George W Bush will forever be in debt to The Donald. Before Trump became the 45th president of the United States, the man nicknamed ‘Dubya’ was widely considered by many Americans to be the most inept.
Then came Trump. No longer was Bush a clown. The American left forget how they’d demonised him and looked wistfully to a time when there was dignity in the Oval Office. Marine Le Pen is experiencing something similar since Eric Zemmour’s emergence as a presidential candidate. She is no longer Public Enemy No. 1 since her detractors turned their fire on Zemmour; where once their battle-cry before any election was ‘Anyone but Le Pen’, now it’s ‘Anyone but Zemmour’
Le Pen is doing her best to exploit the situation. Recently, while Zemmour was outlining why he wants a law compelling new-borns in France to be named from the Christian calendar of saints or given names from ‘ancient history’, she was telling an interviewer that, should she become president, her six cats will live with her in the Elysée.
A poll earlier this week had her approval rating at 20 per cent, a climb of three points in a month, while Zemmour had fallen by the same number to 13 per cent. Furthermore, Zemmour is not well regarded by the majority of French with arrogance and authoritarianism listed as his greatest flaws.
Zemmour might regain some of those points when the electorate is next canvassed, if they approved of the video with which on Tuesday he launched his bid for the presidency. Then again, he might have dropped a few more. Giving the finger to a female demonstrator has not gone down well with the average voter, and nor has his live interview on the primetime news on Tuesday evening. It wasn’t so much what he said but his petulant reaction afterwards, which was widely reported in the print and broadcast media. Zemmour claimed that the presenter was more like a ‘prosecutor’ who had committed an ‘intellectual swindle’ by bringing up quotes from some of his books instead of questioning him about his presidential campaign.
What did he expect? An easy ride of the sort he’s experienced for the last couple of years on CNews, the French equivalent of GB News, where he enjoys star attraction status? A thick skin is required for politics but Zemmour came across as a bit of a cry-baby. If France is in the dire state he says it is, then it requires a leader of tough, steely resolve. Not a whinger.
Many right-wing voters compare and contrast Zemmour’s behaviour with Le Pen’s. She is not a talented politician and her flaws are numerous. Yet she has a rhinoceros hide. Not many politicians would have recovered from the humiliation she suffered in the televised debate on the eve of the second round of presidential voting in 2017. Fewer still would have been able to endure the personal and physical abuse she has received over the years, which included a firebomb attack on the Le Pen home in 1976 when she was a child.
That Le Pen is still around says much about her character. She’s a survivor, and she wants the people to know she carries the scars. She bared her soul in a television interview last month, becoming weepy at the memory of that TV debate with Macron. But she got through, she explained, thanks to her cats and her gardening, and the love of her family.
Publicly, at least, Le Pen still believes she can win the election, and she has more chance than Zemmour. But both could fail to make even the second round if the centre-right Les Republicans (LR) enjoy a renaissance.
They pick their candidate this weekend after a series of debates in which immigration and insecurity have been at the fore. Like the Conservative party in Britain, LR have in recent years shied away from addressing such issues, in the process alienating many of their core electorate. Zemmour – who appeals more to this middle-class demographic than Le Pen – has forced them to move to the right.
On Thursday, the initial list of five candidates was whittled down to two in a vote by party members: Eric Ciotti and Valérie Pécresse. The favourite, Xavier Bertrand, as well as Michel Barnier, were rejected because of their ideological similarity to Macron.
Ciotti was considered the outsider but his right-wing rhetoric struck a chord with the party faithful. Last week, he advocated the deployment of the army into the more unruly banlieues to restore Republican order, and he’s made it clear it’s time to stop pussy-footing around the issues of immigration and Islamism. A right ‘without taboo’ is how he describes his political philosophy.
Eric Zemmour was quick to congratulate Ciotti with a sly tweet in which he said he was happy to see ‘our ideas largely shared by LR members’.
Pécresse also likes to think of herself as uncompromising. In an interview in the summer she described herself as two-thirds Angela Merkel and one-third Margaret Thatcher. Unfortunately for her she has the charisma of the former German chancellor and would be unlikely to threaten Macron were she the LR candidate.
The pugnacious Ciotti, however, could be a serious contender. Zemmour respects him, and it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that he might step aside nearer the election if his popularity continues to slump.
Le Pen will never concede. She will carry on to the bitter end. When she replaced her father as the leader of the National Front in 2011 Le Pen vowed to ‘de-demonise’ the party in the hope of making it electable for the highest office. Thanks to Zemmour, she may achieve her first ambition but the second will always be out of reach for her and her cats.
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