Zemmour, the son of Jews from Algeria, is not a politician. He began his career as a journalist and quickly found a place as a fiery right-wing provocateur on television and radio, lamenting the decline, Islamization and emasculation of France.
To borrow a term from American radio, he is a “shock-jock” of the very highest order, but one who presents his controversial ideas in a suit and tie, writes in bestselling books and wraps them in a smoky touch of intellectualism good in France.
And he’s got a moment right now – for two important reasons.
For one thing, it fills a void to the left of Le Pen, who, after finishing second in the last two presidential elections, is (again) trying to soften its image and expand its appeal. According to surveys, the rise of Zemmour was mainly at their expense. It addresses the racial and cultural fears of a sizeable segment of the French right-wing and quenches a wider thirst for politicians who don’t care about the establishment’s high-handed policewoman.
And the media just can’t help it! As Zemmour’s outrages get more attention, he rises in the polls and deserves further coverage. According to a study by Politico, he received more than ten times as much TV exposure in France as Le Pen did last month. If this dangerous feedback loop sounds familiar to veterans of the 2016 US presidential campaign, Zemmour welcomes the comparison to former US President Donald Trump, a man with a similar uncanny ability to make good use of hostile media.
With Macron’s approval rating shrinking in the low 40s, could Zemmour really stir up the presidential race? Yes, but not because he has a serious chance of winning himself. Remember, France has a runoff system for the presidential election – if no one cracks 50 percent in the first round, the top two will face each other in a second fight. Most polls show that if Le Pen or Zemmour made it to the second round, Macron would easily win.
But Macron is in danger. First, Zemmour’s rise has diverted the focus from issues Macron is comfortable with – like managing the pandemic, European leadership, and the economy – and issues where he’s weaker, like security, French identity, and cultural wars.
Second, and more urgently, if Zemmour and Le Pen – who are already arguing – split the right-wing vote in the first round, it could pave the way for a more impressive center-right candidate to challenge Macron in the second round. That could be a problem for him.
Though the French left is currently a chaotic circular firing squad, the center-right Les Republicains has a chance of pitching a candidate who could kill Macron for his money next year.
That is, if Les Republicains can agree on a candidate. At the moment, the leading candidates for the Brexit negotiators are Michel Barnier, whom the party elites seem to prefer, and Xavier Bertrand, the simple president of the Hauts-de-France region in northern France, of the Le Pens party in the last regional elections and is already in some polls level with Zemmour.
The result. Whether or not Zemmour has a chance at winning the presidency, his message and promotion have already mixed up the race and could reshape French right for years to come.