Picture : JULIEN DE ROSA/AFP
“My fellow compatriots, you have been gripped, oppressed, haunted by the same feeling – a strange pervasive feeling of dispossession”. In a martial speech, political journalist turned far right candidate Eric Zemmour addressed the French people on November 30, 2021, declaring his candidacy for the upcoming Presidential election. Zemmour’s campaign was launched through a YouTube video, using strong images to appeal to people’s fears and evoking French figures such as Napoleon Bonaparte and Charles de Gaulle as well as a number of historical events. The video was soon taken down due to the misuse of material under copyright which has also caused a wave of controversy over his campaign strategy. On the 10th of March, the video was blocked by Youtube in France. However, it can still be accessed from abroad.
A few days after the release of the video, the far right polémiste launched his party “Reconquête”. A divisive figure of French television, Eric Zemmour is well known for a variety of litigious remarks, many of them considered racist, xenophobic and sexist and sometimes even legally classified as hate speech. However, despite being clouded in controversy, polling data suggests that he may have a real chance of making it to the second round. So what makes Zemmour so special and why is he worth paying attention to?
Coming from a journalistic background, Eric Zemmour became known for his TV appearances in which he made use of simplified discourse against everything that is “politically correct”, especially against immigration and minorities, using laicity and nationalism as a weapon in his interventions. These speeches have raised a great deal of controversy around him and his staff, as well as a number of sentences and fines for hate speech and racism.
When it comes to his political agenda, Eric Zemmour follows a simplistic far right populist reasoning as per which the root of all problems lies in the islamization of the country. Following his reasoning, the “grand remplacement” (a conspiracy theory based on the idea that Muslim immigrants will replace the French population) is responsible not only for “threatening national identity” and causing feelings of insecurity, but also for deep-rooted socio-economic issues that plague French society. The rest of his program seems to have a nativist component: while he expresses strong anti-immigration feelings by proposing to cut benefits for foreigners, his program takes a turn towards lowering taxation and limiting the welfare state to french-born citizens. When it comes to economic policies, he claims to fight against the current system that he categorises as being a “reverse Robin Hood” that takes from the poor and makes the rich even richer. He takes, thus, a rather liberal stance on the economy, wanting to lower both taxes and support for social security programs all together. However, in matters beyond immigration and laïcité, for instance on environmental concerns, his program is rather lacking any concrete proposals.
However, Zemmour is not the first candidate to propose this type of program. There is a plethora of right wing candidates running in the current election, all of them more or less along similar lines on the political spectrum, with whom to share the voters. So what makes Eric Zemmour different from the already established far right candidate, the Rassemblement National’s (RN) Marine Le Pen?
Firstly, even if they share the obsession of identity politics and their anti-immigration program, when it comes to economic proposals they are slightly different: from Eric Zemmour’s perspective, Marine Le Pen has a rather left wing perspective on the economy. While Marine Le Pen has taken a social liberal stance on the economy by proposing to reduce VAT on gas, electricity and fuel and proposing tax reductions for the french youth and struggling families, Eric Zemmour prefers a liberal stance on the economy, wanting to reduce taxation at the level of the employer and cancel social security programs for foreign residents in France. In addition, the two candidates also have opposing views regarding the retirement age in France: while Marine Le Pen wants to lower it to 60 years of age (currently the retirement age for french people is set at 62 years old), Eric Zemmour wants to increase the age of retirement to 64 years old.
Furthermore, the voting pool for both of them is slightly different. While there is a common part of voters and endorsers which made it harder for them to obtain the 500 signatures necessary in order to run, the polls show that the two candidates appeal to different categories of voters: For Marine Le Pen, the electorate is the formerly left-wing traditional working class, with a more significant presence in the middle class. For Zemmour, the electorate is composed of more well off, older people, managing to borrow from both, the former RN electorate who were not satisfied with Marine Le Pen, as well as from former LR voters that do not like the direction in which the party is going.
Foreign policy as national defence
While his notorious TV appearances give voters a fairly clear picture of his domestic political ideas, Zemmour’s foreign policy agenda was articulated in a more serious, maybe even low-key press conference on February 17. Very much in line with his martial domestic narrative, his program represents nothing more than an epochal change in French foreign policy.
Defining immigration and international jihadism the biggest international threats for France, Zemmour states that multilateralism never leads to any significant outcome. He outlines his vision of a France not bound by any profound alliance, able to exercise his traditional historic role of a balancing power in Europe and beyond. While currently not even the infamous polémiste himself dares to promote the idea of France leaving the European Union, he repeats the well-known empty phrase of right-wing populists to “fight for French interests first”. Zemmour outlines a vision of European diplomacy on the basis of changing alliances. He explicitly criticises the special partnership of France and Germany, the traditional backbone of European integration, emphasising the differences in strategic approaches and claiming that national interests must not be conditioned by decisions made by the German Bundestag. Instead, Zemmour names several “like-minded” partners, including Hungary, Poland and Greece, with whom he wants to enter into closer cooperation – not surprisingly focussing on countries with the most rigid immigration and refugee policies. In that regard, the demand for a large wall at the external borders of the EU to protect the “European civilization” seems like a leitmotif within the extreme right-wing camp.
However, the rapidly developing events in Ukraine are currently posing an ideological challenge to the rarely taciturn journalist, with part of his European agenda coming back to him as a boomerang. Along with other right-wing extremists in France and in other parts of Europe, Zemmour previously expressed multiple times that he considers the idea of Russia invading his neighbouring country in an unprovoked aggression to be impossible and outright ridiculous. When reality caught up with him, Zemmour, his far-right competitor Marine Le Pen and the extreme left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, were forced to backtrack, condemning Russia’s war of aggression as an unjustifiable military intervention. When being accused of complacency due to his repeated praises of President Putin before the intervention, Zemmour went even further, hailing the heroic patriotism of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Nevertheless, Zemmour quickly recovered from this collision with reality and went back to explain in his well-known manner that NATO, which he also wants to leave, is partly responsible for the current war in Ukraine and that all Ukrainian refugees should stay in Poland and not be sheltered in France. This pivot can be seen as a tactic of distraction from media coverage on Zemmour’s regular meetings with Russian oligarchs in recent years, including with Vladimir Yakunin, a close confidant of Vladimir Putin.
While most of Zemmour’s proposals are rather predictable, seemingly coming from a handbook for right-wing populist foreign policy, Zemmour differs from his international counterparts like Trump in one important aspect: While the former US President was eager to end American involvement in international conflicts, the French presidential aspirant aims to reinforce France’s military bases, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, plus suggesting to open new ones for example in Chad, while raising the national defence budget up to 29 billion Euro in 2030. All of those propositions are not to be understood in the sense of securing international peace and fulfilling the responsibility to protect, which Zemmour explicitly excludes, but solely in France’s strategic and economic self-interest, a country for which in the eyes of the presidential candidate “Europe is simply too small”. Interestingly, in his endeavour to rebuild France’s military strength of a 19th century super power, Zemmour distances himself from competitor Le Pen who promotes the idea of a revival of obligatory military service.
So while Zemmour’s fringe ideas are ridiculed, mocked, insulted by political observers and opponents alike, and his statements are furthermore prosecuted and legally condemned, everything seemed to be going according to plan for the polémiste: Provided with an immense amount of media coverage and airtime, the right-wing extremist appeared to be well on his way to getting one of the two desired tickets to the second round of the presidential election. At the moment, he has fallen way behind the allegedly more moderate extreme right-wing candidate Le Pen, and even if Zemmour would make it to the second round, it seems unlikely that he would stand a chance against anyone there – but the fear of the big Z remains and seems to make large parts of the country hold its breath – in excitement or terror.