With Macron’s eyes on Ukraine, the far right is dominating the French election

Show caption Torn posters in support of the far-right candidate Eric Zemmour in Cambrai, France, February 2022. Photograph: Pascal Rossignol/Reuters Opinion With Macron’s eyes on Ukraine, the far right is dominating the French election Cole Stangler Debates are focusing on crime, immigration and culture wars – but most voters are worried about the cost of living @colestangler Fri 25 Feb 2022 14.00 GMT Share on Facebook

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An outside observer watching France’s presidential election campaign would be forgiven for thinking that immigration, crime and secularism are all that the French public care about. In fact, according to a recent study by Ipsos, a staggering 52% of registered voters said their top concern ahead of April’s first-round vote was the cost of living, followed by healthcare and the environment.

That’s not what the leading candidates are talking about. Instead, the campaign has been dominated by familiar national obsessions such as immigration and crime, but also increasingly inflammatory culture wars over national identity, the place of Islam and laïcité – France’s muscular variant of secularism. These are debates that almost always take place on the right’s terms.

The president, Emmanuel Macron, has not yet officially declared his bid for reelection, hoping to stay above the melee for as long as possible. In the meantime, his top three competitors – all of them on the right – are aiming to outflank each other on these issues, running neck and neck for a spot in the runoff round and a likely match-up against the incumbent.

Every week of their sparring seems to bring new horrors. Earlier this month, Valérie Pécresse, the right’s mainstream candidate, decided her first major campaign event was just the right moment to nod to a white nationalist conspiracy theory. At a highly anticipated speech in Paris, she declared there was “no inevitability” to the “great replacement” – a term that refers to the supposed cultural and demographic transformation of white Europe. (Pécresse later insisted she didn’t mean to actually endorse the idea, which was coined by the French writer Renaud Camus, and has been described as a “master narrative” for far-right terrorist attacks.)

To be sure, there is demand for this brand of politics. They may not be a majority, but France has a solid bloc of hard-right voters. In 2017, around 7.7 million people propelled the National Front’s Marine Le Pen into the second round, where she went on to win a third of the vote against Macron – the best ever result for her party, since renamed the National Rally.

Still, the fixations of voters like these are being blown out of proportion – amplified by short-term political interests and a media landscape that rewards rightwing provocation.

Some of the responsibility lies with Pécresse, who desperately wants to distinguish herself from the sitting president. On economic policy, there’s not much she would do differently, as Macron’s record already reads like a conservative wish list: tax cuts for the super-rich; pro-employer labour law reforms; beefing up oversight of welfare recipients. If it hadn’t been put on hold due to Covid, Macron’s plans to restructure the pension system would have sailed through parliament – an achievement that the right has dreamed of for decades.

With little else to campaign on, Pécresse and her party have opted to flex their law-and-order credentials and double down on highly charged social issues. The approach is designed to sway voters thinking of backing Macron, but also those considering more radical alternatives.

It also has the effect of further legitimising the far right, whose talking points circulate more freely than ever in the mainstream press. Above all, this is due to CNews, a Fox News-esque channel founded by the conservative billionaire Vincent Bolloré in 2017 that has become one of the country’s most watched news networks. On a typical day, panellists rail against themes such as wokisme and “Anglo-Saxon” identity politics, while the ostensibly impartial news coverage skews heavily toward stories with a link to crime or immigration. Through his control of the media conglomerate Vivendi, Bolloré has more recently extended his influence to the radio station Europe 1, leading to an exodus of journalists, while new personalities who share his brand of conservative grievance politics and penchant for whipping up moral panics are brought in. Both networks, but especially CNews, play a key role in setting the news cycle.

This is the media landscape that birthed the candidacy of Éric Zemmour, a polemicist who has largely set the tone for this year’s campaign. A former star panellist on CNews and former columnist for Le Figaro newspaper, who has been convicted multiple times of hate speech against Muslims and racial minorities, Zemmour knows how to deliver red meat to regular consumers of rightwing media.

Just as importantly, he knows how to reap the rewards of coverage from outlets that aren’t as ideologically friendly. Zemmour has a knack for delivering soundbites that make for good TV and easy shares on social media. His capacity for historical and intellectual references impresses people. And like the former US president Donald Trump, with whom he recently spoke on the phone, Zemmour understands the benefits of provocation: at its best, it works as a critique of the political establishment; at a minimum, it keeps people talking about you.

Under different circumstances, this campaign would have been an excellent opportunity for the left. So far, it is botching the occasion. Divided parties have wasted time criticising each other, waffling on strategy and struggling to present a clear alternative to the leading pack. At this stage, only Jean-Luc Mélenchon of La France Insoumise polls in double digits.

For now, Macron has been more than happy to sit back and watch things from afar, focusing on more internationally pressing issues such as the pandemic and the war in Ukraine. Polls suggest this strategy hasn’t hurt too much either. He is projected to coast to reelection over either Le Pen or Zemmour, and while Pécresse would fare slightly better he’d still win comfortably against her. Now against the backdrop of war, Macron will likely sell himself as the competent leader that France needs to navigate a frightening new phase of geopolitical uncertainty. In contrast, his three rightwing challengers lack experience and, to varying degrees, all underestimated the threat of Putin. (Le Pen’s party even took out a massive loan from a Russian bank ahead of its 2017 presidential campaign.)

Still, the following weeks could be full of surprises: the war will likely upend the race. Le Pen and Zemmour are still scrambling to collect the mandatory 500 signatures from local officials to qualify for the ballot. Many voters have yet to make up their minds, especially leftwing ones. And while polls suggest turnout could be lower than ever for a presidential election, young and working-class voters turned off by the campaign so far could be drawn in by a credible progressive challenger. Macron remains the clear favourite, but it may be too soon to count out the left.

Cole Stangler is a journalist based in Paris