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PARIS — The rise of French presidential hopeful Eric Zemmour has been meteoric. He’s getting far more prime-time TV slots and front-page stories than many of his rivals. He’s also on the rise in the polls.
Last week a poll showed Zemmour overtaking Marine Le Pen for the first time and getting through to a run-off vote in next year’s French election. The Harris Interactive poll predicted Zemmour would get 17 percent of the vote, compared to 15 percent for Le Pen and 24 percent for Emmanuel Macron. The poll is an outlier when compared to POLITICO’s aggregate of all available polls, which shows Zemmour at 13 percent, behind Le Pen at 17 percent and Macron on 24 percent. But the Harris Interactive poll made headlines nevertheless.
Zemmour is a polemical figure whose inflammatory rhetoric on immigration and Islam is accused of stoking division in France and degrading the public debate ahead of April’s election. His supporters, however, say he is a breath of fresh air in a society beset by political correctness.
Meanwhile, Zemmour, who has been convicted for inciting hatred, is dominating the news in France.
“He checkmated the media. Just like Trump,” said Gaspard Gantzer, a former advisor to ex-President François Hollande. “Zemmour is very well-known in a splintered media landscape and is ahead of the pack because those who make the most outrageous statements have the advantage today.”
The French Trump?
Trump and Zemmour have similar life stories and similar views. Trump gained huge exposure on Fox News and “The Apprentice,” while Zemmour made his name on popular TV shows and round-the-clock news channels. They both make a virtue of not being career politicians.
Like Trump, Zemmour has occupied the media landscape with a mix of excessive posturing and promises of a hardline approach to immigration, one of the key issues in the election. Recently he suggested re-introducing Catholic first names for French-born children to improve the integration of immigrants and announced he was in favor of deporting all foreign “delinquents.”
“The difference is Donald Trump led an anti-intellectual battle and worked hard to show his disdain for intellectuals,” said leftwing sociologist Philippe Corcuff. “But in France, a president needs to have an intellectual veneer. Emmanuel Macron promoted his proximity to the philosopher Paul Ricœur. While [Zemmour] wants to be seen as the intellectual Trump.”
Across newsrooms in France, journalists can’t avoid the TV star, even if they dislike him.
“I can’t believe what I am hearing at our editorial meetings,” said a French journalist who works for a leftwing newspaper in Paris. “We are discussing immigration. It’s all about Zemmour and how are we going to respond to him,” she said.
“We hardly cover the leftwing candidates. We do what the left does every time, pushing up the far right,” said the reporter. “But at some point the far right is going to [win an election].”
“I feel like there’s a dynamic between the media and the polling agencies,” said a foreign reporter who was commissioned to write a piece on Zemmour after the latest poll. “They feed each other.”
According to the media watchdog Acrimed, Zemmour was given 16 prime-time TV or front-page slots in the past month. That adds up to over 11 hours of airtime compared to two hours for the Socialist candidate Anne Hidalgo and a little over an hour for Le Pen, according to the independent journalist Robin Andraca. Of course, Le Pen and Hidalgo have their own campaign calendars to be factored in.
Riding the wave
Things look unlikely to change, at least in the short term.
According to Corcuff, journalists will struggle to stop the media momentum around Zemmour. “It’s the context that will unhook them,” he said, “If there’s an event, a terrorist attack, a run of bad polls, something unusual that distracts their attention. And the polls are changeable, a candidate is interesting because he is spoken about.”
This happened, he said, in the case of François Fillon, whose promising 2017 bid crashed when he was embroiled in a fake-jobs case involving his wife.
Zemmour has not yet officially confirmed his candidacy and the conservative Les Républicains have yet to settle on a candidate, making polling unpredictable. With six months to go until the first round of the election, most people have not yet fully tuned in to the campaign. The share of undecided voters also ranges widely, from around 13 percent in the most recent Elabe poll to 27 percent in a Ifop-Fiducal poll.
FRANCE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION POLL OF POLLS
For more polling data from across Europe visit POLITICO Poll of Polls.
There are also indications that Le Pen — who has been taking and not giving punches — is about to hit back, according to the daily L’Opinion. Zemmour has been accused of having a problem with women due to past statements about the “feminization” of society and allegations of inappropriate behavior in the workplace.
A recent photo of Le Pen surrounded by female supporters suggests she knows exactly where to aim.
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