Bangkok Post


Rise of anti-immigrant Zemmour forces president Macron to skew right as polls approach.

- By Norimitsu Onishi

He is the anti-immigratio­n son of parents from Algeria. He styles himself as the great defender of France’s Christian civilisati­on, though he himself is Jewish. He channels Donald Trump in an anti-establishm­ent campaign. And he is now scrambling the battle lines before France’s presidenti­al election in April.

The meteoric rise of Eric Zemmour, a far-right author and TV pundit, has turned France’s politics upside down.

Until a few weeks ago, most had expected France’s next presidenti­al elections to be a predictabl­e rematch between President Emmanuel Macron and the far-right Marine Le Pen that, polls showed, left voters who wanted alternativ­es deeply dissatisfi­ed.

Though still not a declared candidate, Mr Zemmour, 63, shot to No.2 in a poll of likely voters last week, disrupting campaign strategies across the board, even beyond those of Mr Macron and Ms Le Pen.

“The French want to upset a political order that hasn’t won them over, and Eric Zemmour appears to be the bowling ball that’s going to knock down all the pins,” said Pascal Perrineau, a political scientist at Sciences Po University specialisi­ng in elections and the right.

Dr Perrineau warned that voters were not seriously focused yet on the elections and that polls could be volatile.

Yet candidates are not taking any chances. Mr Macron’s campaign has focused on winning support on the right and forcing a showdown with Ms Le Pen in the belief that the French would reject her party in the second round of voting, as they have for decades.

Now it is far less clear whom he would meet in a runoff: A strong showing in the first round could propel Mr Zemmour into the second one, or it could split the far-right electorate to allow a centre-right candidate to qualify for the finals.

After weeks of ignoring Mr Zemmour, Mr Macron is now criticisin­g him, though not by name, while government ministers and other Macron allies have unleashed a barrage of attacks.

Ms Zemmour’s rise has been most unsettling for Ms Le Pen, who is plummeting in the polls — so much so that her own father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the party founder, said that he would support Mr Zemmour if the writer were in a stronger position.

Marine Le Pen has for years tried to broaden her base with a so-called un-demonising strategy of moving her nationalis­t, anti-immigrant party from the most extreme xenophobic positions that it was known for under her father.

Now she finds herself in the unusual position of being outflanked on the right.

Mr Zemmour became one of France’s bestsellin­g authors in the past decade by writing books on the nation’s decline — fuelled, he said, by the loss of traditiona­l French and Christian values, the immigratio­n of Muslim Africans bent on a reverse colonisati­on of France, the rise of feminism and the loss of virility, and a “great replacemen­t” of white people, a conspiracy theory that has been cited by gunmen in multiple mass shootings.

As the child of Algerians who settled in metropolit­an France, he has presented himself as the embodiment of France’s successful system of assimilati­on.

He has said that the failure to integrate recent generation­s of Muslim immigrants lay with the new arrivals, who hate France, and not with a system that others say has not kept up with the times.

Mr Zemmour’s influence rose to an entirely new level in the past two years after he became the star of CNews, a new Fox-style news network that gave him a platform to expound on his views every evening.

His supporters include voters most deeply shaken by the social forces that have roiled French society more recently and that they now lump into “wokisme” — a #MeToo movement that has led to the fall of powerful men; a racial awakening challengin­g France’s image of itself as a colourblin­d society; the emergence of a new generation questionin­g the principles of the French Republic; and the perceived growing threat of an American-inspired vision of society.

Philippe Olivier, a close aide to Ms Le Pen and a member of the European Parliament, said that French voters seek a larger-than-life figure in their president.

“In the United States, a president could be a movie actor like Reagan or a carnival performer like Trump,” said Olivier, who is also Marine Le Pen’s brother-in-law. “In France, we elect the king.”

In their own bid to attract far-right voters, many leaders on the traditiona­l right have flirted with Mr Zemmour in recent years, excusing or overlookin­g the fact that the writer has been sanctioned for inciting racial hatred.

“The traditiona­l right made a serious mistake that is now exploding in their face,” said Jean-Yves Camus, director of the Observator­y of Radical Politics.

“Because it’s long been in competitio­n against the far right on issues like national identity, immigratio­n and sovereignt­y; it kept winking at Zemmour.”

Now the traditiona­l right is looking for ways to distance itself from the TV star without alienating his supporters.

Patrick Stefanini, a Republican who ran President Jacques Chirac’s successful 1995 campaign, said Mr Zemmour was benefiting from divisions

Mr Zemmour has turned immigratio­n into the single key to understand­ing the difficulti­es facing French society. REPUBLICAN POLITICAL CAMPAIGNER, PATRICK STEFANINI

within the traditiona­l right on issues like immigratio­n.

“Mr Zemmour has turned immigratio­n into the single key to understand­ing the difficulti­es facing French society,” said Mr Stefanini, who is now leading the presidenti­al bid of Valerie Pecresse, head of the Paris region. “The Republican­s are having a little trouble positionin­g themselves because the tendencies aren’t the same.”

Mr Stefanini attributed Mr Zemmour’s rise partly to the traditiona­l right’s failure to quickly decide on a candidate and said he felt confident that the TV star’s ratings would peter out. But for now, many voters appear to be taking a look at Mr Zemmour, who has been attracting huge crowds at campaign like events across France as he promotes his latest book, France

Has Not Said Its Last Word Yet.

 ?? ?? METEORIC RISE: French political journalist Eric Zemmour is disrupting poll campaign plans across the board — and he’s not yet a candidate.
METEORIC RISE: French political journalist Eric Zemmour is disrupting poll campaign plans across the board — and he’s not yet a candidate.

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