Éric Zemmour: The far-right pundit who threatens to outflank Le Pen

Marine Le Pen has said that she would never treat him as an adversary. But if Eric Zemmour – a popular journalist, author and pundit who has been convicted multiple times for inciting hate speech – throws his hat into the presidential ring as expected, he could prove to be the biggest threat to the reigning doyenne of the French far right.

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Le Pen has long struggled with likeability, so she has been careful not to take on the popular Zemmour, whom a recent Ipsos poll showed could garner 8 percent of the vote in the first round of the presidential election if he were to run. Behind the scenes, though, Le Pen and her camp acknowledge the danger that his candidacy could dilute the far-right vote in the first round of next April’s presidential elections.

So who is this man nipping at the heels of Le Pen?

The 63-year-old is a native of the Parisian suburbs and the descendent of Berber Jews who moved from Algeria to France during the French-Algerian war in the 1950s. His father was a paramedic and his mother worked in the home. He graduated from the prestigious Sciences Po university. Twice failing to get a seat at the École nationale d’administration (ENA), the elite institute that was the breeding ground for France’s political class, he got his first job at a newspaper in 1986. Since then he has had an award-winning – albeit profoundly controversial – career as a print, television and radio journalist and author.

He has used his sizeable platforms to throw firebombs at French society on such subjects as the supposed incompatibility of Islam with secular French values, immigration and the crisis of French manhood. Some observers say that he is merely reflecting the current zeitgeist; at the very least his huge TV audience is a reminder that France has not escaped the deep political polarisation of our era.

But unlike Le Pen, whose notoriously poor performance in a 2017 debate against Emmanuel Macron was nothing short of an embarrassment to her and her party, Zemmour is a seasoned television professional endowed with both the appearance of intellect and the gift of gab.

More radical than Le Pen

His views, however, make those of Le Pen look almost palatable. He was twice convicted for hate speech and inciting racial violence, and other legal procedures against him are ongoing. He has said that unaccompanied migrant children from Africa and the Middle East are all killers, rapists and thieves, and that “jihadists were considered to be good Muslims by all Muslims”. He also promotes the racist conspiracy theory that Europeans are gradually being replaced by immigrants.

Zemmour, who describes himself as a Gaullist and a Bonapartist, argues in his 2014 book “The French Suicide: The 40 Years that Defeated France,” that neoliberalism has put France into decline; that high divorce rates have led to sexual desperation and a crisis of virility among white men; and that, since the fall of Napoleon, “France is no longer a predator but prey”. Women, he wrote, are the victims of consumerism and, at their cores, long to be dominated by men.

His discourse clearly touches a nostalgic nerve among those who long for the France of yesteryear; the book was a massive hit, selling more than 5,000 copies a day for the first two weeks after publication and having sold a reported 500,000 copies overall.

Zemmour has yet to formally announce his presidency, but the signs that he intends to do so are there. On Monday he left the “Facing the News” television show after the Superior Council of the Audiovisual (CSA), which monitors French TV to ensure that all political currents are equally represented, found that Zemmour is a politician rather than a journalist and his media appearances must now be subject to the same time limitations as other candidates. This week Zemmour will set out on a nation-wide book tour “to meet the French people”.

Weak spots?

While controversy has thus far increased Zemmour’s popularity, there are a few skeletons in an open closet that may prove to be problematic. In April, after a local official said online that Zemmour had forcibly kissed her, the investigative news site Mediapart published the testimonies of several women who alleged that he had subjected them, too, to unwanted sexual contact.

Zemour has no real political experience, nor does he have the support of a party behind him, nor even a cadre of well-funded backers, as did Macron when building his fledging party. And while he’s full of criticism for the path France has taken since the 1960s, he has yet to delineate a path toward fixing what he believes to be the nation’s problems.

None of that may be enough to stop him from declaring his candidacy, as he believes that Le Pen has no chance at electoral success. “Marine Le Pen would never win, and everyone in the National Rally knows it,” he said on France 2 television. “I think the French see that, and she knows it, and today a vote for Marine Le Pen is a vote for Macron. Because that’s what he is hoping for: to face her again [in the second round] and beat her.”

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