There's a new face in France's right-wing politics and the popularity of his ultra-nationalist views, which include banning the name Mohamed, has taken many by surprise ? but isn?t it something we all should have seen coming?
Eric Zemmour, a right-wing polemicist with pseudo-intellectual persona, is making waves in French politics, unnerving the political establishment as well as Marine Le Pen's Rassemblement National party. His ultra-right wing, anti-Islam, anti-feminist, and anti-gay agenda has seemingly struck a chord with France's electorate, with many pollsters suggesting he would pip Le Pen and other far right candidates in a first round presidential election ballot, scheduled for April 2022.
A recent poll shows that Zemmour, who is yet to officially declare his candidacy for the 2022 presidential election, would take an impressive 42% of the vote off incumbent President Emmanuel Macron in the head-to-head, final round ballot. In early October, another poll put it closer, suggesting Macron would only have a 10-point lead on the man who claims there's a conspiracy to repopulate all of France with Africans.
Dubbed by many as 'Le Trump', the far-right pundit has gone from strength to strength in the polls this year, partially on the back of regular primetime TV appearances, often presenting his views totally unchallenged on a right-leaning platform. And while the media regulator deemed in September that Zemmour was so likely to run in the presidential election that his airtime should be moderated, the firebrand has since enjoyed more publicity on the back on his latest book, La France N'a Pas Dit Son Dernier Mot (France Hasn't Had Its Last Word).
A controversial figure
Despite the Trump comparisons, the Paris-born polemicist of Algerian-Jewish descent espouses a nativist agenda without economic considerations. Perhaps most eye-catching is his proposed ban of foreign sounds names, including Mohamed, Kevin, and Jordan - the former became one of France's top 20 baby names in 2019.
And while Zemmour is yet to reveal any kind of manifesto, after all he is yet to declare his candidacy, he has raised eyebrows in the past for adopting and disseminating very controversial perspectives. The Parisian has blamed France's decline on immigration, Islamification, and feminism while offering a revisionist take on some of the country's darkest days. He claims that, contrary to historical consensus, the Vichy government of Marshal Philippe Petain actually saved Jews rather than rounding them up and sending them to Nazi Germany for extermination.
The pundit has also labelled England as France's "greatest enemies for a thousand years," claimed the D-Day landings were an enterprise of American colonialism, and frequently condemns the French media for being a "propaganda machine that hates France." In a recent Beziers speech, he told followers that France's education system had been "infiltrated by Marxism, anti-racism, and LGBT ideologies."
But perhaps most radical of all, he believes in a conspiracy known as the Grand Remplacement (Great Replacement) theory, which states that complicit forces are overseeing the demographic and cultural replacement of the white French population with those from the Maghreb and Sub-Saharan Africa.
His views have even seen him convicted for promoting racial discrimination, and there may be more to come.
Shaking up France's far-right
While some may find it shocking that 42% of the French electorate are willing to vote for a man who wants to ban foreign-sounding names, others will claim that it's been coming.
Once a resident of Paris myself, the clamour to ensure French culture is not further eroded by Anglo-Saxon or Arab imports isn't lost on me. And like many others, I was taken aback on a number of occasions to find that Gallic culture was not always the dominant one in the French capital.
Leaving discourse on the benefits of multiculturalism to one side, one spring day, I was shocked further when a group of young Muslims from the adjacent and 'very unFrench' neighborhood of Barbes Rochechouart protested along my street and handed me a leaflet, proclaiming "The Jews are the s**t of the world."
It wasn't what I expected from my brief stay in the French capital, but it shouldn't have surprised me. As I knew all too well, at the time, such anti-Semitism was also being casually passed off as comedy by 'popular' performer Dieudonne M'bala M'bala - thankfully his moment in the limelight appears to have passed.
And if the knowledge that Barbes is no longer 'French' isn't painful enough, a local and rather trendy clothes store used to sell (and still does) all manner of apparel featuring the slogan "Barbes parle ???" [Barbes speaks Arabic], further rubbing it in.
But while many in France grow increasingly tired of this apparent Islamification, the perennial figures on the country's far-right have ceded the narrative to the newcomer.
Zemmour's rise has come at the expense of the Le Pen dynasty, which has dominated the French far-right for 47 years. Recently, Marine Le Pen, now on her third attempt at the presidency, has sought to sanitize and even rename her party (Rassemblement National), ridding it of the jackbooted imagery that clung to her Holocaust-denying father, Jean-Marie Le Pen.
This is by no means the first time the French electorate has flirted with right-wing political agendas in a big way. In 2017, Marine Le Pen took incumbent President Emmanuel Macron to the final, head-to-head round of the presidential election. While her father only managed the feat once, the Le Pen dynasty has undeniably tapped into a sizable and growing fount of French patriotism and protectionism, often conveniently mixed with a revisionist account of French history.
According to a study published in May by French think tank Fondation pour l'Innovation Politique, 38% of French voters defined themselves as right-wing, up five percent over the past four years. But perhaps more telling is that 62% contend that Islam is a threat to the nation, and while Macron and Le Pen oppose the Islamification of France, no one is more forthright than Zemmour.
And while others, Macron and Le Pen included, have proffered an anti-immigration agenda, Zemmour gives Gauls an ultimatum, warning of their impending replacement by Muslim invaders from the Maghreb and Sub-Saharan Africa and the establishment of something very un-French - an Islamic republic. For those 62% who consider Islam a threat to the nation, there's no question which candidate (if he declares his candidacy) will be toughest, with Zemmour declaring Islam incompatible with democracy and vowing to make 'Mohamed' a name of the past.
Accordingly, Zemmour has labelled France as a nation in decline, and it's this narrative that allows him to promise his agenda of restoration, invoking the legends of Joan of Arc, Napoleon, and Charles de Gaulle - a pantheon of French heroes he would emulate.
He's radically different
The TV pundit has another thing in his favor - he's not a politician. According to a survey undertaken earlier this year, the French mistrust their politicians more than the Germans, the Italians, and the Brits. Some 65% think that elected members and leaders of political parties are "mostly corrupt," and only 16% trust political parties.
With Le Pen becoming more mainstream, more sanitized, Zemmour's uncensored rhetoric intertwined with pseudo-intellectualism is evidently a more tangible offering, even tapping into a younger audience of right-wingers. His young fans, known as 'Generation Z' (the 'Z' is for Zemmour) created their own lockdown entertainment earlier this year, meeting to catch Zemmour's appearances on CNews with an early aperitif, dubbed 'Le ZApero'.
Loic Besson, a political correspondent for France's number one news channel, BFMTV, told RT that some people see Zemmour's radical politics as the best shot at dethroning Macron.
But what's more, Zemmour has the capacity to out-debate Macron on television. And to some on the right, Le Pen has had her chance and now it's time for France's "TV-friendly fascist" - as journalist Daniel Schneidermann put it - to carry the fight.
Will Zemmour topple the French political establishment? It's hard to say. But one thing is for sure, the battleground for the 2022 election is firmly on the right.