Will Zemmour Bring a Right-Wing Revolution in France?
If you follow European politics even a little bit, you must have heard of Éric Zemmour, the former right-wing pundit who is running for president in France and who is now a serious contender for the second round of the election. Everyone thought the results of the April 2022 election were written in advance, with a second round between Macron and Le Pen, which the former would have won easily. But Zemmour’s entry into the race and his rise in the polls suddenly made this campaign very interesting. Unless he collapses in the coming month, which I doubt, you’re probably going to hear a lot more about him soon, so I figured that it might be useful to write a short post explaining who he is and what he wants and give some context that people not familiar with French politics might lack. I’m going to briefly present his background, platform, strengths and weaknesses and explain what his victory would entail and to what extent the comparisons people make with Trump are sensible. In the conclusion I will explain why his election would be a political earthquake in Europe.
Who is Éric Zemmour?
Éric Zemmour was born in 1958 to Jewish parents who had recently moved to France from Algeria, still a French colony at the time, but were French citizens since most Jews in Algeria had been granted citizenship in 1870. He was born in Montreuil near Paris, a city that is home to a large share of African and North-African immigrants, but despite what I often hear he is not himself an immigrant since he was born in France to French parents. However, it’s true that he is not of European descent, so he is not a “Français de souche”. He became a journalist in the 1980s and started covering national politics in 1996 for Le Figaro, France’s main right-wing newspaper. Thus, over the years, he has met most French politicians and became friends with many of them. Most of them were conservative politicians, but not all of them. For instance, he is friends with Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the French far-left politician who even came to his birthday party a few years ago. During his career as a political journalist, he wrote biographies of Édouard Balladur and Jacques Chirac (the two most prominent right-wing politicians at the time), which although not bestsellers were favorably reviewed. Although he was well-known in political circles, the public did not discover him until the 2000s, when he became a regular on several TV shows and quickly became very popular for his abrasive style.
Although ideologically they are very different, during this period, he was a kind of Christopher Hitchens. He was no longer just a political journalist, but also and even mainly a cultural critic. In 2006, he wrote a book against the feminization of society — under the title The First Sex in reference to Simone de Beauvoir’s famous book — which became a bestseller and horrified a lot of feminists. In that work, he explicitly defended the patriarchal model, something that was very controversial even in France and would be unimaginable in the US. He wrote several other bestsellers after that in which he revisited French history and denounced France’s decline. He was fired several times from the TV shows and radio stations where he worked (where his left-wing colleagues signed petitions against him and pressured the bosses to get rid of him), but since he was very good for ratings, he would immediately be hired somewhere else. In 2011, he was found guilty of “incitement to racial hatred” by a court for saying that Blacks and Arabs were stopped by the police more often because “most [drug] traffickers are Black or Arab” (which is probably true), but this didn’t do anything to make him less popular. He was convicted again in 2018 for “incitement toward religious hatred” against Muslims.
What’s his platform?
According to various accounts, Zemmour started considering a political career a few years ago, before finally crossing the Rubicon a few months ago. Indeed, while he only made a formal announcement that he was running on November 30, he started preparing his campaign in the spring. The main theme of his campaign, overshadowing everything else, is the fight against immigration. He explicitly presents his bid for the presidency as the only way to prevent the Grand Remplacement (“Great Replacement”). According to him, unless France radically restricts immigration from North and sub-Saharan Africa (he says that we should aim for zero), people of non-European descent will eventually become the majority and the country will cease to be French culturally. While the first part is undoubtedly true and, in my opinion, the second is also correct, no French politician except Jean-Marie Le Pen had dared to say that before and it didn’t have the same impact with him because he was totally radioactive. Even Marine Le Pen refused to use that expression because she was trying to make her party respectable and she thought it was too radical. While the idea of the “Great Replacement” make the sophisticates want to scream bloody murder, polls show that 2/3 of the French population think it’s true, so it’s not as if this idea is really controversial outside of the bubble in which most commentators live, but Zemmour managed to make it a major theme of the campaign, which is unprecedented.
It’s not really surprising that Zemmour should run against the “Great Replacement”, since he’s been consistently anti-immigration and denouncing it for years in very strong terms. Indeed, as we have seen, it landed him in courts and caused him to lose his jobs on several occasions. Unlike many conservative politicians in both Europe and the US, Zemmour doesn’t merely use anti-immigration rhetoric because it’s popular among voters, he is a true believer. However, although he opposes immigration and despite what many people say, he doesn’t have a racial conception of Frenchness, which indeed would be rather weird since he is of non-European descent. He thinks that anyone can be French, no matter their background, but that being French involves adopting French culture and not just having French citizenship. He often criticizes people who claim that, in order to be French, one just has to adhere to human rights and a few other abstract principles. But while he thinks that anyone can in theory be French, he believes that France, which has been unable to assimilate the non-European immigrants who are already here, won’t be able to do so — let alone assimilate newcomers — if we don’t stop immigration. Therefore, he doesn’t attack only illegal immigration, but also and even mainly legal immigration. This includes asylum, which he wants to reduce to a few hundred people a year at most, citing Japan as his model because it only accepted 47 refugees in 2020.
Apart from immigration, Zemmour is a traditional conservative on most issues, but unlike most conservative politicians — who are far more liberal than their voters and say a lot of things they don’t really mean to get their votes when they’re running for office — there can be no doubt that he truly believes what he says, because he was already saying the same things before he decided to run for president. He is openly and stridently anti-woke, wants to remove what he calls “LGBT ideology” from schools and return to traditional pedagogy, increase the number of places in prison and the severity of sentences, etc. While in the past he has expressed somewhat heterodox views on economics, he is running on a very traditional French right-wing platform, pro-capitalism without being libertarian. His views on foreign policy are more original. He is openly a proponent of realpolitik and says that France should talk to everyone, including China and Russia. He is very critical of people who argue that we shouldn’t negotiate with them because they violate human rights. Again, there is no doubt that he sincerely believes that, because this is something he’s been saying for years. He also said that he thinks NATO should have been dismantled after the USSR collapsed, but has only proposed that France leave the organization’s integrated command, not that it leave NATO altogether.
Is he the French Trump?
Many people compare Zemmour to Trump, both in the US and in France, which I think is right in some ways but misleading in others. There are certainly similarities between Zemmour and Trump. First, neither of them is a career politician and they both have used their media popularity as a launchpad for their political career. This makes sense, since unless you already have some name recognition, it’s extremely difficult to make a dent in the polls when you don’t have a political machine behind. They also have a similar communication strategy, consisting of being ubiquitous in the media, which is easy because although journalists are very hostile to them they are very good for ratings so they still cover them. They make politically incorrect statements that make the sophisticates clutch their pearls and for days that’s all everyone hears about, which of course is exactly what they want, but journalists can’t help it so it works every time. Another similarity is that, like Trump and unlike so many conservative politicians, Zemmour never backs down. When he says something that journalists consider outrageous, he doesn’t apologize but doubles down, something that contributes a lot to his popularity among right-wing voters who are used to seeing conservative politicians grovel in front of the media every time they inadvertently say something that goes against the dominant opinion and also played a large role in Trump’s success in 2016 according to me. However, Zemmour has a similar problem with women as Trump, something he’ll have to solve if he is to have a chance:
Finally, while French presidential campaigns are much cheaper than in the US (expenditures are capped at 22 million euros by law), you still need money to have a chance and, like Trump in 2016, I have it on good authority that he is getting a lot of small donations, so I don’t think money will be a problem despite what some people think.
However, despite those similarities, Zemmour is also very different from Trump in a number of ways. First, whereas Trump is a clown who has neither the taste nor the discipline to read a lot about the issues, Zemmour is a voracious reader and works hard to make up for his deficiencies in some domains such as economics. Trump had some ideological preferences, such as his opposition to immigration and foreign wars motivated by ideology, but he wasn’t an ideologue and he spent his term in office hiring people who thought exactly the opposite as him, because in the end he didn’t care much about the issues and personal relationships were much more important to him. In that respect, Zemmour is a completely different animal; he has deep ideological commitments and is highly unlikely to appoint anyone who isn’t fully on board with his program. The socio-economic profile of their supporters is also different and reflects this difference in their personalities. Whereas Trump did particularly well among non-college educated voters, socio-economic category doesn’t seem very predictive of voting intentions for Zemmour. This is also strikingly different from Le Pen and Macron, who do much better among non-college educated and college-educated voters, respectively. Similarly, age is not very predictive of voting intentions for Zemmour, whereas Le Pen does significantly better among prime age people and Macron overperforms among older people:
This difference between Trump and Zemmour in who they appeal to is also reflected in the profile of the people advising them. Intelligent people have tended to stay as far away from Trump as possible, so his advisers tended to be very stupid people, but Zemmour has attracted a lot of talent. Most people don’t know them, because they mostly work in the shadows, but Zemmour is surrounded by a lot of people with a very unusual background for a candidate regarded as far-right. They tend to be young and come from the most prestigious schools in France. There are engineers, public servants, people in business, etc. Those profiles are very different from the crackpots Trump tended to surround himself with or, for that matter, from the people who advise Le Pen.
What is his strategy and does he have a chance?
Zemmour has been very explicit about his strategy, so we don’t really have to guess, but in order to understand it you need to know a few things about French political history. Up until the 1980’s, the French socialist party was a working-class movement. François Mitterrand, the first socialist to become president in France, was elected in 1981 on a platform that included the nationalization of many branches of industry. He actually implemented this platform after his election, but it was a disaster and he soon had to choose between his socialist economic policy and European integration, because continuing with this policy would have required that France leave the European Monetary System. In 1983, he chose the latter, but this decision created a serious political problem for him. Indeed, if the socialist party was no longer socialist on the economy, it needed something to mobilize voters against the right. The solution was to pivot from a party that was focused on improving the material conditions of the working class to a party that was focused on social issues and, in particular, on defending immigrants, who gradually replaced the working class in left-wing mythology. (Of course, I’m not saying it wouldn’t have happened otherwise since left-wing parties in other Western countries underwent the same transformation, but it was particularly sharp in France.) Luckily for Mitterrand, at the same time, the National Front, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s far-right party, was beginning to rise and its leader was the perfect bogeyman for the socialist party and its new platform.
At first, traditional right-wing leaders did not consider the National Front to be toxic and even made alliances with it occasionally in local elections, but as it turned out Mitterrand was really smart and traditional right-wing leaders were really stupid. Mitterrand very intelligently used his influence to simultaneously give more visibility to Le Pen by getting him invited on national television and also demonize him by supporting various anti-racist activist groups to make him a pariah by pretending that he was a fascist. Thus, while the National Front was rising and taking votes away from traditional right-wing parties, it was becoming increasingly difficult for them to make alliances because mainstream conservative politicians were afraid of the backlash from the media. Le Pen himself made that easier by making several very controversial statements and soon he was completely toxic. This gradually resulted in a division of the French right, with moderates and the conservative bourgeoisie voting mostly for traditional right-wing parties, while the National Front got more radical voters and, increasingly, working-class voters moving away from the communist party. Despite what many people in the US think, France is actually a deeply right-wing country in many ways, so the total vote in favor of the right is almost always greater than the total for the left, but this division of the right and the “cordon sanitaire” around the National Front nevertheless allowed the socialist party to sometimes win national election because the right couldn’t unite.
This coup was a case of political genius on the part of Mitterrand and, for the past 30 years, it has plagued the French right and made it lose elections that it would otherwise have easily won. While this division of the right-wing electorate was initially pretty superficial, it eventually solidified because, to a large extent, people’s ideology is driven by their partisan identity and not the other way around. Thus, the more time went by, the more difficult it became for the right to escape Mitterrand’s curse by uniting. Nicolas Sarkozy understood this and his solution was to steal Le Pen’s voters by adopting his platform while avoiding his excesses. Thus, he was able to unite the right without allying with the National Front, which allowed him to win the presidential election easily in 2007. But he quickly betrayed his promises and, under Marine Le Pen, the National Front — which recently became the National Rally — rose even higher than it had under her father. However, despite her efforts, it’s still toxic enough that she can’t possibly win the presidential election. Zemmour’s theory is that he can unite the right around him by bringing together the conservative bourgeoisie that currently votes for traditional right-wing parties and the working class who vote for Le Pen. (Many people are surprised that his economic platform is not more “populist” and they think it’s because he lacks imagination, but they just don’t understand that he is doing that on purpose, because he doesn’t want to scare the bourgeoisie.) At least, he is hoping that he can take enough voters on both sides to reach the second round of the presidential election, which unlike Le Pen he would have a chance of winning because — at least that’s what he thinks — he is not as toxic as her.
Is he right? That’s the million-dollar question. So far, he is doing worse in the polls than Le Pen when they test them against Macron in the second round, but I have a hard time believing that Zemmour could be as toxic as Le Pen after decades of nonstop demonizing of her family and I suspect that it will change as the campaign starts in earnest next year and people who don’t follow politics closely get exposed to him. However, this won’t matter if he doesn’t make it to the second round, and while it’s still unclear whether he will at this point he has been doing spectacularly well so far:
I can assure you that, if you had told anyone 6 months ago — including people in Zemmour’s campaign — that he’d be at 12%-15% in the polls in December, no one would have believed you. Some people think that he is going to crash in the next few weeks, but while it’s possible, I doubt it’s going to happen because he now seems to have a solid base of people who tell pollsters they are sure to vote for him. (Only Le Pen and Macron do better than him in that respect.) It’s true that after rising incredibly fast in the polls, he started going down about a month ago, but it looks as though he managed to stop the fall. The first round of the election will be decided by the people who hesitate between Zemmour, Le Pen and Pécresse, the candidate of the Republicans, the traditional right-wing party, who recently had a jump in the polls after she won the nomination. However, I personally think Pécresse is going to fall in the polls next year because she is basically a female version of Macron and people will prefer the original to the copy, so that it will be between Le Pen and Zemmour.
Whether Zemmour can make it to the second round will depend on a few things. First, as I noted above, Zemmour has a similar problem with women as Trump, but it’s actually a bigger problem for him. Indeed, in the case of Trump, it was compensated by the fact that he was running in a two-party system, so with polarization many women who wouldn’t have voted for Trump otherwise ended up voting for him anyway because he wasn’t a Democrat. In France, right-wing women have other options (Pécresse and Le Pen), so Zemmour will have to improve his image among women if he wants to have a chance. He will also need to do better among non-college educated voters. On this point, the optimistic hypothesis for Zemmour is that, because they don’t follow politics closely, those voters have not been exposed much to his message yet, so that for the moment they just say they intend to vote for Le Pen because they are more familiar with her. However, if that’s the explanation for why Le Pen is doing so much better than him among non-college educated voters, it’s likely that when the campaign starts in earnest next year and even people who don’t follow politics very closely get exposed to his message, Zemmour will make gains at Le Pen’s expense in that group. Indeed, it’s clear that Le Pen and Zemmour are to a large extent competing for the same voters, since people who say they intend to vote for one are much more likely to cite the other as their second choice than any other candidate. However, it’s also possible that non-college educated voters just dislike Zemmour’s more intellectual style, in which case this will not happen and it will be difficult for him to reach the second round. Of course, even if he does, he’d still have to convince enough people that he isn’t an extremist and that he is ready to govern to win against Macron. Right now, if I had to bet, I’d say that Zemmour’s chances of reaching the second round are about 50% and that conditional on making it to the second round his probability of winning is around 30%. This implies a 15% probability that he will be the next president of France, which is pretty close to what betting markets are saying.
There is still a pretty high probability that Zemmour won’t even make it to the second round of the presidential election and, even if he does, Macron remains the overwhelming favorite. However, while it’s still unlikely, I think the hypothesis that Zemmour will be the next president of France is higher than most people realize. If what I said above is right, it’s about 15%, which is low but not so low that it can be totally ignored. Moreover, even if he won, he would still have to defeat the French “Deep State”. This won’t be easy, but Zemmour is better equipped than Trump was to do it, because as I noted above he has a much better understanding of the issues and has access to more people who are qualified to fill his administration. If he somehow managed to do all that, however, I think it would change a lot of things, not just in France but in Europe. In particular, the ideological balance of power in the EU would be deeply transformed, because it’s one thing if a small country like Hungary is governed by a “populist” government but it’s quite another if it’s the second-largest country in the Union and the only one with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
Anti-immigration sentiment has been rising in Europe for several years and even left-wing governments have had to adopt a more restrictionist stance under pressure from public opinion. Zemmour’s platform on immigration would necessarily result in a showdown with the EU. Most people seem to think that he would have to back down, but in my opinion they are completely delusional. Public opinion in Europe is overwhelmingly on Zemmour’s side on immigration and France leaving the EU would be the end of the Union, something people in Brussels are well aware of, so I think that, as soon as they realize that he is committed to getting what he wants on that issue, they would bend the knee. Of course, for that to happen, Zemmour would have to win first, but this is why you should follow the presidential race closely next year. The stakes have never been so high and, despite what everyone thought a few months ago, it should be very interesting.