The Rise of the Populist Right En France

Photo Credit: Nicolas_svgnt

By Matthew Risley
Contributing Writer

Contemporary French politics have largely been dominated by two main camps: La République En Marche!, currently led by President Emmanuel Macron, and National Rally, currently led by Marine Le Pen. However, a changing landscape has produced a new challenger. Eric Zemmour, a former journalist and right-wing talk show host has shot to political prominence as leader of the novel Reconquête party in recent months, turning in surprisingly impressive numbers in recent polls. His ascension signals the increasing pull of the right in France and is reflective of a larger and more concerning global trend — the growing influence and popularity of right-wing populist movements. 

Within France’s semi-presidential system the executive branch wields considerable power over both foreign and domestic policies — arguably more so than that of the United States — making the significance of presidential elections paramount. France’s unitary form of government also consolidates power within the central government and provides it substantially greater control over regional and local municipalities than its federalism counterpart provides in places such as the United States, where any power not explicitly named by the Constitution is delegated to the state level. The field of candidates in this year’s approaching election cycle reflects a growing sense of discontent within the population, as the centrist and right-wing candidates dominate the political sphere and hope to take the reins of government.

Zemmour’s rise can be attributed in part to the shifting perspectives of the French people that come in response to their centrist president’s ostensible ideological vacillation. Macron has made increasingly frequent concessions to the right in order to obtain political backing. Meanwhile, Marine Le Pen has and continues to pose a significant threat to Macron’s political agenda and future. Le Pen won only 34% of votes in 2017’s runoff election but is now polling at 44% in preelection polls as of January 31, indicating a growing dissatisfaction with Macron whose disapproval ratings have hovered around 58% as of recent. Valérie Pécresse, the candidate for the center-right Republican party, polled at an even greater 47% in a runoff against Macron. Although Macron is almost certain to advance to the second round of voting, his presidency faces a significant challenge in the runoff. 

Macron maintains support from both the right and the left, leaving the bitter fight between the left-leaning Socialist Party and the center-right Union for a Popular Movement — now The Republicans — a distant memory. The rightward shift in French politics over the course of the past decade has been accompanied by the robust decline of the left’s power and influence. The Socialist Party, once a powerhouse with strong showings in elections from 1981 through 2012, has lost considerable support, having a minuscule chance of earning enough votes to earn a spot in the second round of voting. Macron no longer has to concede to the left and with Anne Hidalgo, the Mayor of Paris and leader of the Socialist Party polling at a meager 3%, the incentive to shift further to the right is only growing. This means that whatever the outcome of the April 2022 presidential election — even with a Macron victory— there will likely be a sharp increase in right-wing influence over agenda and policy. This would mirror the right-wing surges observed in recent years in countries such as Poland, Brazil, and the United States.

Zemmour is a new face in the political debate, and his newly formed party, Reconquete, did not run in the 2017 election but is now polling 13% in the primary. His right-wing rhetoric is characterized by frequent anti-immigrant remarks, and often references the recent terrorist attacks France has endured. He has even upheld the great replacement conspiracy theory, which contends that the traditional values of France are being replaced by an influx of cultures and customs brought through immigration, as a central impetus for his candidacy. The rhetoric perpetuated by Zemmour gives those discontent with the status quo an enemy to direct their ire at and solutions that promise to ameliorate their concerns. 

The similarities between Zemmour’s campaign and that of Donald Trump’s are striking. Both came into the public eye somewhat suddenly, employing populist and nationalist rhetoric, and were provided a platform through right-leaning news sources. Throughout his ascendency Zemmour remained the most popular commentator on CNews, a right-wing news network. The network allowed him to push conspiracy theories and vitriolic grievances aimed at immigrant groups, and ultimately led to CNews being issued a fine of €200,000 for speech inciting racial hatred. Although no equivalent fine has been levied against Fox News, there is a clear parallel between Zemmour’s use of CNews and Trump’s use of Fox News. In both cases, the relationship was mutually beneficial for both network and politician, driving engagement and promoting a political agenda. This practice is also observed in other political environments around the world, including Brazil, where populist political candidates find success building bases of support through right-wing media outlets. 

Zemmour’s ascendence not only mirrors that of Trump’s, but also more broadly the global trend of populist victories in recent years. In 2019, Bolsonaro became the president of Brazil on a populist platform. Poland’s president Andrzej Dud was reelected in 2020 behind his personal brand of Polish populism. Although not leading in the poll’s, Zemmour’s popularity indicates potential for similar results in France in the near-term. The 2022 French elections could have implications that stretch far beyond France’s borders, particularly if Macron is defeated. 

The challenging candidate will be one ranging from either the center-right party of Valérie Pécresse, the right-wing and anti-EU party of Le Pen, or the far-right party of Zemmour. Although Zemmour does not have a particularly good chance at winning the presidency, his candidacy remains incredibly important nonetheless; the entire political spectrum will be shifted to the right to accommodate his supporters after the first round of voting. If Macron fails to adapt, he could risk losing crucial support from the right. This would likely spell doom for his reelection prospects. The election results will have both regional and global implications. A right-wing victory would certainly alter France’s relationship with other members of the European Union, either through jostling to increase their respective power share, or by severing their membership entirely if a candidate as outspokenly anti-EU as Le Pen is elected.  

Albeit slight, there remains a chance for Zemmour and his far-right party to eek out a victory. This would jarringly upend the status quo and return France to a Gualle-esque nationalistic state reminiscent of the 1960s. Regardless of victor, right-wing populism has demonstrated its allure, and this alone is a victory for it as a global force. The April elections mark an inflection point in French politics, and whether France chooses to further embrace centrist-left leanings or bid them adieu in favor of the right, the outcome will likely determine France’s new decadal direction.

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