Does France’s growing far-right pose a more imminent threat to Macron’s re-election than we once thought?

By Morgan Daval

With the upcoming French presidential elections in April 2022, tensions are rising between politicians in the polls. One particular black horse is gaining in support and popularity: the far-right, criminally convicted journalist and prominent TV talk show host Eric Zemmour. 

French voters first “vote with their hearts, then with their heads” in France’s two-round electoral system.  Only the top two candidates in the first round go through to the second, where the politics become more aggressive and tactical voting commonplace. Next year’s second round will be a must-see.  Current president Macron, leader of his party La Republique En Marche, is looking most likely of all candidates to reach the second round, what’s less clear is his opponent. 

We could potentially see a rematch with National Rally leader Marine Le Pen whose position had seemed strong during the first half of 2021, but whose popularity has started to wane over the past couple of months. Alternatively, Xavier Bertrand, the Republican party’s most viable candidate according to recent polls, could pull ahead of Le Pen if he manages to unify his party in its policies for key areas of debate such as immigration. The Republicans and their policies will be interesting to watch, whether they decide to edge towards a liberalist approach or extremist one. 

The far-right personality, Eric Zemmour, who recently quit his CNews talk show Ça Se Dispute, has agitated some but appealed to others with his criticisms of current government policies. A controversial figure, Zemmour has been included in many of the official polls all the while not having formally thrown his hat in the ring, although a run for the presidency is widely expected.

Zemmour’s growing popularity has come at the expense of far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen, who may have shot herself in the foot by de-demonising her party. Her attempt to soften the National Rally’s extremist stance and become more mainstream, even changing the name of the party from the original ‘National Front’, has recoiled with the loss of faith from primary members. Swiping Le Pen’s traditional voters from underneath her, with radical views on immigration and French national identity, Zemmour has managed to create significant buzz around his candidacy without an official manifesto nor policy proposal. 

Born to Jewish-Algerian parents who emigrated to France during his early years, Eric Zemmour is renowned for his controversial remarks describing France as under the assault of a mass of Muslim ideologies. His anti-immigration opinions and outright discrimination towards Muslims, a provocation of hatred for which he was convicted in 2018, have seen his popularity exceed to such heights that France’s media regulator has ruled to limit his airtime as a politician rather than his occupation as a journalist. 

A wave of far-right voters is brewing, with Le Pen and Zemmour’s policies looking most likely to challenge in the second round of the 2022 elections. That being said, Bertrand’s candidacy is not too far behind in the polls for the first round.

Of all Macron’s competition, Bertrand is closest to emerging victorious in the second round, that is if he manages to get there. This approval of right-wing policy amongst French voters is demonstrative of declining trust in the left who are diverging from the working classes they used to represent and an increase in anxiety surrounding the country’s security.

Zemmour’s unwavering nationalist philosophy has spread throughout France, even being described as ‘zemmourisation’ – a process by which French society is experiencing increased racial divisions, antisemitism and xenophobia. 

Not only can this wave of nationalism be seen in France, but across Europe with far-right populist groups who are sceptical about the EU’s validity and value within contemporary society and who thus aim to follow in Britain’s footsteps regarding Brexit. In contrast to these extremist groups, the left is getting stronger on the continent overall, with many countries now being headed by leftist leaders and social democrats. For instance, all Nordic countries currently have left-leaning leaders as well as Germany’s upcoming elections where Olaf Scholz could potentially become Angela Merkel’s successor.  The continent, similar to France, is heading to political polarisation.

Whether or not Zemmour seems credible, hypocrisy exudes from him: an extreme rightist yet also both Jewish and Maghrebi. He was described by France’s justice minister as a Holocaust denier, as he claimed that the Nazi’s killed only foreign Jews during the Holocaust and that Vichy France tried to save French Jews. His statements have divided today’s French Jews, a delicate subject amongst many families still traumatised by the persecution. 

Causing a stir amongst not only the Jewish population but also other marginalised groups, Zemmour has alleged that ethnic minorities are overrunning France. He goes so far as to postulate that drug dealers are mostly of Arabic descent or Black, an outrageous and unsubstantiated claim which could never be verified due to laws surrounding the prohibition of the collection of data about ethnic identity in France. Aiming to assimilate all French Muslims if elected president, he will outlaw religious headscarves and forbid people from naming their children ‘Mohammed’. He attempts to quash their Muslim heritage, citing Napoleon’s decree that Jews should change their names to fit the French Republic’s standards, as an example. 

Divisive issues such as laicity and immigration are hot topics, with the far-right accusing French Muslims of being the root of the country’s problems and Islam of being ‘quite the opposite of France.’ In an interesting talk show debate about Islam, Zemmour contrasts the French values of liberty, equality and fraternity with Islam’s supposed submission, inequality and fraternity between Muslims only. With many immigrants and migrants originating from France’s past Muslim colonies, including Zemmour himself who is from Algeria, this only adds fuel to the fire of an already divided state. Zemmour spouts his ancient anti-immigration speeches to encourage a white, heterosexual national identity of France, with identity acting as a guiding light towards his vision of the future: where, according to his book, a war of races could arise.

During an episode of his popular talk show Ça Se Dispute, Zemmour combats the arguments of feminist organisations who are trying to normalise homosexual relationships from an early age in schools. He opposes statements that heterosexuality should not be the norm, and that homosexuality and all or no sexuality should be accepted throughout French society. In his eyes, their promotional material could be compared to that of Stalin’s communism, allegedly forcing a little boy to bathe a toy baby and act as a mother. Seemingly alienating many groups of society, somehow Zemmour’s extreme right politics are still approved by many French voters. 

And whilst Zemmour gains headlines, his opposition remains firm in his policy. Macron, an ever-leaning centrist-right, denounced radical Islamism last year in his speech whilst remaining sensitive to France’s Muslim communities. 

However, he has also been criticised for the actions of some of his party members in the big debate surrounding Islam. Macron has gained a title for being somewhat the middling ground in the debate. 

Despite pressures from the far-right to tackle the so-called issue of France’s Islamification, Macron himself has determinedly stayed outside both the far-right and far-left camps, instead of taking a more restrained approach to the polemic.

But this present balancing act is struggling.

He holds a dwindling voter poll percentage majority of only 7% ahead of Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour. Adding to a growing sentiment of discontent amongst the French public, a recent IFOP survey has discovered that less than one-third of people believe he is sincere, and only one quarter believe he is capable of unifying the French people. 

Macron seems unwilling to address the clear and growing hostility between ‘francais de souche’ and migrants from past colonies. In a country whose values are supposed to stand on the foundation of liberty, equality, and fraternity, what do these three words now signify for the inhabitants of France? The French people need guidance, which Macron is failing to exhibit.

Macron must deviate from his current stance, listening to the growing discontent among his people. The sacrifice of political impartiality could be what provides another term, as leaning right could claim vital votes against more extreme opposition.

Presently, a feeling of Macron being the lesser of two evils remains and claims a slim majority. However, once it becomes a two-horse race, this subject will only become more polarised. As long as Macron can keep his modest upper hand in terms of voter confidence in his authority to lead them, he stands a reasonable chance of re-election. Although, deviation of policy could build this.

With controversial figures holding public attention such as Eric Zemmour and Marine Le Pen as significant contesters for Macron’s position, this presidential election will be one to watch with a close eye. France’s right and extreme right are gaining in strength and support, and its disjointed and divided left are forced to the bottom of the political pile to fight for the scraps of the remaining few voters. Who will come out on top is still up to the people of the French Republic to decide, but one thing is sure, extreme right candidates are key contenders in the fight for the presidential seat.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist. 

Image: Unsplash

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