreme right: Ignore them and work with the left instead? Ally with them to gain power? Or go the authoritarian route to defeat them electorally? In Sweden, for example, the center-right has long tried to ignore and combat the Sweden Democrats, a party with neo-Nazi roots. Now, for the first time, the Swedish center-right has decided to try to win an election and form a government with parliamentary support from the Sweden Democrats. Other European center-right parties may very well go authoritarian, like Les Républicains, to avoid being taken over by an extreme right, à la Zemmour.
For the time being, the center-right in Western Europe may be able to discredit the extreme right as Putin’s fellow-travelers. Zemmour’s collapse and the likely victory of the center-left’s Macron in the French presidential election may very well inspire the moderate, liberal and open center-right in the rest of Europe, paving the way for a strategy to combat the extreme-right with hope and optimism. But other far-right mavericks have seen the possibilities that Zemmour opened up, and with time, they may try to repeat his tactics while distancing themselves from Putin and his acolytes.
Fredrik Segerfeldt, a Swedish writer and libertarian, is author of Migration and Development: The Journey Out of Poverty and Frankrike: en Hatkärlekshistoria (France: A Love-Hate Story).