Months until presidential vote, a far-right surge jolts France

Concerns grow as polls for next year’s election show Eric Zemmour and Marine Le Pen with the backing of nearly a third of French voters.

From left: Marine Le Pen, Emmanuel Macron and Eric Zemmour [Reuters]

Paris, France – With about six months to go, the 2022 presidential election is already a major talking point in France.

Much of the French media is not focused on Macron’s chances of becoming the first president to be re-elected since Jacques Chirac in 2002, but rather on the rise of the far right.

In the latest election poll, published on October 6, two far-right figures are predicted secure 32 percent; 17 percent for Eric Zemmour and 15 percent for Marine Le Pen.

Macron, individually, is still seen as the favourite, with 24 percent.

On the left, the total predicted vote is at 25 percent, including four parties – the Green Party, Socialist Party, Communist Party, and La France Insoumise (France Unbowed).

The recent poll, showing that Le Pen is not Macron’s main opponent as she was in the 2017 vote, shocked observers.

Her competitor on the far right, the polemicist Zemmour, has not officially announced his candidacy, but his omnipresence on French TV channels has propelled his popularity.

The rise of Zemmour and far-right discourse

On September 16, Zemmour published La France n’a pas dit son dernier mot (France hasn’t had its last word), which topped the bestseller list on Amazon France, selling about 130,000 copies in the two weeks after release.

The wide dissemination of his ideas, which critics consider as even further right than Le Pen’s views, has worried officials across the political spectrum.

Of great concern to many, he believes French citizens with “non-French” first names should change their name and supports the so-called “great replacement” theory – the notion, also held by white supremacists in the United States, that Western populations are being “replaced” by immigrants.

Zemmour has also been accused by seven women of sexual harassment and faced court many times for hate speech considered racist, Islamophobic, sexist or homophobic – but has almost always been acquitted.

According to Aurelien Mondon, a politics professor who researches racism and the far right: “Zemmour is not expecting to become president, what he wants is to kind of move the discourse to the far right … He wants to win the battle of ideas.”

Many compare him with Donald Trump, the former US president, because scandals only seem to make him more popular.

He could steal support from Le Pen, who in some ways has toned down her rhetoric.

Mondon described Le Pen’s election poster as a “desperate attempt to pretend that she’s addressing the mainstream”.

Its green background implies a pivot towards climate issues, there is an absence of party names – long seen as obsolete in French presidential elections – and the “Libertés, libertés chéries” (Liberties, cherished liberties) tagline is taken from the French national anthem, but nods to France’s vaccine denying crowd, said Mondon.

Le Pen’s main challenge in these elections, Mondon said, is that the “whole spectrum has moved to the right, which means that it’s very crowded for her now”.

Le Pen also faces competition against candidates from the traditional right-wing party, Les Républicains (The Republicans), which will elect its candidate in December. Xavier Bertrand is tipped as the favourite, with 13 percent in polls, but Valérie Pécresse and Michel Barnier – the EU’s former chief Brexit negotiator – are close competitors.

While the far right is buoyant, eco-consciousness is also rising, especially among young people.

Three out of four French citizens agree that the only way to deal with the climate crisis is to adopt a low-carbon economy, according to a study published earlier this year.

Albin Wagener, a researcher on environmental issues, said more than 80 percent of French people view the environment as their number-one concern, but the data shows this well-intended talk has not led to action.

“Between the reality of the facts and the wishes of the French, something is missing. A strategic political vision is missing,” he said.

The Greens, known as Europe Ecologie-Les Verts, was the only group to organise a primary election in France, with 122,000 voters registering to vote for their top candidate – a record for the party.

Yannick Jadot narrowly won the primaries, defeating Sandrine Rousseau, an outspoken activist, who for the first time in mainstream politics, talked about ecofeminism.

With 6 percent for Jadot in the polls, the Greens need to make a significant effort to reach even the first round, even as climate has emerged as a key issue across the political spectrum.

But Wagener said: “It remains to be seen how much weight the security and identity issues will have, as they risk erasing the climate challenge [issue], which is infinitely more important.”

French left in ‘catastrophic’ state

Other notable parties on the left, such as the Socialist Party and La France Insoumise, have seen their support bases plummet.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, La France Insoumise leader, impressed in 2017 with nearly 20 percent – the highest for a left-wing candidate.

But, as he gears up for his third presidential campaign, he is seen as an ageing figure and has shed core supporters.

The Socialist Party is still recovering from its disastrous 2017 result, 6 percent.

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo is expected to be chosen as its candidate.

According to Philippe Marlière, professor of French and European politics at University College London, Hidalgo has so far failed to convince much of the French left and will struggle to get votes outside Paris.

“She’s going into this election trying to save the party instead of hoping to win or even to qualify for the second round,” he said. “The French left is in an absolutely catastrophic situation.”

A widening divide between politics and the public

But political experts warn that it is too early to call anything and that polls and surveys are not necessarily representative of the French population.

What is alarming, Marlière said, is the “big discrepancy between the public at large, which is largely disillusioned with politics … and the sphere of the media and professional politics, where over the past few years there has been a massive shift to the right, where ideas such as racism, sexism, and all the rest have become sort of acceptable”.

As more become disenchanted with mainstream politics, abstentions could rise in the 2022 vote.

The 2017 vote saw the highest abstention rate – 25 percent – since 1969.

Meanwhile, as the left scrambles for support and the right and far right fight amongst themselves, Macron continues to govern. He is expected to announce his bid for re-election next year.

According to some media reports, many who voted for Macron in the second round in 2017 would not vote for him again next year, even if he faces a far-right candidate.

Source: Al Jazeera