Considering the amount of turmoil Britain’s relationship with Europe has caused in the past half-decade, you’d think British commentary would be paying more attention to the French election, and the dramatic Rightward shift of the French electorate it has already revealed. The entire French Left, representing every shade from Communism to soft-Left social democracy, can barely muster 20% voter support combined. The centre, represented by Macron, has shifted further towards a traditional perception of Right-wing politics than anyone on the Tory benches, railing against woke American cultural imperialism, shutting down Islamist NGOs and moving towards a markedly civilisationist discourse about what it means to be European.
Meanwhile, Éric Zemmour’s entrance into the presidential race has taken the direction of French politics further Right than it has been in many decades. Openly campaigning against “the Great Replacement,” against the “theft of democracy” by unelected judges and journalists, and promising to pull France out of NATO’s decision-making structures at the helm of his newly-titled “Reconquest” party, Zemmour is rapidly expanding the terrain of acceptable French political speech on the Right. At his rally yesterday, he ruminated, in Trumpian fashion, over the epithets applied to him by French tastemakers. “Me, a fascist?” he asked, as the crowd roared in approval, “Well, let’s see.”
No wonder that the centre-Right Les Republicains, the equivalent of the Conservative party, are paying attention to the new public mood. In the first round of their ballot for a presidential candidate, the hard-Right MP Eric Ciotti, who warns darkly of a “war of civilisations” and has previously said he’d vote for Zemmour against Macron, unexpectedly came first.
When Sunday’s second round saw him eliminated by the centrist figure Valerie Pécresse (who describes herself as one third Thatcher and two thirds Merkel), Ciotti announced a new movement, To The Right!, proclaiming that “we want a strong right that isn’t ashamed to be rightwing” (though a photo opportunity over lunch with Pécresse shows him staying in the Les Republicains fold). As the political scientist Douglas Webber has observed, Ciotti’s rise to prominence “clearly reflects a strong sort of shift in political opinion in France and certainly amongst the rank and file members of the Républicains towards the right or the far right.”
Last night, the Vice-President of Les Republicains Guillaume Peltier (a former Front National activist) declared “How can we remain insensitive to the speech for France of Éric Zemmour?,” adding “one single opponent, Emmanuel Macron; one sole objective, to repair France; only one way, to unite all the voters of the right, with Les Republicains.” Like Zemmour’s open pitch to disappointed Ciotti supporters to join his movement or his appointment of the aristocratic Breton general Bertrand de la Chesnais as his campaign manager, his candidacy has as much potential to drag the centre-Right rightwards as it does to splinter the hard and far-Right.
Zemmour probably won’t win, but he’s setting the tone of the coming election, and someone like Zemmour will likely take power in France sooner than we in Britain expected. The inchoate political energy of the predominantly Leftwing-populist Gilets Jaunes movement, France’s most sustained revolutionary force in the streets since 1968, now seems to have firmly settled on the Right when it comes to the ballot box.
France shifting hard-Right is a very different prospect to distant Poland or Hungary doing the same: one possible outcome is Ed West’s thesis that an increasingly Right-wing Western Europe will eventually see British Conservatives rethinking their attitudes to the continental bloc. Indeed, it’s not hard to imagine Rightist Europe and Liberal America soon becoming the two poles of British political conflict. Whatever their reason for averting their gaze now, British pundits will soon have to take notice of France’s pronounced rightward drift.