Sex scandals, copyright breaches and aggressive confrontations with members of the public have seen the presidential campaign of Eric Zemmour—a controversial far-right pundit in France—begin with a whimper, not a bang.
In typically divisive fashion, the 63-year-old polemicist announced his long-expected candidature on Tuesday from a wooden desk with a vintage microphone above a soundtrack of Beethoven, alluding to Charles de Gaulle’s famous call to the French people to join the resistance against the Nazis in 1940. “It is no longer time to reform France but to save it,” said Zemmour, in a 10-minute YouTube video. “We must give back the power to the people, take it back from minorities that oppress the majority.”
But political analysts told The Daily Beast that Zemmour, known for his outspoken anti-Islam, anti-immigrant views, has made several chaotic errors in the lead-up to his announcement—and that his decision to run in France’s April 2022 elections could split the far-right vote, killing off their chance of power.
“I am wondering whether he has made a mistake here,” says Aurélien Mondon, a French expert on the mainstreaming of far-right discourse and associate professor at the University of Bath. “If there’s a winner from Zemmour’s candidature, it’s Emmanuel Macron. It’s going to be very crowded on the right. There’s a limited pool of voters. Zemmour could find himself very isolated. It could destroy him in a way.”
For Cornelia Woll, a political scientist at Sciences Po Paris, Zemmour’s decision to run will “ruin the campaign of Marine Le Pen [leader of the far-right National Rally party]” and fragment the far-right vote. “He’s a competitor on the same grounds as her,” she says.
In recent months Zemmour, a Jewish son of Algerian parents who gained a following as a pundit on France’s equivalent of Fox News, CNews, has been widely discussed as a contender to challenge Macron. “For a long time, he was accepted by the media, politicians and public intellectuals,” adds Mondon. “Now he is setting the agenda. The issues we are talking about are the ones that he is talking about.”
Zemmour has thrived due to media coverage of his Donald Trump-style controversy, lambasting identity politics and propagating sexist, racist and homophobic rhetoric—as well as the Great Replacement theory, a conspiracy that claims the “indigenous” white European population is being demographically and culturally replaced by Muslims.
He has twice been convicted of inciting racial and religious hatred, has been accused of sexual assault by seven women and previously insisted that parents should be legally forced to give their children “traditional” French names. His latest book, France Has Not Said Its Last Word Yet, which was published in September, has sold 250,000 copies and received frenzied coverage in French media.
“That’s why he is so dangerous in the post-Trump environment,” says Rim-Sarah Alouane, a French legal scholar and PhD candidate in comparative law at the University of Toulouse. “He’s not a politician, he’s a pundit. He was created by the media. It’s entertainment for them.”
But a recent turn of messy events has seen several supporters distance themselves, including wealthy funder Charles Gave, leading to critics calling his campaign “disorganized” and “amateurish.” That image was compounded when television channels BFM and LCI reportedly stopped airing Zemmour’s new announcement video because it includes footage used without permission from copyright owners.
“His career is built on provocation,” says Professor Woll. “For quite some time it was amusing to have someone that provocative. But it appears that this might be losing steam.”
In recent weeks, Zemmour was widely criticized for making political points in front of the Bataclan venue—the site of terrorist attacks in 2015, and therefore considered off-limits for electioneering. He was then snubbed on a recent trip to London, with not a single British MP agreeing to meet him and the venue for his speech, the Royal Institution, canceling on him at the last minute following “due diligence” checks.
Adding to that, French magazine Closer alleged that the 28-year-old campaign director of Zemmour, who is married and has campaigned on traditional family values, is pregnant with his child. And on a campaign stop to Marseille last week, Zemmour was chased around town by left-wing protesters and then “gave the finger” to a member of the public.
Zemmour’s wider electability has also come into question, because, unlike Donald Trump and the Republican Party, he is not backed by a mainstream political group. His team is reportedly even struggling to obtain the 500 signatures of elected representatives required to run in the presidential elections. “All of these things aren’t a given,” says Mondon.
Despite these setbacks, Zemmour is still currently polling in third place nationally, behind only President Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, and according to a poll released on Tuesday, he is projected to garner around 13 percent of the vote—down four percentage points but nonetheless a remarkably high level of support for an independent candidate.
Even if Zemmour does lose the battle, with his election prospects under scrutiny, experts say he is likely to have a lasting impact on French politics, pointing to the shadow of Zemmour’s extremist discourse that hung over this month’s debates between candidates vying to become the nominee for Les Républicains, France’s traditional conservative party, even though he wasn’t present.
“The far right has already won the ideology war,” says Alouane. “We’re already going towards more and more of an illiberal society. Zemmour’s ideas on topics like immigration have already been taken on by mainstream politicians like [French interior minister Gérald] Darmanin. His ideas have been normalized.”