From TV to the French Presidency? A right-wing star is inspired by Trump

The New York Times
Paris, FranceWritten By: Norimitsu Onishi © 2020 The New York TimesUpdated: Sep 18, 2021, 03:59 PM IST

The Grand Mosque of Paris, April 23, 2020. Éric Zemmour, a writer and TV celebrity known for his far-right nationalism, has said that France is under threat by an Islam that doesn’t share France’s core values. (Andrea Mantovani ©️ 2021 The New York Times) Photograph:(The New York Times)

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In a well-orchestrated blitz that blurred the lines between media and politics, Zemmour, 63, one of France's bestselling writers, released a new book Thursday titled 'France Has Not Said Its Last Word Yet'

France’s election season began in force this week, with candidates for the presidency launching their bids or holding campaign-style events. But the person who stole the show was not a candidate, or even a politician, but a right-wing writer and TV star channeling Donald Trump.

Éric Zemmour became one of France’s top TV celebrities through his punditry on CNews, a Fox News-like channel, even as he was sanctioned twice for inciting racial hatred. This week he dominated news media coverage in the kickoff to elections next April.

A poll released Wednesday shows him rising among potential voters, beating out declared candidates such as the mayor of Paris. While his share would appear to put the presidency out of reach, he could disrupt the long-anticipated scenario of a duel between President Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Rally.

In a well-orchestrated blitz that blurred the lines between media and politics, Zemmour, 63, one of France’s bestselling writers, released a new book Thursday titled "France Has Not Said Its Last Word Yet," with a cover showing him standing with arms crossed in front of the French flag.

Zemmour said the cover had been modeled after Trump's “Great Again,” the 2015 book that outlined his political agenda before his election victory the following year, and that showed Trump in front of the American flag.

The cover, Zemmour said, was not the only way Trump had inspired him. While Zemmour coyly deflected long-standing rumors of a possible candidacy, this month he has sent stronger signals that he may follow Trump in a leap from television to politics.

"Obviously, there are common points," Zemmour said. “In other words, someone who is completely from outside the party system, who never had a political career and who, furthermore, understood that the major concerns of the working class are immigration and trade.”

In France's two-round presidential election, the two top vote-getters in the first round meet in a runoff. Macron has aggressively courted the traditional, more moderate right in a strategy to produce a final showdown with Le Pen, whom he beat in 2017. But the presence of Zemmour, with his appeal across the right side of France’s political spectrum, could upset that calculus.

"French politics has become totally unpredictable," said Nicolas Lebourg, a political scientist specializing in the right and far-right.

"In this extremely fluid context, things could end with the election of a Republican president after Macron is defeated because Zemmour picks up a few points," Lebourg added, referring to the Republicans, the party of the traditional right.

The poll released Wednesday showed 10% of voters supporting Zemmour in the first round of the election, up from 7% a week earlier and 5% in July. He is one of the few candidates registering in the double digits, outscoring some from France’s established parties, including the Socialist mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo.

According to a poll published Monday, Zemmour is one of the few candidates to draw support from both the French traditional right and far-right — a point he underscored in the interview, saying that the far-right National Rally "puts off the French bourgeoisie," while the Republicans "have only an extremely aging constituency and don’t connect with the young or the working class."

The poll also showed he is strong with the working class, men and young voters.

"His straight talk appeals a lot to a generation that has been very disappointed by politicians' lies and that is very mistrustful of the media," said François de Voyer, a host and financial supporter of Black Book, a 7-month-old YouTube channel that has featured long interviews with Zemmour and other personalities, mostly from the right and far right. He said Zemmour gives the impression of "never hiding what he thinks, even if it means making controversial remarks," adding, "I think it has the effect of creating trust."

Still, a run by Zemmour — whose hard-line views on immigration, Islam’s place in France and national identity are regarded as being to the right of Le Pen — would immediately inject into the election some of the most explosive issues in an increasingly polarized society.

A longtime journalist for the conservative daily Le Figaro, Zemmour became a bestselling author in the past decade with books that described a France in decline, under threat from what he claimed was an Islam that doesn’t share France’s core values. His celebrity and influence rose to another level after he became the star of CNews in 2019, where, each evening in prime time, he expounded on his ideas to hundreds of thousands of viewers.

He has portrayed himself as a truth-teller in a news media dominated by politically correct, left-leaning journalists. He has railed against the immigration of Muslim Africans, invoking the existential threat of a great replacement — a loaded term that even Le Pen has avoided — that will overwhelm France’s more established white and Christian population.

Over the weekend, Zemmour said that, if he were president, he would ban "non-French" first names like Mohammed and Kevin, because they created obstacles to an assimilation process that used to turn immigrants into what he considered real French people.

These kinds of comments have occasionally drawn the attention of French authorities. In May, the government broadcast regulator fined CNews 200,000 euros, about $236,000, for speech inciting racial hatred. On his show in September 2020, Zemmour had said that unaccompanied foreign minors should be expelled from France, calling them “thieves,” “killers” and “rapists.”

Some presidential candidates from the Republicans dismissed Zemmour’s challenge. Xavier Bertrand, the leader of a region in northern France, said Zemmour was a “great divider.” Valérie Pécresse, the head of the Paris region, said he offered “no genuine proposals.”

Lebourg, said Zemmour’s “ethnic nationalism” was rooted in the ideology of the National Front of the 1990s, the predecessor to the National Rally that was led by Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. More than any other individual, Zemmour succeeded over the years in imposing his vision on politicians in the traditional right, Lebourg said.

Supporters say that is why Zemmour is the only candidate who can appeal to both the traditional right and far right.

“Éric Zemmour opened the eyes of a certain number of people, including in my political family,” said Antoine Diers, a spokesperson for Friends of Éric Zemmour, a group that is raising funds for a potential presidential bid. Diers is also a member of the Republicans and an official at the city hall of Plessis-Robinson, a suburb south of Paris.

Because of Zemmour’s influence, Diers said, candidates of his party “finally take positions on immigration, on questions of identity and French culture.”

Arno Humbert, another member of Friends of Éric Zemmour, said he left Le Pen’s National Rally in June after more than a decade, disillusioned by her efforts to widen her appeal by toning down her party’s positions in a strategy of “de-demonizing.”

Zemmour was forced off the air Monday after the government regulator ordered a limit on his broadcast time because he could be considered a player in national politics. He and his supporters were quick to cry censorship.

Asked whether the decision would ultimately help him by burnishing his image as a truth teller among his supporters, he said, “Of course.”

“It was a blessing in disguise,” he said.