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France braces for presidential run of Eric Zemmour, a Trump-like figure

France is likely to see a hard-right, anti-Muslim television personality named Eric Zemmour enter the presidential campaign and challenge Emmanuel Macron for the Elysee.

(CN) — Is France seeing the rise of its own version of Donald Trump?

France's presidential campaign ahead of April elections is being turned on its head by Eric Zemmour, a 63-year-old best-selling Jewish author, journalist, polemicist and television personality who has become the talk of the nation due to his extreme and provocative right-wing views on Muslims, women, French history, the media, the European Union and much else.

“You can call him a shock jock, but in France a shock jock must be an intellectual of sorts,” Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, a Paris-based journalist and political commentator, told Uncommon Decency, a news podcast. “He has changed what would have been an extremely boring presidential election into something unpredictable and very interesting.”

In recent weeks, Zemmour has grabbed much of the attention in French media as polls show him getting up to 17% of the vote in first-round balloting and edging out all other rivals to President Emmanuel Macron. Still, Macron is expected to pull in the most votes in the first round and win a run-off despite widespread dissatisfaction with his presidency. His approval rating is stuck around 41%.

Zemmour, who is not affiliated with any political party, has not announced his intention to run, but he has surrounded himself with campaign staff and opened an election headquarters in central Paris. Most pundits see it as an inevitable that he will enter the race for the Elysee and view that his tour of France to tout his latest book serves his political purposes.

The book's title is “La France n’a pas dit son dernier mot”(“France has not said its final word”) and it's already sold more than 150,000 copies. As with previous works, this one bashes liberalism and Muslim immigration as causes for France's decline. Zemmour sees “restoring France's glory” by turning the clock back.

In announcing a presidential campaign, Zemmour is expected to unveil a new political party, a step mirroring what Macron did in 2016 with the creation of his party, the Republic on the Move, or La République En Marche in French.

Zemmour's entry into the race would be a major challenge to Marine Le Pen, the leader of France's far-right National Assembly party. Since losing the presidential runoff to Macron in 2017, Le Pen has tried to rebrand her party and herself as less extreme and more moderate, but that repositioning has let Zemmour take up the mantle as the most extreme candidate.

His candidacy would also complicate the calculations of France's mainstream conservative party, the Republicans. Damaged by past corruption scandals involving Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac, the Republicans are striving to put the past behind them but they have failed to coalesce around a candidate and whoever they choose may end up looking stale compared to Zemmour, who is seen as an entertainingly outrageous figure.

Zemmour is being compared to Trump because he is a potentially disruptive figure for France's traditional right-wing politics – a dark horse capable of winning the backing of diverse slices of French society.

Perhaps, though, it would be better to compare him to Tucker Carlson, the popular right-wing talk show host on Fox News. In 2019, Zemmour's popularity shot up after he was given his own talk show on CNews, a cable news channel backed by conservative billionaire Vincent Bollore. The channel's viewership has exploded in recent years after it adopted the Fox News model where talking heads disagree and shout at each other. Zemmour has been at the center of the channel's success.

Since polls recently started tracking Zemmour's potential candidacy, he seems to be picking up support not only from potential Le Pen backers but also from well-to-do voters in cities and suburbs. He also appears to be doing well among France's Jewish population despite his defense of the Vichy government during World War II. Controversially, he's argued, to the outrage of historians, that Marshal Philippe Petain, the Vichy head of state, protected French Jews while handing over foreign Jews to the Nazis. Historians reject his interpretation of events.

Zemmour's history of outrageous, bizarre and offensive comments is long.

His chief target are the roughly 5 million Muslims in France, who he accuses of undermining the foundations of French society. He claims France is turning into a Muslim country and he views France as caught in a kind of civil war. Without evidence, he blames Muslim immigrants for causing France to fall behind Germany and the United States economically.

He was fined for inciting racial hatred when he said drug dealers were mostly “Blacks and Arabs” on a television talk show in 2010. He's faced numerous judicial investigations for other statements about Muslims.

On European matters, he is an opponent of the EU bureaucracy in Brussels and has spoken out against overreach of the EU. He's talked about how French law must take primacy over EU laws, a position that aligns him with nationalist leaders in Poland who have sparked a crisis by not adhering to rulings by the EU's highest court, the European Court of Justice. But he doesn't advocate France leaving the union or dropping the euro currency, likely sensing that such positions would be seen as inviting economic disaster.

When it comes to military affairs, he has proposed withdrawing France's military staff from NATO, though not leaving the alliance, and resetting relations with Russia, positions that are shared by others in France's political circles.

“He is pushing buttons no one else is pushing,” Moutet said.

“Right now, people see him as a protest vote, an entertaining protest vote.”

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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