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French Presidential Election: How to Achieve the Unity of the Rights? by Hélène de Lauzun

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French Presidential Election: How to Achieve the Unity of the Rights?

“At best we save France, at worst we save the Right.” 

Such was the program posted a few weeks ago by Antoine Diers, one of the spokesmen of Éric Zemmour’s campaign.

Indeed, by leaving his job as a journalist and entering the political arena, Zemmour has two goals that do not totally overlap: to win the election—an objective that remains distant because the latest polls stubbornly place him in 4th position—and to reconfigure the French Right. Which of the two is the priority in his mind? Marine Le Pen has an idea of her own on this subject, and analyzed the situation on the national channel France 3 as follows: “Éric Zemmour’s role is to prevent me from reaching the second round and not to be himself in the second round.”

The reconfiguration of the French Right has long been one of his hobbies, when he used to be a polemicist. For Zemmour though, the French Right died with the formation of the governmental party of the Union pour la Majorité Présidentielle (UMP) at the time of the presidential election of 2002, which opposed Jacques Chirac and Jean-Marie Le Pen in the second round. The UMP, by taking the place of the former Gaullist party of the Rassemblement Pour la République, did not stop drifting more and more towards the center, leaving many voters orphans and unimpressed with the Front National/Rassemblement National. 

Today, the UMP, which has become Les Républicains, has difficulty asserting its right-wing credentials. Zemmour regularly claims in his speeches his affiliation with the former Rassemblement Pour la République (RPR), and his desire to achieve a “union of the Right.” He hopes to gather within his candidacy all the families of the French Right attached to national identity, sovereignty, a certain economic liberalism, and a (moderate) social conservatism. He wishes to achieve this union on several levels. On the ideological level, his goal is to convince an electorate, scattered among several factions, that it is in fact united by a common base of convictions. On the sociological level, Zemmour appeals to the common man as well as the upper class conservative Right. He himself claims to be able to bring together the popular electorate, who are assumed to be more favorable to Marine Le Pen, and the bourgeois electorate traditionally loyal to the Les Républicains party. 

Is he on the way to succeeding in his gamble? Some signs suggest that he is, while others call for caution. For proof, one can look to media coverage of the rallies in recent weeks for his party Reconquête. Well-identified personalities from the small milieu of the French conservative Right have been on display: Guillaume Peltier, former vice-president of Les Républicains; Jérôme Rivière, coming from Les Républicains and ex-president of the group of Rassemblement National MEPs; and Gilbert Collard, former Rassemblement National deputy of the Department of the Gard. 

Éric Zemmour stages these rallies: a double-edged strategy that at once provides the illusion of support while also conveying the sense that Zemmour lacks figures of political stature in his entourage. To provide cover for poor credibility, Zemmour overplays the importance of rally theatrics. For example, Guillaume Peltier is an électron libre, a ‘free electron,’ who has supported just about every figure on the Right, from Philippe de Villiers to Xavier Bertrand, and Gilbert Collard is a whimsical lawyer known for his sudden reversals. Like Zemmour, he voted for François Mitterrand in 1981. 

It would be a different thing entirely if, as a rumour suggests, Marion Maréchal chose to join him. Her charismatic personality would be a strong argument to convince people to come together from all the sides of the Right. In an interview for Le Figaro, she has just acknowledged her intention to go back to politics. She thinks about participating in the legislative elections in June. She hasn’t yet formalized her rallying to Zemmour, but she explicitly mentioned the fact she wouldn’t support her aunt Marine Le Pen.

The French press abundantly comments on these announcements. The polemical effect is very strong–not always yielding the best effect. There is a kind of heavy fragrance in the air, full of treason and resentment that is not good for the French Right. Quebec journalist and political analyst Matthieu Bock-Coté, who replaced Zemmour on his daily show on CNews, tempers Zemmour’s apparent success by reminding viewers that Zemmour is not really uniting the Right, but rather uniting those who want to be united, which is not the same thing. For the moment, the Les Républicains (LR) party, the Rassemblement National (RN) party, and the Reconquête are three irreconcilable worlds. If some RN voters are not insensitive to Zemmour’s charm, the bulk of the LR troops are still inaccessible to him.

In order to speak of a true union of the Right, there would have to be a fusion of the voters and of the party apparati (or at least a genuine dialogue). The French are used to laughing at Italian political life and its joyful disorder, but the negotiations that took place before the start of the Italian presidential election, which led Salvini into discussions with Meloni and Berlusconi to try to find an agreement for a common candidate, are absolutely unthinkable in France. 

The union of the Right is still very far from being realized. In addition to political disagreements, there are moral judgments. The European deputy Agnès Evren (LR) calls the element of her militant base who are tempted by Zemmour “radicalized.” Zemmour shoots down the RN, and the RN, after having kept its distance, retaliates with frank disdain. Reconquête’s hostility towards RN is growing and renewing itself, despite diplomatic declarations of fraternity and a helping hand, such as during Zemmour’s last big meeting in the city of Cannes. Marine Le Pen appears to have risen above the fray to denounce the “mercenary attitude” of Reconquête.

Marine Le Pen has been weakened though, because her party is collapsing and has lost a good part of its militant base. This crisis is partly the responsibility of the president and her choices, but not only. The RN has undertaken a judicial offensive to attack its parliamentary assistants in the European parliament, and has had to endure many refusals from banks to lend the party some money for political reasons. Moreover, public funds were withdrawn from the party in 2018, putting it in dire straits. 

Reconquête, in contrast, does not have this awkward history. It is a new party that registered 85,000 members—a figure that is quite impressive for a new political force in France. The party is thus very proud to promote its membership numbers in the media, hoping to use this data to advertise its irresistible appeal. In the short term, Zemmour’s side has the power to attract interest. 

But in the medium or long term, things will get more complicated. A real detestation is taking root between Zemmour and Marine Le Pen, which will leave its mark when it comes to negotiating second round agreements. So much for the Rassemblement National-Reconquête duel. In respect to Les Républicains, Zemmour does not yet give the impression of being able to lure the electorate and the executives of the party of the governmental Right, which is united around its candidate Valérie Pécresse and includes the most right-wing figures of the party—Éric Ciotti, Nadine Morano, Julien Aubert, and Laurent Wauquiez. 

Zemmour’s hunting board has been enriched with new faces, but the effect is not yet felt in the polls. He remains stable between 11-13%, while the score of Marine Le Pen is almost unaffected, and remains between 15-18%, almost always ahead of Valérie Pécresse and able to reach the second round. Macron, for his part, remains resolutely at the top of voting intentions between 22-25%. There is only one quiver against him: for the first time in many months, his popularity rating has fallen. It remains to be seen whether this will translate into the polls on the vote itself. 

The central problem behind this difficult—impossible?—union of the Right remains unsolved. It is that of the intellectual and ideological supremacy of the Left, which defines what the Right is, sets the rules of the game, and awards diplomas of respectability. For the moment, even if he’s doing a great job, Zemmour has not yet succeeded in putting an end to this curse.

Hélène de Lauzun studied at the École Normale Supérieure de Paris. She taught French literature and civilization at Harvard and received a Ph.D. in History from the Sorbonne. She is the author of Histoire de l’Autriche (Perrin, 2021).

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