By Cole Stangler
You don’t have to be living in France to understand there’s a lot at stake in April’s presidential election: The global climate crisis is deepening, the country’s role on the international stage is under question, its welfare model is under pressure, and the shifting political winds in Berlin suggest there may even be a window of opportunity to nudge the European Union in a more progressive direction. Looming over it all, by the way, is a pandemic.
In an alternative time line, the 2022 presidential campaign would be focusing on some of these issues. How does France aim to rein in the fossil fuel industry? How should it position itself as the new Cold War heats up? How can the state protect the safety net and redistribute wealth as Europe’s austerity hawks begin to circle?
That is not the campaign underway.
Four months out from the first round of the vote, the election is instead being driven by an array of inflammatory culture war issues animating an emboldened far right. Debates over Islam, immigration, national identity, and crime have all dominated the early stages of the race, fuelling a campaign that feels cruelly detached from the material interests of the French public and the planet at large. It’s still early and a lot can happen between now and April — but it’s not looking pretty.
The leading contenders span the spectrum from far-right to centre-right: a pair of revanchists who more or less dictate the news cycle; a neoliberal incumbent offering stability and a defence of basic liberal values at a time of uncertainty; and finally, a representative of old-guard conservatives who have struggled to find a raison d’être in recent years but who may well be able to muster the broad coalition needed to win the runoff round.
On the outside looking in are a series of left-wing parties that are badly divided, lacking in credibility, and deeply detached from their old working-class base.
The far right has largely set the tone for the campaign, shaping the exchanges between various candidates and weighing heavily on press coverage. To some degree, this was to be expected. In the 2017 race, Marine Le Pen received the strongest-ever presidential result for the National Front, earning 34 percent of the vote in the runoff round against Emmanuel Macron. While her final score was something of a disappointment for her party — many anticipated an even better performance — it underlined just how mainstream it had become.
Now known as the National Rally (RN), the party has held on to its base in the Macron era. And while its electoral performance has been underwhelming — the RN failed to win any of the seventeen presidencies up for grabs in this year’s staggeringly low-turnout regional elections — it continues to win the battle of ideas. A glance at the national press reveals a debate coloured by what were once the party’s pet causes, confined to the margins of political life: calls to end immigration, deport the undocumented, cut off foreigners’ access to state aid, clamp down on public displays of Islam, and tackle crime — no matter the costs.
This type of politics is in demand. One cannot deny that a large chunk of French voters is attracted to the party’s message, including a significant share of the working class. (The decline of organized labour and the traditional political parties of the Left has wrought havoc in ways that should not be underestimated.) Still, the far right has gotten extra help in recent years thanks to a more favourable media landscape — and particularly from the rise of a TV network often dubbed the “French Fox News.”
Created by conservative billionaire Vincent Bolloré in 2017, CNews has quickly become one of the country’s most-watched news networks. It pumps out a relentless stream of punditry over things like drug-related violence in public housing projects, the Islamic veil, and the excesses of politically correct college students — transforming the larger national news cycle in the process.
In the meantime, Macron’s strategy of triangulation has resulted in his government offering de facto legitimization of far-right concerns. While he portrays himself as a staunch opponent of the RN, his government has tightened immigration restrictions, launched a crackdown on Islamist “separatism,” and pushed through a national security bill that featured a measure criminalizing the filming of police officers — a legislative passage that was ultimately struck down by France’s Constitutional Council.
At the same time, leading members of Macron’s cabinet have embraced a new set of culture wars, lamenting the spread of an Anglo-American inspired “cancel culture,” the supposed plague of “wokeness,” and the alleged threat of “Islamo-leftism.” These battles have reinforced the belief that France’s eternal national identity is under siege — a target for enemies both outside and within the country’s borders, particularly those of the Muslim confession.
All of this explains why Marine Le Pen remains the top first-round challenger to Macron. Polls in early December give her around 15 to 20 percent of the vote, while placing her 10 to 15 percent percentage points behind the incumbent in the runoff. But it’s also why the space exists for a candidate even further on the Right — something that would have been unthinkable even five years ago. Fittingly, the man outflanking Le Pen is a former star panelist for CNews, someone who has been at the driver’s seat of the rightward lurch in French media and politics.
Despite their obvious ideological affinities, ÉricZemmour has a very different style than the RN boss. She aims to paint herself as reasonable and ready-to-govern; he relishes his ability to repulse and transgress. In the Zemmourian universe, provocation is to be embraced — like Trump, there is a certain glee in crossing the line and seeing where the dust settles, over and over. (Before officially declaring his candidacy, he doubled down on the Great Replacement conspiracy theory, which alleges a demographic takeover of Europe by people from Africa and the Middle East, and called to ban names of non-French origin.)
But who can blame him for applying a formula that works? A polemicist-turned–TV personality who understands the inner workings of the press perhaps better than any other candidate, Zemmour has effectively stolen the spotlight from his rivals. Against this backdrop, he’s built impressive support from conservatives and RN supporters put off by Le Pen’s relative moderation.
A familiar aphorism in French politics criticizes right-wingers who tread too far onto the RN’s territory. “Voters prefer the original to the copy,” goes the refrain, originally used by Jean-Marie Le Pen to criticize attempts from the mainstream right to swipe his talking points in the early 1990s. More than a decade later, in a political universe drifting ever more to the right, Zemmour is essentially turning this logic against the RN itself. Why vote for a watered-down version of the far right when you can vote for the real thing? Why settle for the daughter when you can have the father?
All that said, Zemmour has yet to prove he can attract beyond a limited base of conservatives. As of early December, he was earning around 13 percent in the polls, trailing Marine Le Pen and outside of striking distance from Macron. His dream of uniting a “patriotic bourgeoisie” and the working class still seems far-fetched, at least for now. (IPA Service)
Courtesy: Jacobin Magazine