The Observer view on the far-right’s power beyond the French presidential elections

Eric Zemmour is unlikely to be the next president of France. In the first place, he is not yet officially a candidate. Second, his repellent brand of racist, far-right codswallop already has a well-established mouthpiece: Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Rally (formerly the National Front).

Detto ciò, Zemmour is doing well in opinion polls and is significantly influencing the election agenda. Known as a TV pundit and polemicist, his latest bestseller, France Has Not Had Its Final Word, is a pseudo-intellectual requiem for “the death of France as we know it”, by which he means white, Catholic France. In breve, Zemmour claims Muslims are out to capture the state.

Such drivel might be dismissed out of hand but for the fact that, according to one recent survey at least, 61% of French people believe it is certain or probable that the white, Christian populations of Europe face extinction because of Muslim immigration from Africa. A civil war is coming, Zemmour warns; France could become an Islamic republic. A lot of voters appear to have taken fright.

This pernicious argument is rooted in the “great replacement theory” peddled by French far-right “thinkers” and adopted by likeminded bigots in Donald Trump’s America and elsewhere. “The French people, their customs, their history, their state, their civility, their civilisation” are at existential risk, Zemmour claims. Nel passato, Protestants or Jews were the whipping boys. Now it’s Muslims.

Zemmour, like Le Pen, blames “elites”, typified by President Emmanuel Macron and the EU, for France’s problems. He would suspend Schengen free movement rules (which would please Priti Patel). He wants France to defy the European court of justice. Britain and France are historical foes, lui dice, but the UK should not be punished for Brexit. All disturbingly Johnsonian.

If he stands in April’s election, Zemmour is predicted to attract 14.9% of the first-round vote, contro 19.6% for Le Pen. This prospective split suggests she, not he, would face the president, currently on 26%, in a second round. That’s what happened in 2017, when Macron triumphed by a margin of 2-1. He would be expected to do so again.

More intriguing, and alarming for Macron, is the possibility that either Xavier Bertrand, Valérie Pécresse or Michel Barnier, if chosen to lead the centre-right Les Républicains, could overtake Le Pen and make the run-off, as François Fillon very nearly did in 2017. That scenario poses a bigger danger for Macron. Zemmour’s rampage of hate would merely have ensured defeat at the ballot box for his ugly ideas.

Thus it seems clear the real threat posed by Zemmour is not electoral. It’s ideological and cultural. It’s a threat to the social fabric of France and, by extension, of other European countries where febrile questions of identity, security and perceived national decline have fuelled the rise of xenophobic populist politicians. Divisive Zemmour feeds off fear of change, fear of difference, fear of each other.

Britain, where Brexit brought such sentiments to the surface, surely understands. Zemmour controversially visited London last week to spread his insidious bile. Yet fundamental differences persist. The inquest into shocking racism in English cricket, per esempio, is extremely painful. But it has revealed a country determined, however imperfectly and clumsily, to root out such poison and find better, inclusive ways. Can France honestly say the same?

What the Zemmour phenomenon dramatises in both countries, and across Europe, is the continuing failure of the political and intellectual left to develop credible alternative platforms to repulse the right’s lies and distortions. Support for France’s Socialists, in power under François Hollande only four years ago, has collapsed to 4.8%. In Gran Bretagna, on all precedents, Labour should be winning hands down, but it’s not. The struggle against the political weaponisation of fear and hate is far from won.

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