Since Emmanuel Macron’s election to the presidency in 2017, it has been tempting to view French politics in somewhat Manichean terms. Four years ago, Mr. Macron won by (comfortably) beating Marine Le Pen in the second round. Until this fall, it seemed extremely likely that next spring’s election would be a rematch. The division and disarray of the French left, as well as the continued collapse of the center-right Republicans party, left voters with a seemingly difficult choice: centrist liberalism or far-right nationalism. This normalization of the Le Pen dynasty was bad enough. But recent polls suggest a more complicated picture; and from a progressive point of view, perhaps more worrying.
The xenophobic right has found a new star in Eric Zemmour, an author and television expert who has made a name for himself on the French equivalent of Fox News. Mr Zemmour has yet to officially declare his candidacy, but this month he outmoded Ms. Le Pen in the polls for the first time. Ms. Le Pen tried to woo more moderate voters by toning down the inflammatory rhetoric from her party, the National Rally (RN). This gave Mr. Zemmour an opening. Its extreme islamophobia, the culturally supremacist language and emphasis on immigration have made him a magnet for those who are disappointed with Ms. Le Pen’s drug rehab strategy. Cultivating an independent and scholarly character, he was also able to attract ultra-conservative Catholics from Republicans who would never vote for the RN.
Mr Zemmour may or may not continue to compete with Ms Le Pen for second place in the polls, behind Mr Macron. But it is revealing that a maverick intellectual with two convictions to his credit for incitement to hatred can be so successful: on issues of immigration and culture, France seems to be moving to the right at a rapid pace. In the race to represent Les Républicains next spring, former chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has promised that as president he will deliver a “shock of authority”. Mr Barnier presented himself as a neo-Gaullist who can win back the voices of the far right through policies such as a three to five year moratorium on immigration from outside the EU. But some of Mr. Barnier rivals center-right start singing from a similar hymnbook. Whichever candidate the Republicans choose, it seems increasingly likely that they will attempt to repeat Francois Fillon’s culturally conservative and anti-immigration campaign in 2017. Until his campaign is quashed by a scandal of corruption, Mr. Fillon had every chance of winning. election.
For his part, Mr. Macron would prefer to talk about the post-pandemic recovery. Last week he unveiled a five-year £ 30 billion investment plan designed to boost high-tech industries and accelerate the transition to a green economy. But the president also felt compelled to cover his flank on immigration and distance itself from any association with “multiculturalism”. In September, it was announced that visas available to migrants from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia would be drastically reduced. In a recent radio interview, Mr. Macron commented: “France cannot welcome everyone if it wants to welcome people. “
Among other provocations, Zemmour suggested reintroducing a law decreeing that all children born in France – including those from Muslim families – should be given traditional Christian names. The aggressive pursuits of the culture wars allowed him to obtain polls higher than the combined odds of the hope of the Socialist Party, Anne Hidalgo, and the green candidate, Yannick Jadot. Mr Macron remains the likely winner of next spring’s presidential election (although a powerful center-right opponent in the second round could change that calculation). But seen through a lens longer than this particular breed, it’s hard not to conclude that France’s cultural policy is drifting in an alarming and anti-liberal direction.