Eric Zemmour, the right-wing journalist and self-declared populist, is at a crossroads. Will he or won’t he declare himself a presidential candidate? Few doubt he will declare. Timing is an issue. Some in his camp think he should delay declaring as long as possible. But executing an effective launch will be more important than its timing. He’s under concerted attack by political and media allies of President Emmanuel Macron. Yet his ability to rapidly respond, to perform opposition research of his own, to build a ground campaign, remains constrained. Is he really ready to mount a presidential election campaign, which will be considerably more demanding, costly and tricky than his current so-called book tour?
Zemmour seems to be at a respectable level in the latest Harris Interactive poll of voter preferences for the first round of voting, running second at 17 per cent behind Macron at 23 per cent. Marine Le Pen has lost half her support since June and now trails Zemmour in third place.
Zemmour is thus poised to make the second round against the president and would likely be a more effective opponent to Macron than Le Pen. And there’s a theoretical path to him winning if Le Pen’s voters switch to him in round two. Zemmour could attract Républicain voters, too. He’s surprisingly popular with middle class voters as well as blue-collar workers and even attracts many young voters. Macron support looks fragile in the latest poll, which does not yet reflect any gain to him from his recent episodic tantrum diplomacy, including his fish war with perfidious Albion. Abstention could hit Macron in both the first and second rounds.
The usual caveats about French polling apply. Weighting and sampling is rather obscure. The above hypothesis shows Xavier Bertrand as the Républicain candidate, finishing in fourth place. The hypothesis of Michel Barnier as candidate shows him finishing in fifth. Which makes odd the attempt by establishment Républicains to install him at their party’s selection congress on December 4.
But encouraging as the polls might appear to Zemmour, these numbers tell only part of the story. Zemmour does not yet have the 500 ‘parrainages’ he needs to officialise his candidacy. He needs support from mayors and others from across the country to get his name on the ballot. This is proving challenging, I am told.
He needs money. At least €8 million and probably more. It’s not clear he’s there. He plans to visit London this month to meet prospective donors (who must be French) and lenders (not necessarily so). He’s at least in better shape than Le Pen, who is millions in debt. Macron meanwhile has essentially unlimited funds, including the funds of the state, which he is currently distributing like Halloween candy, with cheques for up to €1,000 currently on their way to millions of homes.
Zemmour needs a more rounded platform, especially on his proposed economic programme. There’s evidence he’s moving towards a hybrid protectionist/free trade approach, saying there’s both good and bad protectionism, and benefits as well as drawbacks to unrestrained globalisation. He remains decidedly Eurosceptic but has yet to offer many specifics of his approach.
The right organisation? The number working on Zemmour’s shadow campaign is said to range from two to 200. Both figures are correct. To a remarkable extent the Zemmour phenomenon is controlled by Zemmour himself and just one key adviser, Sarah Knafo, 28, a brilliant senior civil servant on leave from the elite court of auditors. A graduate of the École National d’Administration and Sciences Po, she’s known Zemmour since she was 13. She is his confidante, strategist and, Paris Match recently insinuated, his mistress (the editor was subsequently sacked). Zemmour’s wife, Mylène Chichportich, has been essentially invisible for months.
Étienne Girard, editor of the L’Express says without Sarah Knafo, there could be no candidature. He compares their relationship to that of Marie-France Garaud, famous political sorcière to Jacques Chirac in the 1970s.
“‘Except that Marie-France Garaud was older than Chirac, while Sarah Knafo is 35 years younger than Zemmour. While Zemmour “makes the ideas”, the magistrate at the Court of Auditors “does everything else”.’
It’s a relationship, he adds, that is ‘fusional, singular, beyond a classic relationship between an advisor and a possible candidate. It's unheard of.’
The figure of 200 is also true. There are at least this many people styling themselves as ‘Friends of Eric Zemmour’, sending each other WhatsApp messages, organising volunteers, trying to raise money and sponsorships. But I don’t get the feeling that they can be effectively synchronised without a disciplined campaign organisation. I suspect a gigantic social media effort is also required. That which exists needs attention. Zemmour has fewer than 300,000 followers on Twitter; the Elysée 2.7 million.
Will Zemmour emulate Macron and launch a portmanteau political party? I hear the answer to this question is yes. Vox Populi has been mooted as its name but I’m not sure. While it captures the idea of populist insurgency, it’s Latin not French. ‘Eric and Sarah will decide,’ I’m told.
More immediately, Zemmour needs to move smartly against the campaign to present him as a convicted racist, extremist, fascist, anti-Semite, apologist for Vichy and xenophobe. In a lengthy TV interview last night, he noted that General De Gaulle was also called a fascist. The defence of French identity and culture isn’t racist, he insisted. He says 67 per cent of voters agree with him that there’s a ‘grand remplacement’ underway in which the French way of life is menaced by immigrants who put the values of Sharia above those of the Republic.
To capture votes from abstentionists, disillusioned Républicains and dyed in the wool Le Pen voters, he must soon raise his game. And he’ll need more than three gendarmes to protect him. With 157 days remaining to the first round of voting, the clock is ticking. Macron was farther advanced at this point five years ago. I have heard November 9 might be the date of a declaration. Is it true? It’s true there’s a rumour.