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They’re off: France sees start of raucous presidential race

France can expect an unpredictable and potentially violent presidential race with the entry of Eric Zemmour, a far-right polemicist who's turned Muslim immigration into a central topic.

(CN) — All the contenders for the French presidency are now lined up at the start of what has already become a raucous campaign ahead of April elections where President Emmanuel Macron seems destined to face a right-wing challenger in a runoff.

It's now clear who all the main candidates are after France's traditional conservative party, the Republicans, became the last big party to name a candidate on Saturday. They picked their first female presidential candidate, Valerie Pecresse. She is the president of the region that includes Paris and served as a minister under the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy.

In the past, she's taken mainstream pro-European, pro-business and small-government conservative views and described herself as “one-third [Margaret] Thatcher, two-thirds [Angela] Merkel.”

But her job will be to defeat the far right first and only by doing that will she get a chance to take on Macron. Facing such a hurdle, she's adopted the language of the far right and promised to “restore French pride” and protect “family values.”

“I understand the anger of a people who feel powerless against violence, Islamist separatism and uncontrolled immigration,” she said. “I will not have a wavering hand against the enemies of the republic.”

Besides the longtime far-right politician Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Rally and Macron's runoff challenger in the 2017 election, Pecresse will need to stave off a new far-right force in Eric Zemmour, an anti-Muslim and anti-European Union firebrand journalist and television pundit who is shaking up the race.

The main left-wing hopefuls have begun their campaigns too. The Socialists chose Anne Hidalgo, the Paris mayor; the Greens have environmental activist Yannick Jadot leading them; and those on the far left are backing Jean-Luc Melenchon, the leader of France Unbowed.

But with France's left-wing parties showing little strength and in disarray, Macron, a neoliberal centrist who's tacked to the right over the past two years, is likely to be challenged in a runoff by one of the three figures on the right.

Macron is leading polls ahead of the April 10 election and the main question is about who he'll likely face in an April runoff. Although Macron has not officially declared his candidacy, he is expected to do so in the coming weeks and he is well poised to win a second term, according to polls.

But Zemmour's entry into the race has made the campaign much harder to predict and drawn a lot of comparisons to Donald Trump's disruptive presence in the 2016 U.S. elections.

“He's the candidate of the middle finger to France in terms of the ordinary candidate,” said Andrew Smith, an expert on French politics at the University of Chichester, during a recent discussion on France 24. “In many ways he's kind of a cipher of the very worst of what France could be.”

Smith's reference to the middle finger was for a reason: At the end of November, Zemmour was photographed flipping off a woman who had shown him the middle finger as his entourage drove by during a visit to Marseille. The incident came as Zemmour's sudden rise in the polls stalled.

Last week, after months of speculation and likely sensing trouble from the sliding poll numbers, Zemmour finally declared his candidacy and he held his first rally on Sunday.

The rally delivered scenes similar to those that came out of Trump's run for the White House. On his way through adoring crowds, a man grabbed Zemmour by the head in an apparent effort to put him in a headlock. Zemmour's body guards quickly restrained the man.

Inside the hall, Zemmour announced his political party will be called Reconquest, an apparent inference to the historical period known as the Reconquista when Christian military forces violently expulsed Muslims from the Iberian Peninsula.

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“If I win that election, it won’t be one more [political] changeover, but the beginning of the reconquest of the most beautiful country in the world,” Zemmour said.

Protesters march during a demonstration against French presidential candidate Eric Zemmour in Paris on Dec. 5, 2021. (Michel Spingler/AP)

The rally turned violent after a group of anti-racism protesters stood on chairs and then were assaulted by Zemmour supporters who punched and launched chairs at the demonstrators. Clashes between police and anti-Zemmour protesters also took place outside the rally, which was held near Paris. A crew from the popular but critical "Quotidien" nightly TV news show were booed by Zemmour supporters and briefly escorted out of the rally by security guards.

“I’m not racist,” Zemmour said. “We are defending our country, our homeland, our ancestral heritage [to] ... transmit our children France as we have known it.”

Zemmour is backed by French billionaire Vincent Bollore, a growing political force in France whose family business controls the media conglomerate Vivendi. Zemmour's fame – and infamy – grew spectacularly after Bollore promoted him on France's version of Fox News television, a station called CNews. Some see Zemmour's candidacy as a kind of trial balloon for a future presidential run by Bollore.

Zemmour is making immigration to France – and particularly Muslim immigration – central to the election and he has forced other candidates, including Pecresse, to take on harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric. Macron too has shifted to the right and pushed laws that many see as discriminating against Muslims.

Philippe Marliere, a French politics professor at University College London, said Pecresse and other Les Republicains contenders “concentrated on law and order issues, immigration and Islam” in their debates.

“All candidates’ positioning was radically right-wing,” he said on Twitter. “This is what I would call the 'Zemmour effect.'”

But Zemmour goes much further and calls for the expulsion of immigrants and a law banning parents from using non-French names for newborns, among other radical proposals.

Bruno Cautres, a political scientist at Sciences Po University in Paris, said Zemmour is making the pitch to right-wing voters that Le Pen cannot beat Macron and that he is the candidate to unify the right.

Zemmour also reflects widespread feelings among French that the country is in trouble and declining. Zemmour blames immigration for the country's troubles, he said.

“He corresponds to one present situation where there is a French depression,” Cautres said during the France 24 discussion.

Smith said Zemmour is a “man of the past” in his views – he peppers his comments with historical and literary references – and he predicted he will fail in his bid for the Elysee because of his lack of policies beyond his anti-immigrant rhetoric.

He said Le Pen lost to Macron in 2017 because she came off as “unprofessional” and “out of her depth” because she was unable to articulate economic policies.

“I think this election ultimately will be decided on issues that matter on terms of governance,” Smith said. “Ultimately, I think Zemmour will fall away; I think he remains a stalking horse in this election, one who is disruptive, who is shifting that political window right.”

But Philippe Moreau-Chevrolet, the president of the MCBG political consulting firm, warned that Zemmour's views are “shared by about 50% of the population.”

“I don't agree that he's a man from the past,” Moreau-Chevrolet said, speaking during the France 24 discussion. “My belief, and my fear, is that it's a man of the present.”

Cautres said French voters are unlikely to want major change after three years of crisis, which began with the violent Yellow Vest protests in 2018 against Macron and was followed by the coronavirus pandemic.

“It is almost three years that France has been living in a permanent state of crisis,” he said.

“So can you really wish for a big change, a radical change?” he said. “What Zemmour is proposing also is absolutely radical change. It is quasi a change of republic, it's quasi change of political regime.”

He said Macron will present himself as the efficient leader who has a positive view of France's future.

However, even though he holds the advantage, Cautres said Macron's reelection is not guaranteed.

“It is not going to be an easy election for Emmanuel Macron,” he said. “I do not believe that the election is done already for Emmanuel Macron.”

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

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