How the Zemmour storm in a cup of tea hijacked the French countryside – and helped Le Pen

After dominating the airwaves at the start of the campaign, far-right French candidate Éric Zemmour saw his presidential race run out of steam in the home stretch. His low score of 7.1% in the first round on Sunday ruled him out of the second round on April 24. But his outsized influence on the campaign could still weigh on the final result.

All that fuss for just 7.1%. Veteran French journalist Laure Adler no doubt spoke on behalf of many colleagues when she gave a “mea culpa” on Monday about the media treatment of Éric Zemmour’s campaign.

“As a journalist, I would like to give a mea culpa – and I think a lot of us should be worried about that,” Adler told France 5. “I think we played a role in the media bubble and construction of Éric Zemmour’s candidacy.

The media bubble ultimately failed to propel the far-right troublemaker into the second round of the French presidential election, in which incumbent President Emmanuel Macron will once again have to face off against national rally (National Rally) the candidate Marine Le Pen. But his legacy threatens to weigh on a contest that pollsters have billed as a close race, Adler warned.

She added: “I think the candidacy of Éric Zemmour, and this name that dominated the airwaves for two months, lent credit to the normalization of Marine Le Pen.”

French presidential election ©France 24

A prolific writer and proponent of the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory, whereby liberal elites plot to replace white-born French nationals with immigrants, Zemmour led the early stages of the presidential campaign in the loud, aggressive and iconoclast of a Donald Trump – albeit with the veneer of cultured sophistication generally expected of a French presidential candidate.

Like the former US president, Zemmour presented himself as a truth-teller unconstrained by political correctness. His background as a talk show pundit also mirrored Trump’s former TV stardom. Le Figaro, a traditional right-wing newspaper in France, first gave it credibility with a weekly column. News stations like CNews then offered him a nationwide prime-time audience — and a platform from which to make vitriolic comments about Muslims and immigrants.

Zemmour’s sulphurous statements have resulted in three convictions for incitement to hatred (he is appealing the third) and have repeatedly brought CNews into hot water. The French broadcasting regulator, Arcom (formerly the CSA), has twice served formal notice on the channel following comments by the far-right commentator. Last year, in a first for a French news channel, it fined CNews 200,000 euros for speech inciting racial hatred. He also chastised the network for failing to provide political balance in its broadcast.

Creation of the “Zemmour event”

As talk of a possible Zemmour presidential race gained traction over the summer dominating the airwaves, the regulator ruled in September that the pundit should be considered a political player and therefore his broadcast time was limit. In response, CNews said he would stop appearing on its daily schedule. But Zemmour’s exposure on the channel and other networks has only increased.

Between September and December 2022, Zemmour’s remarks absorbed 44% of the airtime devoted to politics on Cyril Hanouna’s show.Do not touch My TV”, an influential talk show hosted by sister channel C8, according to a study by media researcher Claire Sécail. The overall figure for the far right rose to 53% when counting the other candidates, first and foremost Le Pen.

>> Read more: Pushing the far-right agenda, French news channels are shaping the electoral debate

But CNews and other outlets owned by tycoon Vincent Bolloré weren’t the only ones obsessed with the former pundit and his favorite topics.

In an interview with FRANCE 24 earlier this year, Emmanuelle Walter, editor-in-chief of the media watchdog, Arrest on Image, said the focus on CNews was hiding a wider shift to the right affecting whole swathes of the media establishment – and of which Zemmour’s overexposure is only a symptom.

“There has been a normalization of far-right discourse on topics such as immigration, which is not supported by any scientific evidence,” she explained. “Even well-meaning journalists often fail to realize that their own questions can be biased, for example when addressing the ‘problem’ of immigration.”

The long rise of far-right voting in France

In the January edition of its quarterly magazine Médiacritiques, the independent media observatory Acrimed noted that CNews’ main rival, BFMTV, was paying just as much attention, if not more, to Zemmour in the run-up to his presidential bid. .

Although he only entered the race on November 30, Zemmour was regularly tested by pollsters as a potential candidate from the beginning of July. Talking about his impending candidacy has become an obsessive theme throughout the pre-election campaign. As Acrimed wrote, in the three months before his statement, the French media “created the ‘Zemmour event’, making this non-candidate the center of gravity of the political debate”.

France’shitty campaign

One of the consequences of the disproportionate media presence of Zemmour and his favorite subjects, first and foremost immigration, has been to sideline other subjects deemed more important by French voters. These included purchasing power, the climate emergency and the plight of the French healthcare system – all issues that topped voters’ top concerns, according to polls.

By the time France’s strict campaign rules guaranteeing candidates equal airtime came into effect, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had upended the campaign, further marginalizing most campaign issues – with the exception of the impact of the war on the cost of living of French households in difficulty.

An Ifop poll before the first round found that 80% of French people felt the campaign was of “poor quality”. Another survey, carried out by Ipsos-Sopra Steria, revealed that 55% of those questioned were “dissatisfied” and 37% downright “angry”. In the words of ruralist candidate Jean Lassalle, it was a “shitty campaign(shitty campaign).

The campaign’s late focus on purchasing power marked a turning point in the struggle between Zemmour and Le Pen for control of the far-right vote.

Until then, Zemmour’s unparalleled media exposure had allowed him to erode the support base of the National Rally while attracting whole swathes of traditional conservative voters. His ability to poach figures from Le Pen’s entourage – including his own niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen – hinted at a possible changing of the guard on the far right.

Zemmour’s polls peaked at 17-18% in October, at the height of the “media bubble”. He was still voting around 14% at the end of February, splitting the far-right vote and threatening Le Pen’s chances of advancing to the second round. But the challenge ran out of steam in the home stretch of the campaign as many Zemmour supporters returned to the National Rally.

“Once they saw Zemmour slip in the polls, many far-right voters decided that Le Pen’s candidacy seemed stronger and came back to her,” said Olivier Rouquan, a political analyst at the research center. Cersa in Paris, to FRANCE 24. “They voted tactically because they want the far right to win this election.

With 23.2% in the first round, Le Pen obtained more than three times as many votes as Zemmour. Adding the 2.1% won by right-wing nationalist Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, their combined total takes the far-right tally to an all-time high of 32.5% – underscoring a profound shift in the electorate French and indicating a substantial pool of votes for Le Pen ahead of the April 24 second round.

Projected vote transfers from Zemmour to Le Pen in the second round.
Projected vote transfers from Zemmour to Le Pen in the second round. © FMM Graphic Studio

Trivialize Le Pen

Far from weakening the National Rally, Zemmour’s incendiary attacks on immigrants and Muslims helped to trivialize his view of the far right while allowing Le Pen – who toned down his rhetoric – to appear more respectable and “presidential”. It has helped Le Pen advance her big business since taking over from her father, Jean-Marie, in 2011: detoxifying a party long seen as a racist and anti-Republican haunt for those nostalgic for the colonial era.

“Just like in 2012, when she benefited from a positive comparison with her father’s excesses, Marine Le Pen knows how to capitalize on the extreme radicalism of Zemmour, which on the contrary makes her appear calm, composed, open-minded and less divisive. said Cécile Alduy, a professor at Stanford University and associate researcher at Sciences Po Paris, who recently published a book on Zemmour’s rhetoric.

>> Read more: Frightened by immigration, Islam and “woke” ideas: who are Eric Zemmour’s supporters?

The leader of the National Rally noticeably softened her rhetoric during the election campaign, avoiding controversy and ending the vituperations that once defined her party. Without giving up her anti-immigrant stance, she carefully avoided talking about the “great replacement” conspiracy theory championed by Zemmour, to which even struggling Conservative candidate Valérie Pécresse awkwardly referenced.

When war broke out in Ukraine, the veteran far-right candidate showed empathy as he spoke out in favor of welcoming Ukrainian refugees – while Zemmour shocked public opinion by saying they should instead s settle in Poland.

Much like Zemmour, Le Pen has spoken with admiration of Russian President Vladimir Putin in the past, laughing at suggestions that he could pose a threat to Europe. Fear it could harm his campaign prompted some party officials to hastily dispose of brochures that featured a photo of the National Rally leader posing with Putin in the Kremlin.

But on Russia too, Zemmour absorbed the opprobrium, leaving Le Pen largely untouched. Instead, the war highlighted Le Pen’s ability to turn apparent setback into opportunity, excluding Zemmour’s identity politics and placing the debate firmly on its turf: soaring prices and fate. difficult from France.

With her far-right rival now out of the running, it remains to be seen whether Le Pen can continue to deflect criticism and scrutiny in the coming days. As Zemmour himself argued in an interview last week, anticipating a possible defeat, “the minute Le Pen enters the second round, she will be demonized again.”

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