Can France turn back the nationalist tide?

Associated Press/Rafael Yaghobzadeh

Brexit is done and U.S. voters have fired Donald Trump, but the neo-nationalist uprising that gave rise to both continues to shake up transatlantic politics. No country has seen its traditional political order more thoroughly fractured than France.

President Emmanuel Macron, who is running for reelection next spring, leads a centrist party he created in a tour de force of political improvisation after leaving the Socialist Party shortly before his 2017 election. Long France’s leading party of the left, the Socialists have been decimated. Their presidential candidate, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, barely registers in the polls with about 4 percent support.   

The wild card in the race is Eric Zemmour, a political neophyte many observers are calling the French Trump. He is a writer and television pundit whose best-selling book, “Le Suicide Francais,” contends that immigration, globalization and a fast-growing Muslim minority represent fundamental threats to French values and culture.

“We are not [living] anymore in our own country,” Zemmour warns, sounding much like Trump and his advisers Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller.

Opinion polls ahead of next April’s national elections throw in sharp relief France’s extraordinarily fragmented party landscape. Macron leads the first-round field, albeit with only 24 percent support. Running close behind him with 20 percent is Valerie Pecresse of the conservative Republican Party, traditionally the Socialists’ main rival.  She’s followed by Marine Le Pen (15 percent), who heads the rightwing National Rally.

Zemmour, 63, who dubs his movement “Reconquest” in homage to the Christian crusaders who long ago drove Muslim rulers out of Spain and Portugal, is next with 14 percent. Languishing in single digits at the bottom are the left’s candidates: Jean-Luc Melanchon, representing the far-left France in Revolt party, Yannick Jadot of the Green Party and Hildago.

Zemmour’s plunge into electoral waters poses the most immediate threat to Le Pen. Both appeal to working-class voters and “Gillet Jaunes” protesters in the exurbs and countryside who feel economically and culturally dispossessed. To the extent that Zemmour takes votes from the National Rally, the cannibalization of the ultra-nationalistic right could set up a second-round match between Macron and Pecresse.

Despite speculation about a marriage of political convenience, which could put the extreme right in the lead heading into the first round, Zemmour and Le Pen appear to detest each other. Another unsettling possibility is that Zemmour could catch fire and take over Le Pen’s constituency in the same way that Trump pulled off his hostile takeover of the Republican Party in the 2016 primaries.

As Francois Clemenceau, chief political reporter for Journal du Dimanche, points out, Zemmour is more radical than Le Pen, who after getting thrashed by Macron in the 2017 run-off has tried to soften her party’s strident anti-immigration and anti-Europe stances. Like Trump, Zemmour pulls no punches. He’s twice been convicted of inciting hatred. His campaign also features large rallies that have sometimes turned violent, and he was recently excoriated in the media for flipping off a protester in Marseille.

Both men are virtuosos of cultural resentment. There, however, the parallels end. In contrast with the prevaricating ex-president, whose stream-of-consciousness rants became fodder for late-night comedians, Zemmour is a cogent writer and speaker who puts an intellectual gloss on sentiments long dismissed as racist and reactionary by France’s governing elites. 

His slogan says it all: “It was better before.” France, he warns, is “losing its identity,” submerged by waves of unassimilated immigrants from former colonies, especially in North and sub-Saharan Africa. He said in his announcement speech:

“You feel like foreigners in your own country. You are internal exiles. For a long time, you believed you were the only one to see, to hear, to think, to doubt. You were afraid to say it. You were ashamed of your feelings. For a long time, you dared not say what you were seeing, and above all you dared not see what you were seeing.” 

“France is no longer France, and everyone sees it.”

A fervent believer in the supremacy of French culture over the leveling forces of “third worlding” and multiculturalism, Zemmour also casts himself as the defender of national sovereignty against deracinated globalists who cede political power to Brussels and encourage French companies to move overseas.

Such views are winning Zemmour an appreciative audience among rightwing nationalists in the United States. Some have compared Zemmour not to Trump but to the more articulate Tucker Carlson.

“The Zemmour announcement thrills because it combines an unapologetic pugilism with the public intellectual,” declares Micah Meadowcroft, editor of The American Conservative.

At this point, it’s too early to tell whether Zemmour’s rise reflects a spreading and more virulent strain of nationalism in France or simply disappointment with Le Pen’s inability to come anywhere close to winning in a two-way run-off. The country’s two-round election allows France’s generally conservative (in the sense of risk-averse) electorate to rally around the more mainstream candidate in the run-off. 

In this respect, Macron has many advantages, even if the high hopes he inspired in 2017 have largely dissipated. His En Marche party draws support from both the center-left and center-right. France’s fast-recovering economy is projected to grow at 6.8 percent this year and 4 percent in 2022. And France will soon assume the presidency of the European Union (EU), which will give Macron a bully pulpit for pushing ambitious reforms aimed at controlling Europe’s borders, reconciling climate goals with economic growth and confronting a disconcerting wave of authoritarian repression in EU members Hungary and Poland. 

Americans concerned about the health of liberal democracy across the West should hope for Macron or Pecresse to take the first round, then swamp whoever is representing the ultra-nationalists in the second. If the pragmatic and liberal center can prevail in France, as it recently did in Germany, it will be a heartening sign that Europe’s antibodies against political extremism are working as least as well as – if not better than – America’s.

Will Marshall is president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI).

Tags Anne Hidalgo Conservatism in France Donald Trump Emmanuel Macron European Union France French nationalists Jean-Luc Mélenchon La République En Marche! Marine Le Pen Political history of France Politics of France Stephen Miller Steve Bannon Tucker Carlson Éric Zemmour

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