Zemmour's fall in polls signals ‘lack of presidential credibility' amid campaign launch

Zemmour’s fall in polls signals ‘lack of presidential credibility’ amid campaign launch
© YouTube, AFP

A new poll showed a significant drop in support for far-right polemicist Eric Zemmour – just days before he officially launched his presidential campaign on Tuesday after anticipation of his run hung over French politics for months. Analysts say a failure to look presidential has combined with a weak point on economics to limit his appeal.

Flash back to 2017 to understand the spectre haunting France’s ascendant far right. It is the spectre of Marine Le Pen nervously looking up dubious economic figures in a pile of chunky colour-coded folders as she faced a polished Emmanuel Macron in the final 2017 presidential election debate.

Le Pen’s presence in those second-round debates confirmed the French far right’s steady rise. When her father Jean-Marie astounded France by reaching the face-off in 2002, then president Jacques Chirac declined to debate him.

Yet Le Pen’s anxious consultation of those folders showed how – even if she had detoxified her party, now called the Rassemblement National – she had failed to win credibility. Macron defeated her with two-thirds of the vote. “Le Pen’s lack of credibility on economic issues, glaringly exposed in her run-off debate with Macron, confirmed that she had not made the transition from protest candidate to potential president,” noted Jim Shields, a professor of French politics at Warwick University.

‘Zemmour’s peak’?

Flash forward to the 2022 campaign. The centre ground of French politics has shifted to the right and centrist Macron has moved with it. Over the past few months, even apolitical people in Paris would note that “everyone is talking about Zemmour” – the ex-journalist twice convicted for inciting racial hatred, who outflanked Le Pen as an even more far-right candidate and surged in the presidential polls. On Monday, a YouTube video officially launching his Élysée Palace run confirmed what everyone anticipated.

But Zemmour’s announcement followed a bad omen for the far-right pundit. A poll published by Le Journal de Dimanche on Sunday showed him sinking from second to third place, at 14 to 15 percent of voting intentions – with Le Pen leapfrogging ahead to 19-20 percent and Macron way ahead at 25 percent. This came after a string of influential Zemmour backers signalled disillusionment with his campaign – including one of his biggest donors, multimillionaire businessman Charles Gave, who announced last week he was withdrawing his support.

Experts say Zemmour’s flagging poll ratings show that – like Le Pen last time, rifling through the folders for answers – he has failed to make that shift from protest vote to plausible head of state.

“What seemed an advantage for Zemmour at first – his anti-system, anti-political appeal – has not stood up so well to the bigger question of whether he has the makings of a president,” Shields said. “His reduced momentum is due to his lack of credibility as a presidential candidate.

“The problem with momentum is that, once lost, it is difficult to recover; so it’s hard to see how Zemmour can regain the strong upward momentum that once had him ahead of Le Pen in some polls,” Shields continued.

“I think the latest poll represents Zemmour’s peak as a presidential candidate,” agreed Andrew Smith, a professor of French politics at the University of Chichester. “His crassness might appeal to a certain section of voters, but most of the electorate looks to presidential candidates to display a certain august aspect and sees Zemmour’s venomous quality as incompatible with the office.”

‘Not interested in the numbers’

In addition to the personality factor, that old question of economic credibility threatens to torpedo Zemmour’s efforts to present himself as a serious candidate to lead the French Republic.

In his previous role as a political commentator on TV channel CNews, Zemmour was able to reach millions of viewers while keeping the discussion on his favoured terrain of cultural and identity issues, seldom venturing into economic policy. 

This will put him at a disadvantage in a presidential campaign where he will have to face tough questions on economic details, Smith said: “It’s evident that he doesn’t particularly care about economics – and that’s going to be a real issue for him; he’s not interested in the numbers, the kind of thing on which Le Pen looked out of her depth in the debates against Macron in 2017.”

Although economics is not his priority, Zemmour has set out a broadly neoliberal platform, in line with his long-running ambition to bring France’s traditional right into the far-right fold. The ex-journalist has lambasted Le Pen as a “leftist” for her economic agenda, which includes lowering the retirement age to 62 and raising taxes on the wealthy. Zemmour vows to drastically reduce business taxes and raise France’s pension age to 64.

Contrary to a certain Anglophone stereotype of France as an avowedly socialist country, a sizeable proportion of the French electorate is keen on liberal economics. After all, France elected Macron on a platform of streamlining the state and creating a “start-up nation” – and he only superseded Les Républicains’ Thatcherite candidate François Fillon in the 2017 polls after a financial impropriety scandal kyboshed the latter’s campaign.

But analysts say that far from turbocharging his campaign by attracting mainstream right-wingers, Zemmour’s combination of far-right social and cultural positions with neoliberal economic proposals imposes a ceiling on his support. 

Le Pen’s pivot from her father’s largely free-market stance to leftist economics has helped her party win over swathes of working-class former Socialist and Communist voters, especially in France’s deindustrialised north. Zemmour has made “few inroads” with these voters, Shields observed. 

At the same time, Smith suggested, Zemmour is too toxic for many mainstream conservatives – thanks to declarations like his infamous falsehood that France’s collaborationist Vichy regime “tried to save” French Jews from the Nazis.

“France has historically voted to the centre-right,” Smith concluded. “It’s conservative on cultural issues; again and again France returns to these centre-right values, Republican values, at election time. Zemmour traduces them, and he moves beyond defending Republican values to something very undesirable, for example with his revisionist views on Vichy. These statements mark him out as a provocateur – and that role of provocateur is at odds with any potential to look presidential and win over those centre-right voters.”

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