Receive free French presidential election updates
We’ll send you a myFT Daily Digest email rounding up the latest French presidential election news every morning.
Marine Le Pen had long been preparing for her second presidential face-off with Emmanuel Macron next spring when a political newcomer disrupted her plans.
As recently as September 12, with opinion polls suggesting that the veteran far-right politician and the French president were, as in 2017, the top candidates likely to reach the second and final round of the vote in April, she explained what she saw as a simple vote: “The French want this choice between him and me. It’s really a choice between globalism and nationalism.”
Then came Eric Zemmour. The rightwing television polemicist, who has yet to declare officially that he is a presidential contender, has mounted an assault on public opinion that has thrown electoral calculations into confusion.
As Zemmour’s support among voters for the first round rose from 7 per cent the first time he was included by Harris Interactive three weeks ago to 13 per cent now, backing for Le Pen has collapsed from 23 per cent to 16 per cent in the past month. Zemmour is also close to polling at the same level as third-placed candidate Xavier Bertrand of the centre-right Les Républicains, who is at 14 per cent. Macron has remained steady at 23 per cent.
Zemmour was a novel element in what had hitherto seemed a stale campaign, said Christèle Lagier, assistant politics professor at Avignon university. “If his candidacy becomes real, it will hurt the right and the extreme right,” she said.
When Le Pen launched her campaign in the Mediterranean town of Fréjus only weeks ago, she dismissed his chances as a presidential hopeful, labelling him a “third candidate” who would fade away like so many before.
“I’m always happy that there are extra candidates who start saying the things we’ve said for 20 years,” Le Pen said. “There have always been marginal candidates.”
Zemmour, however, is no longer marginal, say political scientists. Fuelled by publicity from a primetime television talk show, a dedicated YouTube channel and a new book, Zemmour has made incendiary attacks on Muslim immigration and what he sees as the decline of French civilisation. He was twice convicted over racial or religious comments.
Le Pen’s problem with Zemmour is that while he does not shy away from aggressive views, she has moderated her tone in an attempt to “detoxify” her party to try to win over traditional centre-right and former Communist voters since she inherited the party from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, a decade ago.
On immigration, while Le Pen has proposed a referendum on identity, citizenship and the control of immigration, Zemmour has called for a ban on foreign first names such as Mohammed and said he would favour the return of 2m foreigners to their countries of origin.
This week, when asked about the lessons of labour shortages and the need for foreign workers in post-Brexit Britain, Le Pen even said she was not an ideologue and would accept the need for foreign labour in French sectors that required it. “If my country, France, needs immigrants, then so be it,” she said.
Even her father and the party’s founder, 93-year-old Jean-Marie Le Pen, now says he will support Zemmour rather than his own daughter if he is better placed to win.
“Marine has abandoned her strongholds and Eric occupies her former terrain,” he told Le Monde in an interview. “If Eric is the best placed candidate in the nationalist camp, of course I will support him.”
Jean-Marie Le Pen, who has been convicted of anti-Semitism, also joked that Zemmour was now being demonised as he says he was in the past. “The only difference between Eric and me is that he is Jewish. So it’s difficult to call him a Nazi or a fascist. That gives him greater freedom.”
For Marine Le Pen, “many think her ‘detoxification’ policy is the wrong one,” said political analyst Vincent Martigny. “She needs to stick to quite a radical line not to lose her supporters, but she also needs to open up to get new voters. That’s always been her dilemma.”
Le Pen’s rebranding has had a limited impact. Many voters who see themselves as centre-right — those who supported disgraced centre-right politician François Fillon in his failed bid for the presidency in 2017 — may be inclined to back Zemmour even though his views are more extreme than Le Pen’s, according to analysts.
They say it is because Le Pen carries the baggage of her party’s past, rooted in anti-Semitism, while Zemmour — of Algerian Jewish origin — comes across as a well-spoken Paris intellectual.
“Those who support the LR are extremely close in many ways to those of the Front National [the old name for Le Pen’s Rassemblement National],” said Martigny. “But they don’t want to get into an alliance with the FN, because ‘they are racist, and we are acceptable people’.”
Jean-Yves Camus, an expert on extremism, agrees on the inclinations of Fillon’s supporters. “There are voters who are ready to shift to someone who is in favour of the market economy, an intellectual, and yet very hard on immigration and so on.”
If Zemmour succeeded in eradicating Le Pen from the second round, it could paradoxically inconvenience Macron, who has been counting on another easy win in the second round to be re-elected. The president might face someone such as Bertrand from the centre-right who, polls suggest, has a better chance of beating him than Le Pen.
For the moment, though, the main victim of Zemmour’s rise is Le Pen. “Everyone knows Marine Le Pen can’t win,” is one of Zemmour’s favourite phrases, and the person working hardest to ensure that comes true is none other than Zemmour himself.