With about 90 days to go before the first round of voting, the polls for the French presidential election are multiplying, but none of them indicate that any of the three so-called right-wing candidates—Valérie Pécresse, Marine Le Pen, and Éric Zemmour—have distinguished themselves from the other two. Valérie Pécresse is the candidate of the governmental right and of the centre. Opposing her, Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour are in the same niche of the so-called “national” right. What are the strengths and the weaknesses of these two candidates, and what is the stage of their campaign dynamics?
For the past few days, a still shy advantage seems to be emerging slightly in favor of Marine Le Pen, while Emmanuel Macron, eternal favorite in the polls, is starting to drop for the first time. Éric Zemmour has also marked the loss. It appears that the candidates’s respective positions on the treatment of the pandemic are obviously a factor in these latest developments.
Emmanuel Macron is probably starting to pay for his brazen desire to “piss off the non-vaccinated,” but also for his policy towards schools. Anger from the fed-up children and parents, forced to be tested several times a week under the protocol imposed by Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer, is palpable in the press and on social networks.
About a year ago, the polls concentrated on regional elections to be held in the spring of 2021. For most of the opinion surveys, Marine Le Pen’s party was polling at 30%. Today, estimates still give about 30-32% to the combined voters of Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour. Does this mean that there is no knock-on effect for their candidacies, and that neither of them have won over new voters?
Marine Le Pen seems to be well established on an indestructible base. As a result, she can hold her own against Valérie Pécresse, and could once again challenge Emmanuel Macron in the second round. The seniority of the party and her experience are undeniably in her favor. Like the cats she loves, she is biding her time. Marine has long years of experience in politics and a family heritage of political combat going for her, but she is undeniably weakened by some of her strategic choices of the last few years. The purges she made the party undergo, by massively discarding certain profiles of the traditional right, have weakened it. Those who have been dismissed from the Rassemblement National, whether they are prominent or common figures, are now swelling the ranks of Éric Zemmour’s party to which they bring a mix of bitterness, revenge, and fighting spirit. As a result of these purges, Marine Le Pen leans on personalities, some of whom are accused of being too close to LGBT circles—such as the spokesman Sébastien Chenu, or the vice-president of the party Steeve Briois. Marine Le Pen has also sought out a number of former left-wing party activists to replace historical militants of the Front and the Rassemblement National, members who are often Catholic and pro-family. She also suffers from the strategic withdrawal of her niece Marion Maréchal who, without ever opposing her head-on, carefully keeps her distance.
On one subject, however, Marine Le Pen seems to have more political flair than her opponent Éric Zemmour. She had very early placed her campaign under the slogan of the defense of freedoms, as evidenced by her official poster. For several weeks, her party has hammered its opposition to the very restrictive vaccine policy of the government—having all the appearances of a mandatory vaccination. It was a risky move (the French population is rather favorable to the vaccine), but this strategy has begun to bear fruit with the entry of the vaccine pass and the implementation of the 3rd dose. Conversely, Éric Zemmour’s communication on the subject is not very clear. He tells his teams he does not want to go down this slippery slope. He lets his lieutenants take a stand against the vaccine pass but he himself resists committing to a position. Consequently, the spokesmen of his Reconquête! party are regularly obliged to post clarifications on social networks to explain the misunderstood position of their candidate—whose supporters are generally opposed to government policy on the subject.
After an extremely offensive, and effective, pre-campaign, the candidate Éric Zemmour shows some signs of running out of steam. The media emphasize his digital performance, but there are attendant liabilities that come with running a mostly digital campaign. His team’s master communication unit for social networks can impose trends on the Twitter France network; His party Reconquête! occupies the ground of alternative platforms such as Telegram or GETTR. It is structured within militant channels, and knows how to use small meetings, as persuasion on the program mostly happens through small committees. But does it reach the roots of a country that does not know or follow these technological fads and Parisian fashions? Nothing is less sure.
The youth of Zemmour’s militant teams is a weakness as well as a strength. Zemmour tries to counterbalance their inexperience by highlighting the spectacular rallies of the committed personalities who join him. But these rallies are not so obvious, and sometimes fail. For example, before entering the campaign, Zemmour had approached Patrick Stefanini, the architect of President Jacques Chirac’s victory. Patrick Stefanini preferred to work for Valérie Pécresse. For several days now, Zemmour has been communicating loudly about the arrival of Guillaume Peltier at his side. Guillaume Peltier is a personality of choice, since he held the title of vice-president of the party Les Républicains, from which he has just been excluded. But Guillaume Peltier is an ambiguous personality, who has successively served Jean-Marie Le Pen, Bruno Mégret, Philippe de Villiers, Nicolas Sarkozy, Laurent Wauquiez, and even Xavier Bertrand: so many leaders who have little in common in terms of ideas despite what Guillaume Peltier says.
Guillaume Peltier is known in French political circles for changing his mind—and his master—at disconcerting speed. Zemmour made him his number two: “a machine to make people lose,” mocks Marine Le Pen. There is something of a mirage in this rallying. Zemmour announces that he wants to achieve the union of the right, but continues to be at loggerheads with Valérie Pécresse and Marine Le Pen, without significantly biting into their electorates. He intends to repeat the stroke of genius of Emmanuel Macron in 2017: arriving seemingly out of nowhere, and taking power by surprise. But Zemmour is not a minister, unlike Emmanuel Macron who worked in the government. He remains isolated, nationally and internationally. His networks are media-based, but politically weak. For the moment, his strategy gives the impression that he wants to seduce a conservative right-wing electorate at all costs—one that is already his. He regularly appears alongside Philippe de Villiers or Patrick Buisson. These are figures who speak to the conservative camp in the narrow sense of the term, but who have no leverage in opinion, and who belong to a generation that has passed. An alliance with Marion Maréchal would be more significant—but for the moment there is no question of it.
Éric Zemmour has on several occasions entered into a somewhat sterile competition with Marine Le Pen: most recently, he preempted her planned visit to the Vendée town of Les Sables d’Olonne to defend a statue of Saint-Michel threatened by a ‘woke’ association. This type of contest with Le Pen on such issues raises the question of motive. In a presidential campaign, how does grasping at someone else’s priority bring together one’s camp, or convince a larger audience of sincerity of purpose? Zemmour claims to have the energy and the desire for power that Marine Le Pen does not have. He assumes that he can divide opinion on sharp positions. He criticizes her for having perpetually lowered her political demands and for having made too many concessions to the system. This is perhaps forgetting successful strategies of conservative candidates who succeeded in gaining power, such as Orbán in Hungary, for example, who exercised a form of moderation that allowed him to reach the highest offices, where he was then able to implement a true right-wing policy. One of the leading figures in the Les Républicains party, Laurent Wauquiez, recently understood the risk of Zemmour’s candidacy as confusing firmness with brutality. For the moment, he has not yet demonstrated his ability to touch the hearts of many.
Another handicap that could hamper the continuation of his campaign has been realized in his revelations about his relationship with his advisor Sarah Knafo. A few weeks ago, the tabloid press revealed the exact nature of their relationship, before announcing the pregnancy of the young woman. France has, in the eyes of foreigners, a tradition of libertinage assumed by its politicians. The sentimental affairs of politicians are rather well tolerated by the public—as long as they do not affect political life. In the case of the Knafo-Zemmour relationship though, the situation is quite different. Sarah Knafo is not only his mistress and the mother of his future child, but also his campaign manager. She is even, as he himself says, the reason for his decision to run for president. Such a mixture of genres is not at all in the French tradition, and Zemmour may pay dearly for it when time comes for voters to slip their ballot into the ballot box. Moreover, Zemmour insists on the support of conservative caciques—conservatives Patrick Buisson, Philippe de Villiers, and the Christian Democrat Jean-Frédéric Poisson—while paired with a young woman, and still married to the mother of his previous three children.
Today, Éric Zemmour asks the public to respect certain principles—such as the absolute right to a private life without taboos, and to a family life free of any social shackles—which are exactly what the personalities and movements that are lining up on his side in the campaign are trying to fight. He has struck an undeniably false note: “do as I say, not as I do,” as the French say. Zemmour talks about his “companion” on TV and the tabloids show Sarah Knafo’s baby bump. He seems to be satisfied or even happy with this treatment, which contrasts with the old-style French attitude he has tried to cultivate for years on television. If Éric Zemmour were elected, on whose arm would he enter the Elysée Palace? In all honesty, even if the function of First Lady does not exist in France, the question cannot be avoided, especially from someone who held General de Gaulle as his model and who claims to be attached to a traditional vision of the Head of State.
At present, the distribution of votes among the various right-wing candidates resembles a game of communicating vessels, without any clear dynamic for winning over new voters. Marine Le Pen is ploughing her own furrow. Éric Zemmour putsdes mots sur des maux (words on evils): it is what he does best. He can participate in the reconfiguration of the French right. But will he go much further? The jury of public opinion remains undecided. A scenario to be feared would be the exclusion and the discredit of both Le Pen and Zemmour to the advantage of Valérie Pécresse—and Emmanuel Macron.
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).