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Firebrand Zemmour announces he’s seeking French presidency
French election

Firebrand Zemmour announces he’s seeking French presidency

5 min. 30.11.2021 From our online archive
Controversial TV pundit and far-right contender declares candidacy in YouTube video on Tuesday
Eric Zemmour announced he is running to become the next French President in a video released on Tuesday
Eric Zemmour announced he is running to become the next French President in a video released on Tuesday
Photo credit: AFP

Eric Zemmour, the French TV pundit who’s been sanctioned for inciting racial hatred and partly styles himself on anti-establishment figures like Donald Trump, finally announced what many people long suspected: He will fight President Emmanuel Macron for his job in April’s election. 

Zemmour made the announcement in a YouTube video set to classical music on Tuesday.

Seated at a desk in front of an old-style microphone, a set up that sought to echo General Charles de Gaulle’s June 18, 1940 call for a rebellion against German occupation, Zemmour said he wanted to avoid “the disappearance of our civilisation.”

At first glance, the 63-year-old stands no chance of winning a presidential contest in a country where rivals have long banded together to prevent a far-right candidate from clinching the highest office. He’s also been losing steam in some polls amid a series of mishaps that include a trip to London that didn’t go entirely to plan and the publication of a decidedly unpresidential photo in which he gives a woman the middle finger. 

Yet French elections are notoriously full of surprises. He could regain momentum, meaning it would no longer be a given that Macron will face off with nationalist leader Marine Le Pen and almost certainly win comfortably, just like in 2017. Zemmour could end up in the second round instead of her. Or, he could split the far-right vote enough to allow a centre-right contender to qualify for the run-off, upsetting Macron’s chances of returning to the Elysee.  

Either way, Zemmour’s rise has revealed a society deeply divided between “those who care about delinquency, immigration and defending laicite (France’s unique brand of secularism) and those who care about fighting discrimination, climate change or purchasing power,” says Victoria Geraut, a Sciences Po researcher who works for the Jean Jaures foundation, a think tank.

Controversial figure

The rift won’t close any time soon even if his candidacy flounders, according to Geraut. “The groups that back him and who are spreading his ideas will continue to exist, and spread their ideas on immigration or terrorism.”

Zemmour was brought up in a Jewish household in the cities of Montreuil, Paris and also nearby Drancy. At the time, the latter was home to citizens who came to France from Algeria during the war, like his parents, as well as Spanish and Italian migrants. His father was a pharmacist by training, his mother a housewife.

Despite his background, he often makes comments many regard as anti-Semitic, questioning for example some basic facts of the Holocaust in France.

He criticises feminism, lauds virility, and has been accused of sexual harassment, a charge he denies. Last week, a French magazine claimed he had gotten his 28-year-old de facto campaign manager, Sarah Knafo, pregnant. His lawyer, Olivier Pardo, lashed out on Twitter saying the article was contrary to journalism ethics and an invasion of Zemmour’s private life. 

On a recent visit to Drancy, Zemmour said his former neighbourhood had been tainted by the arrival of Muslim migrants, whose children he has described as murderers, rapists and thieves pushing France toward civil war.

French President Emmanuel Macron will face a battle for re-election in April next year
French President Emmanuel Macron will face a battle for re-election in April next year

He has argued that Islam isn’t compatible with the Republic and that immigrants must embrace local customs, even if it means rejecting their own. He says he’s proof the country’s system of assimilation works.

Criticism of 'elite'

In Tuesday’s video, Zemmour exalted a mostly fantasised version of what he called the France of people like Jeanne d'Arc, Louis the XIV and Victor Hugo, a France “with churches in its villages.” 

Visibly seeking to stoke fears about immigration and gender equality, he called on people “who don't feel like they are at home anymore” to vote for him, saying it would help them “make ends meet.”

He also bashed the elite - from academics to journalists and union leaders - of which he is part and called for “taking the power away from the hands of minorities that have terrorised the majority” and accelerated the country’s decline.

Zemmour started out as a journalist for Le Quotidien de Paris newspaper, before joining the conservative Le Figaro. He became a best-selling author and star of the Fox-style CNews. The network’s owner, French billionaire Vincent Bollore, kept him on air for years despite his inflammatory comments.

Citing Trump and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson as examples, Zemmour says he aims to unite the bourgeoisie with the working class. He also borrows from Macron’s playbook.   

Similarities with Macron

Like the president, Zemmour doesn’t have the support of an established political party and casts himself as an outsider, although both are part of the elite. They are each backed by a diverse electorate, and both put young people at the centre of their campaigns. Just as Macron united centrists in 2017, Zemmour may succeed in bringing the traditional right and the far-right together, according to a paper by the Jean Jaures Foundation.

Their ideas radically diverge when it comes to Europe and the future of France. Zemmour is a pessimist who calls for a return to an idealized glorious past. The president portrays a bright future in embracing globalization with a pinch of protectionism. In an interview in London, Zemmour said his supporters care more about immigration and the future of France than the economy, which is Macron’s favourite topic as former banker and economy minister.

Zemmour’s strength lies in an ability to engage with those who don’t usually vote. Some supporters say he’s an intellectual who makes them feel like they’re being lifted upwards, unlike Macron who makes them feel looked down upon. 

If Zemmour manages to derail a duel between the president and Le Pen, he could make both look like has-beens. Contrary to Macron, Zemmour has a fresh slate. Contrary to Le Pen, he didn’t fail twice at being elected president.  

Still, challenges abound. The polemicist raised eyebrows across the political spectrum when he accused former President Francois Hollande of failing to protect the French on the anniversary of the deadly terrorist attack at the Bataclan concert hall in 2015. Victims accused him of unfairly weaponising the tragedy. Meanwhile, heavyweight backers, such as financier Charles Gaves, who intended to loan him €300,000 for the campaign, are now reconsidering their support.

Zemmour will also have to prove he has the backing of 500 elected officials by February, a legal requirement to run for president in France. Many traditional right-wing mayors, lawmakers, Senators and regional councillors say they are tempted to vouch for him. His team says they already have 200 signatures, which is impossible to verify at this point.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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