A Trump-Style Election Playbook Falters In France
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Hinting that you might run for president in France is a lot easier (and more exciting) than joining the race for real. The country is always on the lookout for its next homme providentiel to rescue it from the jaws of chaos — but it takes luck, skill and money to win as an outsider. Emmanuel Macron managed it in 2017; Coluche, a popular comedian who ran in the ‘80s, did not.
Eric Zemmour, a cerebral far-right pundit, who’s been sanctioned for inciting racial hatred and elicits comparisons to both Donald Trump and Tucker Carlson, is undergoing a reality check of his own. Hints that the 63-year-old might run for president generated wall-to-wall media coverage and poll ratings of almost 20% (not far off Macron’s 25% lead) throughout the fall; they’ve since fallen closer to 10%.
Zemmour officially launched his campaign on Tuesday, in a video that felt more whimper than bang. His gloomy tirade against a supposedly broken society — set to Beethoven’s 7th symphony and with visual hints of Charles De Gaulle’s 1940 call to resistance — came with promises to re-industrialize France, crack down on immigration and boot out elites in Paris and Brussels. The most powerful rebuke came not from political opposition but from lawyers, with the use of apparently unauthorized footage triggering threats of possible legal action.
It was an inauspicious debut and clashed with the day’s far more positive images of a ceremony honoring Josephine Baker, the first Black woman to enter the French Pantheon.
The more sunlight shines on Zemmour’s campaign, the less impressive it seems. A recent planned event in London was canceled at the last minute, and he lost his cool in Marseille, giving a heckler the middle finger. His financial backer Charles Gave, a financier, has pulled out and his lieutenants are fleeing the ship, blaming Zemmour’s 28-year-old campaign manager for a one-note pitch to voters that fails to address issues like inflation or Covid-19 and sounds more like: “Vote for me or you’ll die.”
Nobody should write off a candidate polling at 10%, but the direction of travel suggests this is a Trump-like playbook missing some pages. Zemmour has hit upon a triptych of issues — immigration, insecurity and identity — that clearly resonates with an increasingly conservative post-Covid France. But voters want solutions, too, and Zemmour’s strident defense of the Vichy regime, the death penalty and enforcing French first names hasn’t gone beyond a far-right niche. With no party backing, Zemmour has an even harder job scaling the barriers to the Elysee Palace set up by France’s system, from two-round voting to gathering 500 endorsements from elected officials.
Political analyst Jean-Yves Camus tells me Zemmour reminds him more of Stephen Miller, the firebrand political operative and ideologue who served as senior Trump aide, rather than a winning candidate on the campaign trail. It’s an astute comparison. Miller’s hypocrisy on immigration has been pointed out by his own family. Zemmour, of Algerian-Jewish origin, has shown a tendency to pander to anti-Semitic views.
Still, with five months to go before voting begins, Macron shouldn’t rest easy. As an ideology, Zemmourism could yet be co-opted by stronger candidates with deeper pockets. The center-right has yet to decide on a leader for the Republicains party, which alongside Michel Barnier also includes Eric Ciotti who shares Zemmour’s first name and mindset. Benjamin Morel, a professor at ENS Paris-Saclay, says that Marine Le Pen remains a danger for Macron — she is currently predicted to face off against the president in the second round, according to polls.
The big test for incumbent leaders like Macron will be new Covid variants such as omicron. A rally-around-the-flag effect could work for him if booster shots and re-tooled vaccines contain the current wave of cases. But if that fails, Macron will lose the one quality that sets him apart from others — an “it just works” technocratic approach that has seen France’s vaccination coverage rise to one of the highest in Europe. That, combined with a spiraling inflation rate, could empower populist rivals.
Today, polls and betting markets have pegged Macron as the electoral favorite. But if all presidential candidacies lose their halo when they’re officially confirmed, Macron should worry about what happens when he announces his reelection bid. At least, thanks to Zemmour, he will know what not to use as a soundtrack.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the European Union and France. He worked previously at Reuters and Forbes.
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