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As the 2022 French presidential election draws nearer, all candidates are in the final round of the campaign for popularity. Incumbent president Emmanuel Macron has declared that he will be seeking a second term and will run against a number of contenders. Among his challengers from the right are prominent figure of the National Rally Marine Le Pen and newcomer Eric Zemmour. Compered to Le Pen, who has been mainstreaming her agenda to broaden her appeals after failing the 2017 runoff between her and Macron, Zemmour decided to run the campaign on a populist and anti-establishment platform. Prior to declaring his candidacy, Zemmour was a political commentator employed by CNews which blatantly embraces controversial right-wing comments in a style that highly resembles America’s FOX News. As a political commentator, he was known for his radical xenophobic comments for which he was convicted for hate crimes on three separate occasions. While many may feel repulsed by Zemmour’s views and policy proposals, his unconventionality also won him support from French hardline nativists which had the added effect of splitting support for Le Pen. One of the most recent incidents that is demonstrating this trend is the defection of Le Pen’s niece Marion Marechal, to Zemmour’s campaign. While Le Pen commented on such a defection as “It’s brutal, it’s shocking, it’s difficult for me”, she remains far more popular over Zemmour as reflected by the polls. Why then, has Zemmour been unable to capitalize and increase his popularity?

Based on Zemmours’ appeals, it is reasonable to portray his supporters as individuals who were disappointed by the current political order and are fearful of social uncertainties. Zemmour has a firm grasp of their resentment and has cast a net as large as possible to broaden his appeals among the right-wing voters who may be radicalized. Immigration, gender, and the EU, Zemmour holds hostile rhetoric against all such topics. However, when his “big-tent” politics began to fabricate an enemy that the French public does not somewhat recognize, Zemmour’s strategy also brings him a significant backlash. On March 13, a father whose son experiences physical difficulties smacked a raw egg on Zemmour’s head as he was just stepping out of his vehicle for a rally to express his anger against Zemmour’s comments against France’s inclusion efforts.

At the same time, Zemmour’s armature response toward Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is more detrimental to his popularity. Since the breakout of the conflict, several European right-wing politicians, including Le Pen, have publicly demonstrated their disentanglement from Russia and condemned Putin’s decision. However, Zemmour is still justifying Russia’s position in support of his so-called sovereigntist agenda against the NATO alliance. Despite such a claim being cohesive to Zemmour’s pro-Russia stance, it certainly no longer appeals to the French public. Zemmour’s support rate in the polling result has been in a steady decline since the breakout of the war as some criticized his initial reluctance to condemn Russia and refuse to accept Ukrainian refugees. When France and Europe’s security is threatened by Russia’s aggression, failing to address voters’ concern amplifies Zemmour’s inexperience on foreign affairs and is lethal to his journey in the presidential 2022 campaign.    

While Macron’s presidency has not been free from turbulences in the past years, he is still generally approved of by French society. With the war breaking out in Ukraine, Macron is reestablishing himself as a responsible and hard-working state leader in a time of European crisis through his savvy use of social media, especially Twitter.

The war has also further divided French conservatives from the far-right inhibiting the formation of a meaningful coalition to challenge Macron in the upcoming election. Even beyond the war, Zemmour was largely repeating Le Pen’s trajectory in 2017. Despite that Le Pen’s shift to mainstream politics would yield space to more radical political forces, it is debatable whether such a gap could allow a candidate to independently succeed in the election. With that being said, Marion Marechal’s defection became quite futile since it has been constantly overshadowed by Zemmour’s controversial remarks on domestic and foreign politics. It is certainly concerning that a rookie right-wing politician was able to gain momentum on a national level by occupying the radical platform that Le Pen yielded, yet it remains unlikely that Zemmour would win the upcoming election based on his inexperience when political experience is needed the most as France is navigating through the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.

Jiahe You is an international student from China, pursuing a Master’s in International Affairs at Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University.

Photo: “Le Jour ni l’Heure : Eric Zemmour à Plieux, Gers, mardi 29 mars 2020, 19:31:15,” by Renaud Camus licensed under CC BY 2.0.