Love him or loathe him, Eric Zemmour is a breath of fresh air in French politics. Before he appeared as a contender it was the usual worn-out figures lining up for next year’s presidential election: Marine Le Pen, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Xavier Bertrand, Valérie Pécresse and Arnaud Montebourg. None of them have anything new to say and, even if they did, the electorate have stopped listening. Same old same old.
Zemmour, on the other hand, despite the fact he has yet to declare his candidacy, makes for compelling TV. He was at it again on Wednesday evening, this time calling gender conversion therapy ‘criminal’ and comparing its medical facilitators in the USA to the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele. The presenter nearly fell off her chair.
The fact that a poll on the same day had Zemmour reaching the second round of next year’s elections indicates that his rhetoric is going down well with the people. The same goes for his pronouncements on immigration, insecurity and Islam. One might even go so far as to say that Zemmour is the voice of the silent majority.
That’s presumably why the political and media elite hate him. When the likes of Martine Aubry, the socialist mayor of Lille, and Olivier Véran, the Health Minister, tear into him they are really venting their disgust at the millions of their compatriots who reject their progressive world view. We got a glimpse of that disdain in 2017 when Benjamin Griveaux, a spokesman for Macron’s ruling LREM party, inadvertently acted as the recruitment officer for the yellow vest movement by proclaiming that ‘people who smoke and drive diesel cars’ are ‘not the France of the 21st century.’
Griveaux lost his job as a result of his faux pas, which was a little unfair given that – à la Zemmour – he was merely expressing a widely held opinion among the political class. Years before Hillary Clinton committed political suicide by describing Trump supporters as ‘Deplorables’, Bernard Tapie had done something similar in France while serving in François Mitterrand’s government as his urban affairs minister. Asked for his opinion of National Front supporters in 1992 he called them and their leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, ‘bastards’. A decade later those same voters humiliated Tapie’s Socialist party by voting Le Pen into the second round of the presidential election against Jacques Chirac. In 2014 Tapie labelled National Front supporters ‘stupid’ for wishing to leave the EU. Again, not a strategic masterstroke given the implosion of the Socialist vote at the election three years later.
Tapie died last weekend, and his beloved Socialist party may not be long for this world. That’s what happens when you ignore, insult and ultimately abandon your traditional voting base. The same goes for the centre-right Republicans, who have shed their social conservatism this century along with a great many middle-class votes. Zemmour appeals to many of these disenchanted men and women as much as he does to erstwhile supporters of Marine Le Pen.
But still they refuse to heed the lessons. Zemmour and his supporters are the new ‘deplorables’. The president of the Republicans, Christian Jacob, stated last month that his party has no common ground with Zemmour. The Socialist mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, a candidate in next year’s election, said recently that his popularity made her ‘disgusted to the point of nausea.’
Such comments help explain why Hidalgo’s campaign has so far been a disaster. The French electorate aren’t stupid. Voters know that when Hidalgo et al rage at Zemmour they are raging really at them: their lifestyle, their values, their views.
Other commentators, less vehement in their denunciation, predict that (assuming he does announce his candidature) Zemmour’s appeal will wane once he unveils his manifesto. Criticising Islam and immigration will only take one so far. What about the economy, housing, transport and the environment? This is to misjudge the mood of a great many French. They are fed up with leaders who promise much but deliver little. They want a president who puts France first. Not the EU. Or the environment. But France. The rest will take care of itself.
The Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti this week blamed the media for helping fuel Zemmour-mania; he might want to look a little closer to home. It’s the political class that are responsible. I’ve writtenbefore about how the French electorate have never forgiven the political establishment for ignoring their ‘no’ vote on the EU constitution in 2005. Add to that their refusal to listen to voters’ concerns about mass immigration, Islamic extremism, identity politics and violent crime and is it any wonder that they will back the first person who dares speak up for them?
The rise of Zemmour should serve as a warning to British politicians. Not just the Labour party, who may not be far behind their French cousin in shuffling off this mortal coil, but also the Tories. Brexit brought Boris some breathing space but as he acknowledged on the night of his 2019 election triumph, Red Wall voters have only lent him their vote. Cracking jokes in a conference speech will suffice in the short term, but if he continues on his progressive path, ignoring their cultural concerns, their fears about law and order and impoverishing them with his green revolution, they will take their vote back at the next election. It won’t go to Labour but to the man or woman, like Zemmour, who shares their social conservatism.
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