The war in Ukraine has reshaped the French presidential election, the first round of which is set to take place on 10 April. President Emmanuel Macron has used the opportunity to portray himself as a global statesman who can bring peace, hoping to bolster his domestic poll ratings. If opinion polls are to be believed, the initial signs are that this is working—he has risen four points to 28 percent since the Russian invasion (see table 1).
Table 1: Poll of polls ratings on 28 March 2022 for first round of the presidential election (percentage)
By contrast, the war in Ukraine has created fundamental political problems for the international far right due to its very public past support for Vladimir Putin. Admiration for Putin’s authoritarianism, tough persona and opposition to Western “liberalism” is a feature of far-right movements globally. In France it has become an issue in the election because there is not just one far-right racist candidate, but two. The entry of former television pundit Éric Zemmour into the race is a challenge to third-time candidate and Rassemblement National (National Rally; NR) leader Marine Le Pen, who has consistently polled at second place to Macron. Both Le Pen and Zemmour have been forced to distance themselves from previous statements of support for Putin. Le Pen reportedly had to bin 1.2 million copies of an eight-page manifesto in which she was pictured with Putin with the caption, “A woman of conviction”. Her party is deeply indebted to a Russian bank; a court case in 2020 revealed that a 2014 loan of €9 million will not be fully repaid until 2028.1 After the Russian invasion, she said on national TV that the war in Ukraine had “partly changed” her opinion of Putin.2 Zemmour has also had to backpedal from his public admiration of Putin, whom he has praised as the “last resistance fighter against the storm of political correctness.” His polling has dropped by 3-4 points.
The election had been characterised by a toxic political landscape shaped by an expansion and hardening of support for far-right and racist ideas. Many polls showed Le Pen and Zemmour collectively attracting an astonishing third of the votes. The dramatic entry of Zemmour and his newly founded party, Reconquête (Reconquest), into the campaign in November 2021 briefly put him in second place to Macron with 17 percent of votes. He has pushed an already poisonous political atmosphere even further to the right, and it is his campaign that has been making all the headlines. Since November, he and Le Pen have been jostling over second place in the polls. This has become a battle about much more than one election, however important that is; it is a contest over who will win hegemony of the far right in France. It is hard to exaggerate the sheer mass coverage and public profile Zemmour has had for his extreme far-right racist ideas—there is no equivalent in Britain. As journalist Didier Fassin explains, “Not only was he on the cover of the conservative magazine Valeurs Actuelles five times in the first nine months of 2021 but, according to the media observatory Acrimed, he was mentioned 4,167 times in all French outlets in the month of September alone: 139 times per day”.3
Such developments have affected the wider political landscape. Rather than opposing Le Pen’s and Zemmour’s racism, mainstream candidates compete over who is harder on migrants and defending “French culture”. This is a dual process. Mainstream politicians have helped create a racist climate, giving far-right ideas legitimacy; now Zemmour’s rise is pulling the mainstream even further rightwards.
Macron made clear that he was courting the racist vote when he launched his bill against “separatism” in October 2020. At that time, I wrote in this journal about the threat posed by this intensification of the demonisation of French Muslims: “Pandering to the politics of Le Pen is a dangerous game. Macron may be motivated by trying to undercut Le Pen and her party for his own electoral gain, but his actions only succeed in giving her racist project even greater momentum”.4
This momentum has now been driven even deeper, and candidates are “Zemmour-ising themselves”.5 This was shown most dramatically by the presidential candidate for the mainstream conservative Republican party, Valérie Pécresse, at her campaign launch rally, where she referred to the “Great Replacement”. This is the theory promoted by the far right that claims migrants and their children will eventually outnumber the “French-born” population. She also differentiated between the “French of the heart” and the “French of papers”, descriptions used by the far right to denigrate naturalised citizens. Later, she spoke of stopping France’s subjection, saying, “Marianne is not a veiled woman”, in reference to the symbolic personification of France.6 These are far from mere dog whistles for racists—they are an open adoption of the most offensive and racist tropes for the sake of winning votes.
This race to the right in France is a process that has been taking place over many years, but Zemmour’s campaign has shown that it can go still further.
Born in the suburbs of Paris, Zemmour is of Jewish-Algerian descent. He has had a long career as a far-right talk show pundit and journalist, and his populist television shows on CNews allowed him free rein to rail against France’s Muslim population, feminism, LGBT+ rights and political elites. He gained huge audiences and his book tours came to resemble political rallies. Zemmour’s rise has been compared to Donald Trump’s transformation from real estate millionaire and television star to president of the United States. Zemmour himself says he is running a “Trumpian” campaign, boasting about a 40-minute phone call he had with Trump in February 2022, in which the former president supposedly praised his campaign.7
Of course, there are comparisons to be made with Trump, but Zemmour’s far-right politics are more explicit and, above all, more ideological. Regularly referencing the “Great Replacement” theory, he claims that “France will be majority Muslim by 2050 and on the verge of a civil war”.8 Having written several books, he regards himself as an intellectual. He attracts both traditional conservative voters and dissatisfied RN supporters; already one former leader of the Republicans, Guillaume Peltier, has defected to him, alongside many party members.9 One poll suggests a quarter of Zemmour’s support comes from those who voted for the Republican candidate, François Fillon, in the 2017 presidential election.10
Zemmour aims to expand this base by speaking about the concerns of workers and says he admires Trump’s success “in uniting the working classes and the patriotic bourgeoisie. That’s what I’ve been dreaming about…for 20 years”.11 He is now adapting his populist racist appeals to address working-class voters in unemployment-blighted former industrial areas in northern France, an important constituency for Le Pen: “There are not many factories left in this city, but there are many mosques. We don’t see many skirts anymore, but we see many niqabs”.12 Zemmour took his campaign to the doorstep of Le Pen’s political base in February; on the same day she held her campaign launch in Reims in the party’s northeastern heartland, he staged a rally in nearby Lille. Some 6,000 people attended, twice the number of Le Pen’s. There he added to his dominant theme of Islamophobia by “focusing his speech on economic issues and the cost of living—topics he had previously left largely to Le Pen and others”.13 For her part, Le Pen has promised to help people on low incomes by cutting VAT on electricity, gas and fuel from 20 percent to 5.5 percent, paid for by taxing the big oil companies. She also wants to cut income tax for the self-employed and promises to lower the pension age, while Zemmour argues that a rise in the pension age is necessary. It is no coincidence that the issues of fuel prices, taxes and pensions have been the sources of some of the biggest struggles against Macron in his presidency; Le Pen wants to hijack this anger.
Zemmour launched Reconquête, a name chosen to echo the “reconquest” of the Iberian Peninsula by Christian forces who expelled the Muslims in the 15th century, on 5 December. Within two months, the party was claiming 100,000 members. Undercover French journalist Vincent Bresson joined the party’s youth wing, Génération Z, and reported on the open racism expressed by its members.14 The group was responsible for flooding social media with positive stories about Zemmour. One section of it, coined “WikiZédia”, is in charge of updating Zemmour’s Wikipedia page, which was viewed 5.2m times in 2021, making it Wikipedia’s most consulted page in France.
Zemmour has defended France’s collaborationist Vichy regime during the Second World War, approvingly claiming that it deported foreign Jews before French Jews. He even denies that deported Jews were taken to death camps. His dismissal of French responsibility for the extermination of Jews in the Holocaust echoes the views of Marine Le Pen, but his own Jewish heritage has been used to give it greater legitimacy.
To understand the roots of his racist ideology it is important to see the significance of his family background in French-ruled Algeria. Zemmour lauds France’s colonial role in Algeria, saying, “Algeria, before France, was a sewer.” After Algeria’s independence from France in 1962, almost a million French settlers, the so-called pieds-noirs (“black feet”), returned to France. They became a core base for Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and the other fascists and Nazi collaborators who founded the Front National (National Front), the precursor of the RN. They saw France’s defeat in Algeria as a shameful episode to be avenged.15 Zemmour’s political platform is shaped by this worldview. He says he wants to “save” France and restore its mythical former glory, and he compares France’s colonial war in Algeria to the domestic situation in France today: “We are living in the second episode of the Algerian war, with Islam seeking to impose itself in the banlieues”.16 This theme of the battle of civilisations is one to which he constantly returns. At a meeting of police officers, also an important base for Le Pen, he claimed that they were “at the forefront of a civilisational battle that has spread out over our territory”.17
Zemmour’s explicit racism is attracting far-right voters who are frustrated at what they see as the co-option of Le Pen into the mainstream. However, it has also seen him appear in court, and he has several convictions for incitement to racial and religious hatred. The most recent came in January 2022 after he stated on CNews that unaccompanied foreign minors are “thieves”: “They’re murderers, they’re rapists. That’s all they are. We must send them back.” Still, convictions and fines cannot deter him; he continues to state that in France “all offenders are immigrants or children of immigrants”.18 He also defends the right of employers to reject job candidates on the basis of race and says he would make it illegal for parents to give their children “non-French” first names.
Zemmour acknowledges the existence of antisemitism, but he uses it to demonise Muslims and claims it is a product of immigration. In 2018, he told the Washington Post:
It’s simple, if I dare to say it… Antisemitism was reborn in France with the arrival of the populations from Muslim territories, where antisemitism is—if you like—cultural.19
He wants to scrap the right to asylum, end all immigration for ten years and change the country’s constitution so that potential migrants would be denied any legal protection.20
Another favourite target for his speeches and writing is women. He argues that women should be in the home in traditional childbearing and caring roles, saying feminism has emasculated men and undermined patriarchy: “The France that came out of May 1968 would ring in the revenge…of femininity over virility”.21 He also wants to ban abortion, has referred to the welfare system as “an insult” and says he wants to “stop wasting public money” on foreigners. Instead, he proposes offering a €10,000 “birth grant” for every “French child” born in a rural commune.22 Zemmour also denounces LGBT+ rights, opposes equal marriage and wants to impose conservative controls on education: “Over the past 40 years, our children have been indoctrinated… Schools should not be the place where LGBT+ and anti-racist ideologies brainwash our children”.23
Zemmour’s lack of established party structures is a weakness. He has an insufficient organisational base and lacks experienced active members in localities who could help deliver for him electorally. Yet, his entry into the presidential race is about more than building up party infrastructures and experience. The support he is receiving is exposing the growing clamour for racist politics, fed by the political establishment. In short, Zemmour is driving an extreme far-right agenda and is making dangerous gains.
Marine Le Pen
NR is one of Europe’s most successful far-right parties and has deep roots in France’s past fascist movements. Formerly led by Jean-Marie Le Pen, and now by his daughter Marine Le Pen, the party has undergone many transformations aimed at softening its public image in order to gain electoral respectability. This modernisation strategy has enabled it to achieve wide electoral support, but it has also created deep internal divisions.
This election campaign is, by her own account, Le Pen’s last try for the presidency and represents a culmination of her work towards making NR an accepted part of the political landscape. Nonetheless, she faces a contradiction. The de-toxification strategy that has dominated her political career has opened space for someone even further to the right to win an audience. While her strategy was successful she could carry the majority within the party, but NR has now been plunged into a bitter debate. As I wrote previously in this journal:
The key faultline in the RN today runs between those who support Marine Le Pen’s electoral drive and a section of the party still supportive of the strategy adopted by her father Jean-Marie Le Pen… Marine Le Pen will hope to contain such tensions as the major test of the next presidential election approaches. It will be easier for her to maintain dominance if she delivers electoral successes.24
That dominance has taken some blows. NR’s poor results in June’s departmental and regional elections created discontent—the party did not win a single region: “According to a French Institute of Public Opinion exit poll, some 71 percent of Le Pen’s 2017 electorate did not turn out to vote”.25 The poor election results resulted in resignations from the party and complaints that Le Pen’s strategy of going mainstream was failing to deliver the promised returns. The organisation also faces serious financial problems and is mired in debt. Her presidential operation hung in the balance as she scrabbled to secure a bank loan to fund the campaign. She complained that 50 banks refused her, until a Hungarian bank bailed her out to the tune of €11 million.
Zemmour’s sudden entry into the electoral race has rocked the RN. Multiple high profile members have defected, including three members of the European Parliament. One of these, Jérôme Rivière, is now vice president of Reconquête. His explanation for switching allegiances reflects the attraction of Zemmour for NR’s hardcore: “Éric Zemmour says things as they are. It’s black or white. He doesn’t use shades of grey to describe reality”.26 Le Pen tried to assert her authority and appear defiant in January 2022 when she declared that anyone attracted by Zemmour should “leave now if you want to go”, but the crisis in the party continues to fester.27 In mid-February, Le Pen suspended the party’s former vice-president Nicolas Bay, accusing him of sabotage for allegedly leaking details of her events to Zemmour’s campaign so they could be disrupted. He denied it, but within days joined Zemmour on his platforms and also became a vice president of Reconquête.28 Le Pen has tried to demonise Zemmour by pointing to the extremism of his camp: “He has a couple of Nazis with him… He needs to clear some people out. They must be kicked out without hesitation. It makes me despair that they have found a new political outlet”.29 The acrimony and bitterness coming out of Le Pen’s camp is palpable, as is the irony of her denouncing the presence of Nazis in her rival’s ranks.
This rancour will only by deepened by an announcement by Marion Maréchal, Le Pen’s estranged niece, that she will be supporting Zemmour’s campaign. She later spoke alongside him at an 8,000-strong rally in Toulon. When in the FN, Maréchal was the youngest MP in the National Assembly in 2012. She opposed any moves to implement a more moderate agenda and in 2017 stood down due to what she described as her aunt’s “incessant ideological and programme changes”. She dropped Le Pen from her name and established a right-wing think-tank, the Institute of Social, Economic and Political Sciences (Institut des sciences sociales, économiques et politiques) in 2018. She had already recently hinted she was ready to step back into the political limelight, saying, “If I support Éric, it would not just be a question of passing by and saying hello. It would mean returning to politics. It’s a real life choice, a heavy decision”.30 Jean-Marie Le Pen is politically allied with Maréchal but has said that he will vote for Marine Le Pen, despite his criticising his daughter in his memoirs for her “desperate search for de-demonization at a time when the devil is becoming popular”.31 Maréchal has long been seen as someone who might return and steer the party back to its openly fascist roots if given an opportunity. Her decision to ally with Zemmour may signal that she sees this as her chance to become the leader who can reshape the movement.
The rise of Zemmour has led some commentators to argue that voters who have judged Le Pen too extreme in the past might now see her as the acceptable face of far-right ideology. Nonetheless, it’s important to remember just what Le Pen and her party stands for. The Front National was founded and led by fascists and Nazi collaborators. Le Pen eventually expelled her father because he insisted on being vocal about his fascism and Holocaust denial, yet she was happy to continue to accept campaign funding from him. In 2021, he faced charges of inciting antisemitic hatred due to a 2014 video in which he attacked Patrick Bruel, a singer, actor and critic of the Front National. He referred to Bruel’s Jewish origins and invoked the Holocaust, saying, “Listen! Next time we’ll do a whole oven batch.” Marine Le Pen referred to this as “political error”.32 Like Zemmour she claims that antisemitism in France is a result of immigration, has refused to condemn the Vichy government and denies the French played any role in deporting Jews to Nazi death camps.
The defining issue of Marine Le Pen’s campaigning has been virulent Islamophobia. Her racist targeting of France’s Muslims is done in the name of defending supposedly progressive French values such as “laïcité”—the “republican value” of secularism. She says multicultural France has become a “university for jihadists” and advocates a ban on wearing the hijab in public, referring to it as “the Islamist uniform”. Le Pen and her party may be facing a new challenge to their dominance over the far right, but they still represent a dangerous threat.
There is a long radical tradition of class struggle in France, and there have been serious movements in recent years, from the march against Islamophobia in 2019 and the French Black Lives Matter protests to mass opposition to the so-called global security law—the repressive impact of which Claude Serfati has described in this journal.33 The French working class has also demonstrated on numerous occasions in recent years how capable it is of taking militant action. Workers have organised major strikes against Macron’s neoliberal attacks on jobs and pension rights. Most recently, multiple teachers’ unions struck over conditions in schools during the pandemic. Yet, despite these struggles, the anti-capitalist left has not made headway, and the political climate remains dominated by the growth of the far right. Economic struggles alone are not enough, as was shown when the RN attempted, albeit with limited success, to get involved in and influence the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) movement that erupted in 2018. As Jad Bouharoun has written, this movement rose up initially in opposition to fuel prices rises, but its demands went on to encompass opposition to wider attacks by Macron.34
Every anti-racist mobilisation is a welcome sign of the possibilities.35 Both Zemmour and Le Pen have faced protests at their political rallies—activists from the SOS Racisme group were beaten up, and two were left seriously injured, when they disrupted one Zemmour rally. However, the scale of such opposition is a long way from what is needed. Blocking the far right and fascists will need a sustained and united challenge that brings together economic and political struggles. The left has consistently failed over many years to build such effective anti-racist and anti-fascist organisations, and this has allowed the far right the space to pose as an alternative for millions of French voters.
One Achilles’ heel of the left has been a failure to tackle the saturation of French society by Islamophobia. Women’s rights activists, the main reformist parties and other sections of the left have accommodated to the right’s demonisation of Muslims over many years. This is partly driven by the insistence that laïcité is a progressive value that must to be defended, even when it is used to justify the denial of rights to Muslims. The lack of consistent and principled opposition to Islamophobia has seen the rights of Muslims constantly eroded. For instance, leading feminists and parts of the left have at times supported restrictions on the wearing of the hijab, claiming that the headscarf is intrinsically oppressive and imposed by men and thus that banning it empowers Muslim women.36 This has helped legitimise the government’s attacks on Muslims, which continue to expand. The government first banned the hijab in French schools in 2004, followed by a ban in public buildings, and since 2011 women can be fined for wearing the niqab in public. Mothers who help with school trips are told they cannot come if they wear a headscarf. Several resorts and swimming pools have banned the burkini and the upper house of the French parliament has voted for an amendment that would ban athletes from wearing the hijab in any official sports.37 The French Football Federation already has such a ban, although a group of Muslim women footballers, “Les Hijabeuses”, are leading the campaign to overturn it.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a vocal defender of Muslims and the leader of the La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) formation, has become the leading candidate of the left in the election; polls in March showed his support rising to 14 percent. In contrast, the candidate for the social-democratic Socialist Party, Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, is suffering under the complete collapse of the party’s support, barely polling 2 percent. However, despite Mélenchon’s record of anti-racism and being seen as representing the radical left, he has also occasionally buckled to pressure from the dominant Islamophobic agenda and has fuelled racist stereotypes. For example, when a man of Chechen origin murdered a French teacher in 2020, Mélenchon stated that “there was a problem with the Chechen community” in France. This allowed Macron’s conservative minister of the interior, Gérald Darmanin, to pose as tolerant: “All Chechen refugees are not all radical Islamists. Mr Mélenchon has a speech that is very similar to that of Ms Le Pen”.38 Any such accommodation to Islamophobia not only gives succour to the racists, but also stunts the ability to build the sort of organisation needed to combat the far right.
Polls predict Macron will go through to the second round and ultimately beat whichever opponent he faces. Of course, the potential size of the combined far right vote will not be lost on its strategists, who may push for an electoral deal between Le Pen and Zemmour. However, though this might seem an obvious route, it is hampered by the demonstrable animosity among the NR leadership and membership to those who have already defected to Zemmour.
Whatever the result, which will be analysed in International Socialism in the future, April’s presidential election will not be the end of the process of the reformation of the far right in France. There is already talk of NR members standing on Zemmour’s ticket in June’s legislative elections. The Front National and NR have gone through a number of splits, but this could become the biggest crisis it has faced. Zemmour talks of leading “the union of the rights”, a project championed by Maréchal. He sees himself as the person who can reconstitute the whole right wing in France. Stéphane Ravier, previously NR’s only senator and another high profile defector to Reconquête, spelt out this aspiration: “My political time does not stop at April 24… We will at some point have to discuss…the great national family reuniting”.39
It would be folly to speculate in such a fluid situation, but one thing can be known with certainty—fascist and far-right ideas in France are both gaining new support and hardening into ever more extreme positions.
Judith Orr is the author of Abortion Wars: The Fight for Reproductive Rights (Policy, 2017) and Marxism and Women’s Liberation (Bookmarks, 2015).
1 Cuthbertson, 2022.
2 Caulcutt, 2022.
3 Fassin, 2021.
4 Orr, 2020a.
5 Mallet and Abboud, 2021.
6 Onishi, 2022.
7 Reuters, 2022a.
8 Hall, 2021.
9 Talmor, 2022.
10 Economist, 2021.
11 Caulcutt, 2021.
12 Associated Press, 2022.
13 Abboud, 2022.
14 Henley, 2022.
15 Orr, 2020b.
16 The term “banlieues” refers to poor neighbourhoods on the edges of French cities, which often have disproportionately large migrant populations.
17 France 24, 2022.
18 Paris, 2022.
19 McAuley, 2018.
20 Hall, 2021.
21 Zerofsky, 2014.
22 Basso, 2022.
23 Reuters, 2022b.
24 Orr, 2020b.
25 Kouvelakis, 2021.
26 Euractiv, 2022.
27 Pinkney, 2022.
28 TheN24, 2022.
29 Caulcutt and Bennett, 2022.
30 Willsher, 2022.
31 Davis, 2020.
32 France 24, 2021.
33 Serfati, 2021.
34 Bouharoun, 2019.
35 Socialist Worker, 2021.
36 Orr, 2019.
37 Petrequin, 2022. The so-called burkini is a form of female swimwear for Muslim women.
38 Associated Press, 2022.
39 News Net Daily, 2022.