Since the election of Emmanuel Macron as president 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 runoff. Until this autumn, it seemed extremely likely that next spring’s election would be a rematch. Division and disarray on the French left, and the continuing slump of the centre-right Républicains party, left voters with a seemingly stark choice: centrist liberalism or far-right nationalism. This normalisation of the Le Pen dynasty was bad enough. But recent polls suggest a more complicated picture; and from a progressive standpoint, perhaps a more disturbing one.
The xenophobic right has found a new star in Éric Zemmour, an author and television pundit who made his name on the French equivalent of Fox News. Mr Zemmour has yet to officially declare his candidacy, but this month he outstripped Ms Le Pen in the polls for the first time. Ms Le Pen has been attempting to woo more moderate voters by toning down the inflammatory rhetoric of her party, Rassemblement National (RN). This has given Mr Zemmour an opening. His extreme Islamophobia, culturally supremacist language and focus on immigration have made him a magnet for those disillusioned by Ms Le Pen’s detoxification strategy. Cultivating an independent, erudite persona, he has also been able to attract ultra-conservative Catholics from Les Républicains who would never vote for the RN.
Mr Zemmour may or may not continue to vie with Ms Le Pen for second place in the polls, behind Mr Macron. But it is telling that an intellectual maverick with two convictions to his name for inciting hatred can enjoy such success: on immigration and cultural questions, France appears to be moving rightwards at a fast clip. In the race to represent Les Républicains next spring, the former chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has promised that as president he would deliver an “authority electroshock”. Mr Barnier has pitched himself as a neo-Gaullist who can win back votes from the far right through policies such as a three- to five-year moratorium on non-EU immigration. But some of Mr Barnier’s rivals on the centre-right are beginning to sing from a similar hymnbook. Whoever Les Républicains choose as their candidate, it seems increasingly likely they will attempt to repeat the culturally conservative, anti-immigration campaign of François Fillon in 2017. Until his campaign was undone by a corruption scandal, Mr Fillon was odds-on to win that election.
For his part, Mr Macron would prefer to talk about the post-pandemic recovery. Last week, he unveiled a £30bn five-year investment plan designed to boost hi-tech industries and fast-track the transition to a green economy. But the president has also felt obliged to cover his flank on immigration and distance himself from any association with “multiculturalism”. In September it was announced that visas available to migrants from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia would be dramatically cut back. In a recent radio interview, Mr Macron commented: “France cannot host everyone if it wants to host people well.”
Among other provocations, Mr Zemmour has suggested reintroducing a law decreeing that all French-born children – including those from Muslim families – should be given traditional Christian names. The aggressive prosecution of culture wars has allowed him to poll higher than the ratings of the Parti Socialiste hopeful, Anne Hidalgo, and the Green candidate, Yannick Jadot, combined. Mr Macron remains the likely winner of next spring’s presidential election (although a strong centre-right opponent in the runoff could change that calculation). But viewed through a longer lens than this particular race, it is difficult not to conclude that the cultural politics of France are drifting in an alarmingly illiberal direction.