October 5, 2021

A 59-second viral video has captured the growing dismay of the French political class at the swift rise of Eric Zemmour in the presidential race. In it, a cyclist wearing a Tour de France yellow jersey overtakes a succession of fellow competitors without even pedalling — he is not sitting on the saddle, but balanced across it, poised, horizontally, like a superhero. He is tagged “Le Z”, while each racer he flies past is briefly labelled after one of the other candidates.

Any professional Instagrammer would shudder at the amateurish unsophistication of the video. But that is the point: Zemmour, 63, a bestselling author fired by his publishers this summer and a TV polemicist regularly sued for hate speech by advocacy groups (so far he’s won more often than he’s lost), reaches the parts of the electorate others don’t.

Although he still hasn’t formally declared his candidacy, his ramped-up media presence in recent months finally prompted polling institutes to include him in their first round voting intentions surveys. In three weeks, Zemmour jumped from 6% to 15%, ahead of Hard Left three-time candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon (9%), Green primary winner Yannick Jadot (9%) and Socialist Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, who in the same period dropped from 7% to 5%.

But Le Z’s chief victims are all on the Right. He has all but killed off Marine Le Pen, who has dropped from 28% this summer to 17%. The two main Centre-Right candidates, Paris Region president Valérie Pécresse and Xavier Bertrand, both former Sarkozy Cabinet members, are lagging at 12% and 14% respectively, with Michel Barnier, the former Ogre of Brexit unexpectedly turned sovereignty champion, battling them for the Républicain nomination at 11%.

All are uninspiring: le Pen has been left seeming incompetent since her defeat by Macron in 2017; Pécresse and Bertrand are spouting the same things France has heard a hundred times before; and Barnier is baffling because the French, unlike the British, mostly don’t know who he is.

Zemmour, much like other disruptive populist figures, appeals to those voters (and many no-longer voters) who had despaired of ever finding a candidate expressing their concerns. He speaks to their fears: the loss of French identity and rising insecurity caused, he believes, by unchecked immigration. His books, which have sold in the hundreds of thousands, compare a rose-tinted past Republic, where teachers were respected, fathers held solid jobs, families stayed together and classical culture wasn’t derided as pale and stale.

So far, so Trump — with a touch of Tucker Carlson. A Le Figaro journalist, Zemmour came to national pre-eminence when he was given his own daily debating show two years ago by CNEWS, a rolling news TV cable station which was re-inventing itself as the French Fox News. CNEWS’s ratings shot up, overtaking its CNN-like rival BFMTV. Le Z’s style, however, couldn’t be further from Trump’s. “Unlike my rivals, I write all my own books,” he jokes. He is highly cultured, even if one might argue that his erudition is preserved in aspic: he quotes 18th-century philosophers and 19th-century historians, with nary a concession to popular topics. (He does like football and the Rolling Stones.)

This fits French particularism: Les Déplorables here rarely object to cultural literacy, as long as they don’t feel it’s used to belittle them, Énarque-style. (Emmanuel Macron specialises in such putdowns.)

Je comprends rien à ce qu’il raconte, mais il parle drôlement bien,” is a typical reaction to a Jacques Bainville- and Charles Maurras-quoting tirade by Le Z. His style and accent are demotic, his sentences are clear and his opinions trenchant. In a country where columnists, even in tabloids, prefer weighty circumlocutions to punchlines, this singles Zemmour out.

In common with Donald Trump, he relishes dropping live grenades in any debate. His first polemical essay (he’d already written a number of political biographies, including one of Jacques Chirac), published in 2006, was called Le Premier Sexe, in clear reference to Simone de Beauvoir’s 1949 The Second Sex. It bemoaned the “feminisation” of values, and whenever talking about it Zemmour never shied from adding fuel to the fire. “How did women enter the National Assembly and the Senate? Through parity laws that forced parties to select them. And I need not tell you how they were picked… They put in friends, wives, mistresses, etc.”

He believes in the “Great Replacement” theory: he described in his Le Figaro column those areas in Paris where “one feels best, physically, the disappearance of the French population […] while, coming from the suburbs, at the end of a long journey from the depths of Africa, an Arab-Muslim people has replaced the former inhabitants.” He has continually hammered home his idea that foreign immigrants to France should give at least one “traditional” French first name to their children, drawn from the saints’ calendar, helping them to assimilate better into French society. “Your parents should have called you Corinne,” he told the television personality Hapsatou Sy, born near Paris of Senegalese parents.

In this, the Paris-born Éric Justin Léon Zemmour, son of French-Algerian Jews who had to leave Algeria in the Fifties during the independence war, harks back to the old French Républicain model of “assimilation” rather than of “integration”. “I’m a Frenchman of Berber origin,” he says. His peculiar brand of nostalgia dovetails with the long-standing history of France as a country of immigration, that, until recently, seamlessly crafted Frenchmen and women from anyone who wanted to become French.

This approach proved successful for centuries. So much so that the character who most defines, fondly, the French foibles, Astérix the Gaul, was created by the sons of immigrants: René Goscinny, a Polish-Argentinian Jew, and Albert Uderzo, an Italian builder’s son. (Another Italian builder’s son, François Cavanna, founded Charlie Hebdo.) This resonates with Zemmour’s audiences, who smart from being hectored by New York Times journalists shrieking that France is a country riven by structural racism.

Zemmour has used his personal story as a shield while positing particularly contentious theories, such as his idea that Marshall Pétain, the President of the puppet Vichy régime under German Occupation, “made a pact with the Devil, allowing the Nazis to deport foreign Jews in France in order to save French Jews”. This is a known far-Right trope in a country that carries the complicated trauma of the Collaboration.

It’s hard not to see here the influence of the old Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father and founder of the National Front, now 93, whom Zemmour used to regularly visit in his Château de Montretout lair just outside Paris for long, lively discussions. Le Pen, who was fired from his own party by his daughter, himself joined the Resistance for a few weeks in 1944, aged 18. But he’s specialised in obsessive remarks about the Holocaust ever since. He is more of a provocateur than a dyed in the wool anti-Semite (which is not the case of a fringe he emboldened within his party) and probably helped cultivate Zemmour’s own taste for scandalous statements.

Le Pen was never forgiven in France for his provocations; hence his own daughter’s symbolic parricide. But what is interesting about Zemmour is that, like Donald Trump, his mounting crowd of partisans discount his verbal excesses as just “Le Z being le Z”. In a country where, for centuries, strong opinions have had to be coated in supercilious obfuscation (there’s a reason why, for decades before the advent of the Internet, the French press was losing money), Zemmour is largely seen as an unscary shock jock, not a threatening fascist — except among the chattering classes, whom he enrages. This, of course, serves him.

What he has achieved, though, is in putting the three-I concerns of his potential voters — immigration, identity and insecurity — at the centre of the political discourse. Even a character as cautious and grey as Michel Barnier, in an effort to gain traction for the Centre-Right nomination, has now demanded a five-year moratorium on immigration to France, and attacked ECJ rulings as harmful to French sovereignty.

“The debate on immigration only exists in the [Paris] media now, no longer in public opinion,” says the shrewd social geographer Christophe Guilluy, the man who theorised “La France Périphérique”, the French version of David Goodhart’s Somewheres vs. Anywheres. This is an area where the rest of the political class, especially on the Right, usually runs scared. Their every new statement now pushes for “chosen immigration”, more means for the police, stricter criminal sentencing. Yet as former members of previous governments, however, none of the Républicain candidates seems credible on the subject.

Zemmour seems keen. He has hired a campaign team and rented a 4,000 sq ft campaign HQ less than a kilometre from the Élysée, funded by a sympathiser financier, Charles Gave. But he’s no professional politician. This an obvious asset now, that could turn into a flaw in the heat of a long campaign. If current trends hold, though, and it’s a big “if”; Zemmour might well get to the second round next year.

While all polls give a clear victory to Emmanuel Macron in the run-off today, against any candidate, the President’s reasonably high ratings of 40% last week have now slid to 34%. He is also facing a winter of discontent, with energy costs skyrocketing. His prime minister Jean Castex has just announced that the hikes would be deferred until next May, which utterly coincidentally happens to be after the April election. Added to which, 2017’s fresh young man in a hurry has now become the incumbent in a fractious country.

This is all to the disruptor’s favour. Zemmour has suddenly made France’s tired political race risky again. What if Macron didn’t even manage to clear the bar of the first round?