With all of the focus of much of Europe’s media being firmly aimed at the border between Ukraine and Russia over the past several weeks, news that France’s far-right leader and presidential hopeful Marine Le Pen had to suspend her campaign on Tuesday is indicative of the struggles she currently faces.
Once considered a shoo-in to compete in the run-off against President Emmanuel Macron on April 24 — she lost to him by a margin of 66 to 34 per cent in May 2017 — there are serious doubts now if she can overcome the new right-wing favourite, Eric Zemmour.
Le Pen was forced to suspend her campaign to focus on getting enough mayoral pledges to make it onto the first-round ballot paper on 10 April.
Under France’s complex nomination rules, candidates must gather 500 sponsorship letters from mayors in order to be officially eligible. Before Tuesday last, Le Pen had only managed to secure 393 such letters, according to a tally kept by the Constitutional Council, and the cut-off date for reaching the required level is March 4.
Polling second to President Macron
As things stand now, Le Pen and her National Rally party is polling second to President Macron — even though he has yet to officially announce his candidacy. The complex nomination system and the two-round voting structure were set out by Charles de Gaulle, the former wartime leader of the Free French forces and President of France from 1959 to 1969.
Only six candidates have so far obtained the required 500 pledges. These include Valerie Pecresse of the right-wing Les Republicains, the Socialist Party’s Anne Hidalgo who is mayor of Paris, the Greens’ Yannick Jadot, the Communist Party’s Fabien Roussel, centrist Jean LaSalle and Macron.
Zemmour has 350 letters and cancelled a planned campaign trip to the island of la Reunion last week to man the phone and secure those additional pledges. He is currently polling third.
For those on the right, Zammour will have burnished his credentials with a €10,000 fine handed down last Monday for inciting hatred and racial abuse.
Zemmour, 63, described unaccompanied migrant children arriving in Europe from North Africa as “thieves”, “murderers” and “rapists” during a September 2020 programme on the CNews television channel, on which he was a pundit.
“They have nothing to do here,” he told his listeners in a shtick that is all too familiar to the channel. “It’s a permanent invasion” and “a problem of immigration policy”.
Naturally, he didn’t attend the November trial as he stood by his views, and he also shunned the sentencing hearing.
French prosecutors had demanded he be fined €100 per day for 100 days — for a total €10,000 — or be sent to prison if he doesn’t pay. The prosecutors’ office described his comments as “contemptuous, outrageous”, showed “violent rejection” and “detestation” of immigrants and crossed “the limits of freedom of expression”.
Simply put, Zemmour couldn’t care less. He has been prosecuted 15 times over the past decade for racial abuse, incitement to hatred and denial of a crime against humanity and was convicted twice for incitement to hatred.
Incompatible with French principles
His defence is that his views are a “political position” and the charges can’t be classified as hatred because “unaccompanied minors are neither a race, nor a nation, nor an ethnic group”.
Zemmour, a writer, journalist and broadcaster for the past two decades, has made a career of stirring up Islamophobia. In one interview he said Islam is incompatible with the principles of France.
But he is also antifeminist, lashing out at the blurring of genders in modern society.
His far-right views have even earned him the support of Jean-Marie Le Pen — Marine Le Pen’s father who is considered to be the doyen of the French right.
Having failed against Macron five years ago, Marine Le Pen is now facing criticism from those on the right that she has toned down her message to make it more appealing to the mainstream. That’s why Zemmour is being seen as the only option to escape the long-awaited re-run between Le Pen and Macron.
Le Pen, 53, is sticking to her preferred themes of immigration and security. She wants an end to the current system that allows for naturalisation by marriage and of automatic citizenship for people born on French soil. Le Pen plans to restrict access to family allowances to French people exclusively with a five-year waiting period for foreigners.
She is also against renewable energy, seeking to abolish subsidies for “intermittent energies” of wind and solar power. She has, however, abandoned the idea of taking France out of the European Union, Schengen Area or euro.
Recent polls have suggested that Macron would defeat either Le Pen or Zemmour. The president is on track to win 55 per cent of second-round votes against the television pundit, or with 53 per cent against Le Pen.
While the polls do point to a Macron victory, the French presidential election is also notoriously unpredictable — and Macron himself knows that only too well. Six months before the 2017 election, he was relatively unknown.