Trump-inspired French nationalist TV host Eric Zemmour soars in polls

PARIS — As a television talk show host and expert, Eric Zemmour has built a devoted following in the French far right with years of sharp criticism against immigrants, Muslims and leftist politicians.

Today, Zemmour, who says he was inspired by former President Donald Trump, is using his fame to explore a presidential race, an effort that is shaking up French politics. Polls show he has edged long-time far-right flag bearer Marine Le Pen to become President Emmanuel Macron’s main challenger in next year’s election.

The 63-year-old is in the process of building a new electoral coalition, siphoning off support from Ms Le Pen and voters he calls “bourgeois patriots” who previously supported the center-right French party, Les Républicains. Mr Zemmour’s rise is a setback for Ms Le Pen, who has relaxed some of her positions in an attempt to become a more viable candidate against Mr Macron since he beat her in 2017.

Mr. Zemmour, the son of Jewish immigrants from Algeria, overwhelmed her on the right by adopting harsh rhetoric about immigration and French national identity. He embraced the view of white nationalists called the “Great Replacement,” which maintains that global elites are conspiring to bring non-European immigrants to the West to replace white citizens. Ms. Le Pen does not approve of the idea.

“She is afraid of being demonized,” Zemmour said in an interview. “I am not afraid.”

In recent weeks, Eric Zemmour has addressed auditoriums across France, notably in Rouen, Normandy, where participants were lining up for an event.

Supporters put on campaign t-shirts for Mr Zemmour, who is one of President Macron’s main challengers in next year’s election.

Many on the right believe that Mr. Zemmour, a prolific author who sprinkles his words with literary and historical references, would be more capable than Ms. Le Pen of going after Mr. Macron. And Mr. Zemmour is free of part of the luggage of the name Le Pen. Ms Le Pen has spent years distancing herself from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, a far-right ideologue whose comments on the Holocaust – he called the gas chambers a ‘detail of history’ – alienated many conservative voters.

Ms Le Pen said this month that she and Mr Zemmour should form an alliance against Mr Macron. “I wouldn’t want her candidacy to actually be a division of our ability to win this presidential election,” she said.

Mr. Zemmour has yet to declare himself a candidate or give a timetable on his decision. Several recent polls place him slightly ahead of Ms Le Pen and only behind Mr Macron in the first round of the presidential election, which is slated for April. A Harris poll this month shows Mr Macron beat him 57% to 43% in the second round.

Mr. Zemmour entered the French political scene at a time when the traditional left and right parties withered away. Mr Macron won the presidency by creating his own party, in an election which saw a record number of French people refuse to support him or Ms Le Pen. This group of abstainers has become an essential part of the anti-establishment movement of yellow vests which has massed in the streets to fight Mr. Macron’s agenda from 2018.

In recent weeks, Mr. Zemmour, who is promoting a new book, has addressed crowded auditoriums across France, with crowds chanting “Zemmour, President! His speeches present a nationalist agenda for France that includes strict limits on immigration and a sharp increase in defense spending.

Friday in Rouen, near the landing beaches in 1944, Mr. Zemmour called on France to leave the military command of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and attacked the European Union and the United States, which, according to him, have undermined French nationality. interest for decades.

“The landing was at the same time a liberation of the national territory and at the same time an occupation and a colonization by the Americans”, declared Mr. Zemmour.

A question-and-answer session took place Friday in Rouen, Normandy, for Mr. Zemmour’s latest book.

Mr. Zemmour’s recent speeches outline a nationalist agenda for France that includes strict limits on immigration and a sharp increase in defense spending.

In Mr. Zemmour’s latest book, he recounts how Rosine Ghawji, a Franco-American who founded a group called Working Mothers for Trump, showed up to meet him out of the blue in December 2016. Ms. Ghawji said that his group was looking for someone who could reproduce. Trump’s victory in France, wrote Zemmour and told him: “You are the French Trump.

“It was important, but at the time I didn’t believe it,” Zemmour said in the interview. “We do not have the same style, but on the other hand Trump gave a method: do not respect the rules of the system. And he gave a strategic direction, which is immigration and industry.

Ms Ghawji did not respond to requests for comment.

Mr. Zemmour’s political fame has been fueled by television, where he is frequently featured on news channels. More recently, he hosted a show on CNews, a right-wing channel owned by French billionaire Vincent Bolloré.

“I have been following him for a very long time,” says Nathalie Edery, history teacher who took part in the Rouen rally. “Le Pen, there is a story behind the name. And she tries to please, not to offend a certain part of the population. Zemmour doesn’t do that. He says what he thinks.

Mr Zemmour’s words over the years – and there are many, including 15 non-fiction books and three novels – have drawn condemnation and sometimes legal sanctions. Mr. Zemmour defended the leaders of France from Vichy, the regime that collaborated with Nazi Germany during World War II. Mr Zemmour said they were protecting French Jews while handing over foreign-born Jews to the Germans in a compromise necessary for the occupation – a claim disputed by many historians.

In his new book, Zemmour wrote that the families of children killed in 2012 at a Jewish school near Toulouse were behaving like strangers for burying their children in Israel. “Anthropologists have taught us that we come from the country where we are buried,” he wrote.

Many Jewish organizations have spoken out against Mr. Zemmour. “Zemmour’s ideas can only inspire disgust,” said Francis Kalifat, president of CRIF, the union of French Jewish organizations.

Mr. Zemmour was sentenced to two fines under French anti-racist laws for inciting racial hatred against Muslims. The comments included the fact that France had faced “an invasion for 30 years”, something Zemmour has repeatedly repeated in recent weeks during his rallies.

Annual immigration to France fell from 193,000 people in 2006 to 272,000 in 2020, nearly half of whom came from Africa, according to the French government. French residents born abroad now represent 10.2% of the population, against 7.5% in 1976, the government said.

“We have to stop these flows of migrants,” Zemmour said this month before a crowd of people standing in Versailles, “because we are undergoing an invasion unprecedented in history.”

Mr. Zemmour, the son of Jewish immigrants from Algeria, has repeatedly said that France is facing an invasion.

Write to Matthew Dalton at Matthew.Dalton@wsj.com

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