Features

The provocative writer who could be the next French president

The French journalist who could unseat President Macron

6 March 2021

9:00 AM

6 March 2021

9:00 AM

 Montpellier

The French ‘grand’ journalist Éric Zemmour is among the most watched, provocative and frequently prosecuted writers in the country. He is now contemplating a piratical presidential challenge that could blow open next year’s presidential election.

A poll last month conducted for the news magazine Valeurs Actuelles says that Zemmour could win 13 per cent of the votes in the first round of the French presidential election. That’s more impressive than it seems. In the cavalry charge of a first round, when a dozen or more candidates are possible, 13 per cent is more than enough to unsettle not just the re-election campaign of President Emmanuel Macron. It could simultaneously provoke a civil war on the French right, mark an end to the toxic dynasty of Marine Le Pen, and open a path for the radical left.

Zemmour might ultimately find it difficult to win the keys to the presidential Airbus. But his presence in the race is deeply destabilising, even if it isn’t yet confirmed. Not least because the French presidential electoral system has repeatedly shown itself capable of defying early expectations and producing unexpected outcomes and surprising presidents.

Zemmour is not a traditional politician, but these are not conventional times. A relentless chronicler of national decline, he is best known outside France for his authorship of Le Suicide français (2014), his bitter hurlement against the malign influence of the soixante-huitards. He accuses the once-trendy French left of the 1960s of betraying France, and causing four decades of economic stagnation and social decline.

Condemned by more conventional and conformist colleagues as a racist and fascist, Zemmour has been convicted three times under French hate-speech laws. He wears these convictions as a badge of honour. Professional rivals have attempted to ‘cancel’ him by pressuring advertisers to boycott his TV shows. They will doubtless step up their efforts should he decide to run. In this, he is not dissimilar to the American Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson, who is cited as a possible future presidential candidate as often as he is almost cancelled for his
broadcast performances.

Zemmour looks more like Larry David than Tucker Carlson. He was born in the Montreuil suburb of Paris to a Jewish family who fled Algeria during the war of independence. He’s been attacked on the street by his more rabid critics. He recently claimed that young male migrants from Africa and the Middle East were ‘killers and rapists’. Yet he and his co-host Christine Kelly, a strikingly intelligent Guadaloupian and a grand journalist in her own right, have tripled the ratings for Face à l’info, the primetime news chat show on CNews, the scrappiest French news channel. The chemistry between them, a Jewish man and a black woman, helps discredit the many accusations of racism.

With or without Zemmour, the political calculus for next year’s election has been turned upside-down. Macron was in trouble even before Covid struck. His presidency was damaged by the populist gilets jaunes protests, as well as the scandalous gossip over his relationship with his bodyguard and the failure of his divisive and unconvincing economic and pension reforms. His bold project to prune back France’s gargantuan fonctionnariat has been largely ditched.


Now, however, Macron’s catastrophic mis-management of the virus seriously complicates his efforts to be re-elected. When Covid began, Macron made a great show of going on TV to declare ‘war’ against the disease. He identified himself with the prosecution of this war and is inevitably identified with its costly failure. His inability to master the crisis has been comprehensive and visible. His lockdowns haven’t worked. He fired his prime minister, who was more popular than him, and appointed a replacement, Jean Castex, who sounds as if he escaped from an Asterix comic. His trust in his beloved EU to procure vaccines has been exposed as wishful thinking, though he’s still claiming it was the right thing to do.

With more than 86,000 dead, the proud French medical sector has failed to deliver a vaccine despite Macron claiming the nation led the world in virology. The grim story of that failure, marked by feuds among researchers and government ineptitude, is only just starting to emerge. Another management consultant horror story is brewing: as Macron hired McKinsey to manage the crisis, France’s care homes became slaughterhouses. The government has subsequently bungled delivery of vaccinations and failed to establish a reliable cold-chain distribution for the doses. Macron appeared to put political point-scoring against Brexit and the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab above the task of saving lives, which made him look petty as well as incompetent. At the current rate of progress, France’s vaccination programme will not be complete until mid-2023. And the economic devastation will continue.

While other countries, including the UK, are seeing improvements in infections and deaths, in much of France the situation is deteriorating, particularly in the capital. Paris, the east of France and the south face new lockdowns. The country faces a second summer of curtailments. Just as it did for Macron in 2017, French politics is opening itself up for the emergence of a successful challenger.

Former president Nicolas Sarkozy had been expected to mount a comeback from the centre-right, but his conviction for corruption this week will put him out of the picture for the foreseeable future. Now the socialist mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, is emerging as a powerful firebrand from the left. She is demanding that the capital be locked down, defying Macron, who wants it kept largely open. She’s also manoeuvring to challenge Macron in the first round in alliance with the greens.

Macron is wounded and he knows it. He’s running scared, and not just as a tactic to motivate his base. He has no true base. His only real appeal is that he isn’t an extremist. But his immediate problem is no longer beating the far-right Le Pen in the second election round. It’s getting past the first round, which was already looking like a wacky circus of political hopes and dreams even before people started talking about the possibility that Zemmour would run.

In the first-round vote of a two-round contest, with as many as a dozen candidates, of whom only the top two advance to the second round, 13 per cent goes a long way. It’s an apples-and-oranges comparison, but Macron’s party won only 2 per cent of the vote in last year’s municipal elections. Zemmour appears to possess some sort of magic potion to draw votes from both the Rassemblement National, formerly the Front National, and traditional centrist conservatives who label themselves as Les Républicains. Could this be the long-anticipated reunification of the French right?

Is Zemmour really going to run? Is he prepared to defy Le Pen to steal her votes on the right? That he’s carefully not denied the story is telling. His friends say he’s hesitating, well aware of his weaknesses. It’s complicated, they say.

Money’s a problem. Were he to announce his candidacy, he’d immediately lose his lucrative TV work. A campaign would cost many millions, and just asking for those millions demands an organisation that Zemmour does not yet have. He doesn’t even have a manifesto. He’s spent years ripping successive governments, but what he might actually do as a president remains vague.

He is a hardliner on immigration and integration, but that’s Le Pen’s space, and Macron is already veering into the right lane himself. Zemmour is no free–marketeer. He’s a Colbertiste, a believer in a big state, big projects, protectionism. But étatisme is a crowded field in French politics. On the virus, where Macron is so politically naked and exposed, Zemmour isn’t comfortable. He’s better suited to raging against political correctness than outlining details for epidemic control.

Macron, by contrast, seems to excel at declaring confinements and curfews. He’s banned underwear sales and closed restaurants. The President likes to appear on television like a funeral director in his black suit and black tie. But his policies are failing spectacularly. The refusal of journalists to hold their government to account so far has been startling. But how long can or will the President’s media friends protect him?

The apparent logic of a Zemmour candidacy is that he attracts voters for Le Pen’s Rassemblement National, with their racist and anti-Semitic roots, as well as also those of the French bourgeoisie. But Le Pen devotees insist he could end up further dividing the right and creating an opening for the radical left in the form of Ann Hidalgo.

Le Pen is not merely hostile to a Zemmour candidacy but practically hysterical at the idea that anyone should dare challenge her. The latest polls show her marginally ahead of Macron in a first-round vote, but she has always started strongly and finished poorly. She’s Macron’s life insurance policy. There’s almost no scenario in which she would be chosen by French voters in a second-round contest with Macron.

Despite her proven track record of failure, when it’s put to her that she should step aside because her name is too toxic for her ever to be victorious in a second round, she explodes in anger. So even though it is obvious to everyone that she can never win, she refuses to yield.

Still, Emmanuel Macron is looking extremely nervous. He is tacking sharply right himself on Islam, but his ineptitude could result in France remaining mired with the virus even as, zut alors, the British emerge from the slough of despond. Yet no French politician, and very few journalists, have mounted a sustained and credible attack on Macron’s hapless performance. A path is open to Zemmour should he wish to take it.<//>

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