He could become the leader of the populist revolution globally
On December 1st 2021, Eric Zemmour announced his candidacy for the Presidency of France with a short, ten minute video posted on the Internet. He has been a prominent pundit and long discussed as a potential candidate, but this is his first run for office. As a political observer of many countries, I had heard his name and seen 30 second clips of him over the years. I had heard the comparisons to other right wing thinkers and to Trump. But I had never had an unfiltered look at the man to understand his message. So, I opened the video.
Ten minutes later, it was obvious that we are in the presence of greatness. Zemmour’s introductory speech is the best ten minutes of politics I have ever seen. After that, I had a Zemmour fest- I watched several interviews, debates, his first rally as a candidate, and all sorts of news coverage. It was clear that it was not just one well very crafted video, but we were dealing with a man with amazing talent and a consistent message over the past two decades in the public sphere.
In short, Zemmour’s political skills are not just good enough to win the election, not just good enough to build a movement, they are nothing short of mind-boggling. He could become the leader of the populist revolution globally. In the Western world, the last time a figure with this much political and rhetorical ability was in the public eye was probably FDR or Churchill. Zemmour’s skills at messaging, at political jujitsu in debates and dealing with the media, and at averting major criticisms are formidable and have lessons for other candidates. A long term political pundit with more political skills than the political class has entered the ring for the first time, and he is going to show everyone how much better at this fight he is.
In the next two or three months, the other right wing and right leaning parties in France will collapse as all their voters stampede to Zemmour. After that, Zemmour will be the candidate of the right and go to the second round of the French election. He will embarrass Macron publicly in the final few weeks of the election, and then win. One may ask- how can one be so sure? I will pose the question in reverse- once you assess his skills, how can you think otherwise? This is the political equivalent of asking who would win a street fight after Mike Tyson shows up.
Macron is a better than average politician and so was able to win in the election of 2017. But now he is unpopular and is facing a master of the game who he is severely underestimating. The other candidates just have no idea what’s about to hit them, and don’t have the skills or resources to fight back. So let’s look at who is Zemmour, what is his message and why it resonates, and do a little play by play analysis of his many brilliant decisions thus far.
Zemmour is a public intellectual in France, 63 years old. His family his from Algeria, part of the minority Berber Jewish community. He often emphasizes that his family integrated fully to French society and poses that as a challenge to those who choose to not integrate. He rose to prominence in the mid 2000s by talking about hot button issues like Islam and mass immigration. He was a constant presence in right wing and mainstream media. He actually was fined twice for the French equivalent of ‘hate speech’. Several of his soundbites went viral and his books became best sellers. Over time, he became more established on television and grew to be a key part of CNews, and a regular guest on other TV shows. French TV works quite differently than US TV. It has far more focus on highly intellectual content. It has far more long form discussions and debates lasting up to two or three hours. Soundbite culture and two minute clips on political issues are far less common. Thus, the political gladiator culture he has lived in for a long time favors long speeches, command of facts, and erudition far more than the USA- and he has become the best at it. Many liken Zemmour to a French Trump because of his views, but, because of his work background, I think that’s wrong. He has no business experience. It’s far better to label him a French Tucker Carlson or Pat Buchanan [who ran for President in 1996 and did well].
Zenmour was a gadfly, a provocateur, famously critical of Islam and immigration in France. He did this to stand out, to get invited onto TV shows, and to promote his books. Now, as he is given long chunks of public air time in long interviews and voters spread YouTube videos of his rallies and debates, that will change. He will emphasize that his views are moderate, positive, and universal. Voters will learn he is not some hate speech spewer, but a real potential leader. He will then pull in legions of voters from the center.
Where Do We Stand
France has a two round election system – and with often more than ten parties, no one wins the first round with an outright majority. They need to get to the runoff and then win a majority to win the Presidency. The first round is April 10, 2022 and the second round follows two weeks later.
President Emanuel Macron, the establishment personified, is running for re-election. He won in 2017’s second round by 66%, versus 34% for the National Front’s Marine Le Pen.
The first round will thus be between Macron and several right wing or center right parties. The first is from the Rassemblement National, formerly known as the National Front [but I will keep using that name because it’s more familiar], led by Marine Le Pen. On paper, they share similar views as Zemmour, yet over the years they have vacillated, tried to move to the center, and there is a large swathe of French society that could never vote for them. The Republicains party, the party of the established right, have just selected Valerie Pecresse as their candidate. Their message is hopelessly muddled, a Mitt Romney 2012 style mish mash. There are a couple of candidates that pull 1 or 2%. And then there’s Zemmour.
The latest ELABE poll is now showing roughly 23% for Macron in the first round, versus 15% for Le Pen, 20% for the Republicains’ candidate, Valerie Pecresse, and 14% for Zemmour. Already, Le Pen’s poll numbers have fallen from ~20% to 15%,and I would imagine that by the election’s first round, she will sit around 5%. Her poor messaging, poor debate performances, and constant vacillating will see all her voters defect to Zemmour. Most likely, the Republicains will reach 10% or less by the end, as their voters move to the winning ticket. At that point, Zemmour will be the candidate of the right in the second round, and he will pull his moves on Macron to win.
France has been simmering below the surface for years. There have been a number of horrific jihadi attacks- Charlie Hedbo, The Bataclan, Nice Promenade, and the recent beheading of a high school teacher in broad daylight. The lockdown was among the longest in the world, and that combined with the vaccine mandate led to huge protests. And the incessant protests of the Yellow Vest movement show the discontent in France’s middle class and demand for economic reform. The time is ripe for a populist leader to ride the wave of discontent.
One thing that became clear in learning about Zemmour is that his style of politics can be likened to jujitsu or akido. He is a master at using opponents’ energy against them time and again. He is brilliant at constructing the frame and overall shape of the fight, giving opponents a huge disadvantage. He seems to always be thinking three steps ahead of the other guys in the long debates that are a feature of French TV. He says his initial point, sets his trap, waits for the other guy to enter, then drops his submission move.
In a debate with Jean Luc Melenchon from September 2021, Zemmour repeatedly made his opponent submit. He let the other guy talk his points, and then came back with Melecnhon’s own family history, words, or voting record to prove him a hypocrite. In the section of this debate about Islam, it looked like Melenchon had had a piano dropped on him by the end of it. This three time presidential candidate and National Assembly member was not able to complete sentences and came across as a buffoon.
Now, in the presidential race, we will have this jujitsu champion of debate going up against even less capable opponents. Zemmour will face President Emanuel Macron, who has only one campaign cycle’s worth of debate experience, Marine Le Pen, who was famously embarrassed in a 2017 debate, and the robotic leaders of the other parties. The clips and memes that come out of the 2022 debates of Zemmour repeatedly dunking on everyone else will go around for years.
And that is just in face to face debates. His whole campaign shows a series of extremely well calculated decisions. He has done his initial moves and he knows exactly how and when his opponent will react. But his framing of the issues and the strategic decisions he has made make it impossible for his opponents to get out of a chokehold when he strikes.
The first evidence of Zemmour’s brilliance is his presentation of his views on the major issues. In rally after rally, debate after debate, he remains completely consistent. He has managed to frame them in a way that benefits him, and minimizes the potential for others to damage him.
The main issue for Zemmour is related to French identity, and so his platform has several parts related to it. As it’s the big issue he is running on, it’s basically the only one worth analyzing closely. First, he repeatedly says he is for the proud nation. He always cites French achievements and French importance. It’s hard for a middle class French citizen to argue against their own country and its legacy.
Secondly, he is insistent on French Republican values. Since the Revolution of 1789, French has been a society where religion is excluded from the public square, where the universal rights of man are upheld, and where ‘liberte, egalite, fraternite’ [Liberty/Equality/Fraternity] reigns. The French are as proud of this tradition as Americans are of their Constitution and Declaration of Independence.
Related to this, Zemmour has always emphasized immigration as the primary issue. But he is far from being a ‘we don’t like Muslims’ or ‘immigration is bad’ candidate. That sounds negative and limited, and would easily open him to attacks of being a xenophobe or a racist. Zemmour has reversed it, and repeatedly said in his public appearances that he supports immigration, but not mass immigration. He wants immigrants of all backgrounds, so long as they integrate to French society.
He has reframed it by stating that he is against ‘mass immigration’, or the overwhelming of France. He is against mass immigration from a culture, North African Muslim, that does not respect French values or integrate with French culture. He constantly brings up the sheer scale of the immigration hitting France and calls it an ‘invasion’. He often speaks of the ‘replacement’ of the French nation. He also points out how long this has been going on, and how different the recent wave of immigrants and immigration policy is to prior waves. All fair points.
He has been in hot water in the past by talking about Islam in a negative way. He has cleaned up a bit his messaging on this issue and the new take is brilliant. First, he brings up that Islamic civilizations are very different from Western ones, in terms of customs, laws, and religion. He often cites the parts of Islamic law that are most different from France: that the ummah comes first and not the nation, that Muslims have far more individual rights than non Muslims, etc etc. By doing this, he does not come across as hateful of individual people or groups of people. He sounds like a public health doctor trying to keep out a dangerous virus.
Whenever he is confronted over what should French Muslims do, he gives a brilliant answer: they should do what Jews and Christians in France have already done. Keep their faith, keep practicing it privately, but their religion has zero to do with politics. No one is singled out, and his other messages are reinforced.
He has also said that his only requirements for immigrants to stay in the country is assimilation to French culture, and obeying the law. He has proposed that similar to Greece, immigrants need to adopt French first names. He has presented several other ideas on ‘assimilation’ publicly, and most importantly, he cites his parents and himself of evidence of its achievability. And, he has pointed out frequently that many French politicians have parents or grandparents who were immigrants and assimilated , so they are hypocrites for disagreeing with him.
Now let’s look why framing the issue this way is going to be so hard for others to contend with. First, in politics, positive, uniting messages are typically the winners – Obama’s “Hope & Change” in 2008, Trump’s “Make America Great Again”, Reagan’s “Morning in America”, etc. Macron won in France in 2017 with the slogan “En Marche” [roughly, Let’s Go!] and a message of youthful reforms. By centering everything around the idea of being pro French people and French values, he has developed a positive anchor. The others are arguing the minutiae of immigration policy like deportation numbers and French language requirements, but he will take the issue with a grand vision. And Zemmour’s emphasis on universal values just as much as anti-Islam or jihad takes much of the potential negativity out of his campaign- he is just talking facts it will seem to many.
By making these big issues his lead in the campaign, he also forces the other candidates to address them. What exactly is the National Front’s answer on the incompetency of the establishment? Macron’s view of replacement and mass immigration? The Republicans’ view of French identity and assimilation? Melenchon’s view of French dispossession? On all of these issues obviously Zemmour has an articulate vision. The others will look terrible by comparison, as they give stupid, contradictory answers– or worse, agree with him! Putting these front and center will cause everyone to get pricked by thorns.
On the issue of immigration, probably his main issue, he has stepped out of the frame of either being ‘pro-immigration’ or ‘anti-immigration’ and instead created a third and more subtle frame. The term ‘mass immigration’, especially as he has characterized it, has far lower support than normal immigration. By distinguishing and pointing out he is against it, and implying the others are for it, he again owns the frame. An opposing candidate either says he supports it, and looks idiotic, or has a middle of the road answer that will sound lame to many voters. Zemmour’s quick mind and his extensive knowledge of statistics are further going to embarrass his opponents on this issue. Anyone arguing with him on this topic will be eventually be jujitsu-d. And it will be the issue with which he leads each interview, debate and rally.
All of his ideas are merely presented as a defense of French Republican values. It’s positive, it’s based on long standing principle, and, it can’t be racist/Islamophobic because it’s the same rules for everyone. People are going to try all campaign to smear him with negative labels, but they’ll bounce back like bullets off of Superman.
His ideas have enough fear to get people to pay attention by creating a problem – “crime wave”, “French identity is slipping”,“mass immigration is bad”, “immigrants fill our jails” and “Islamism is bad”. But he, and only he, has a solution to each one: “End mass immigration”, “deport criminals”, “no Islam in politics”, “push assimilation” and “uphold French values”. By creating multiple unique problems and their solutions, anyone discussing any of these topics will be promoting Zemmour’s agenda. Since he has stirred up so much controversy and outrage already and will no doubt continue to, the message is going to go viral. By theend of January even hardened Zemmour haters will think “Hey, those ideas sound reasonable. Maybe he’s not a racist”. They may vote for Macron still, but the issue has already been won.
Subtly, yet very effectively, he will repeatedly cite his personal experience: “I am a child of Algerian Jewish Berber immigrants who integrated and assimilated”. Just seeing the face of Zemmour all day every day in the campaign will be a near constant visualreinforcement that his policies are possible and reasonable. It will create the cracks that completely shatter the ice under the other candidates.
Importantly too, identity unlocks all other issues. If French identity and greatness are being compromised because of a corrupt establishment, kick them out. Then piece by piece we can bring French greatness in other realms. He has policy proposals on economics and taxes, on the education system, that are extensive as any other campaign. Yet by placing identity front and centerand removing a broken establishment, he is implicitly saying he is the only one to actually implement them.
By building the central issue of his campaign, and probably the entire election, in this way, he is going to steamroll everyone else. It will start with the right wing parties too busy arguing all of the stupid details on tax and immigration policy. And then he will steamroll Macron (or anyone else in the 1% chance Macron doesn’t make it to the second round) as they’re busy presenting their goals for 2030 CO2 levels. And furthermore, up until now his attacks on Macron have been very conventional. I will guarantee he has a couple of special surprises up his sleeve for Macron in the closing stages of the campaign, some linguistic kill shot he can’t recover from.
And lastly, assume I am wrong. Zero minority background voters support him because the anti-immigrant language sticks, and liberal whites think he’s a nasty racist. By rallying the ethnic French, who are probably 75-80% of the electorate, he can get very strong turnout from them and still take a majority.
Another brilliant move by Zemmour was to name his party “Reconquete”, which means Reconquest. This is a very provocative name with an obvious echo of the Reconquista of Catholic Spain from the Arabs. This name is going to drive the media completely insane, and lead them to call him an obvious Islamophobe every five seconds. But, it’s just far enough away from being directly anti-Islamic or anti-Arab that the label won’t stick. The party name dovetails well with Zemmour’s message of a serious situation and that the French people need to step up and reclaim their country. People already on board with him will be proud to be associated with such a muscular name. By losing their minds over Zemmour’s message and party name, the media will just be blasting his face and message far and wide.
Zemmour often cites the instability of French society and the rising crime rate. He also has come to say that France is near a civil war which could turn into a full fledged ethnic conflict if nothing is done on immigration. And as a right wing populist, he surely knows that Antifa and other groups will come at him as a ‘fascist’ or ‘right wing extremist’. He commented in his first rally that “my adversaries want my political death, journalists want my social death, and jihadists want me dead, full stop”. When there are protests, fights, rallies, Antifa attacks or whatever else to protest against Zemmour, it will again further confirm his narrative of the desire for personal violence against him and the instability of France. At his first rally, there was a conflict in the building and someone managed to lay hands on Zemmour. The confirmation bias of this event combined with this speech just minutes before is going to be powerful. Antifa members wrecked the restaurant where he ate dinner in Marseilles. As his popularity rises, Antifa and other groups will attack harder. They think they are embarrassing an extremist candidate, but all they are doing is promotinghim in the end.
With English subtitles
Zemmour’s introductory video did so many things brilliantly and encapsulates perfectly what he has said in his books and prior TV appearances. It has 3m views in its first week on Youtube, and it would not surprise me if it reaches 50m or 100m views by the end of the campaign. It’s the perfect introduction to the candidate. Let’s look at several of those decisions more closely.
First, it articulates the problem the establishment has created. For too long it has neglected the French people, who now have a creeping suspicion that they do not recognize their own country. They feel dispossessed and will lose their way of life. Forty years of either deliberate policy or neglect has led France to a crisis moment. By emphasizing early on the seriousness of the matter, he has moved the narrative of the election in his direction. And his big solutions are the only one to match the severity of the problem.
He also appeals to French history and greatness by invoking a long list of famous French figures and accomplishments. The video inserts perfectly images and clips of all these famous faces and places. Zemmour does not sound out of place among their ranks,as he speaks the French language exceptionally well. He speaks with perfect diction and pronunciation. Zemmour also speaks in a way that sounds intelligent yet not elitist, each word carefully chosen with great impact. By placing himself, implicitly, among their ranks, he is asking normal French citizens to join him among the ranks of great Frenchmen. He is asking the French nation to recognize its grand past and many achievements and to restore it – to get their homeland back from this crooked elite that is replacing you. Pairing this imagery with the name “Reconquete” is a powerful combination.
The video was shot with the exact same look and even camera angle as the famous 1940 address to the French people by General De Gaulle. That address, made at a time when France had fallen to the Nazis and the Free French Army was in the UK, is a reference point for French citizens. It is often cited as the beginning of the French Resistance. By invoking that moment, many French citizens will implicitly think a) we are in a crisis as bad as 1940 b) we need the 21st century De Gaulle to save us. Linking oneself to a French national hero like De Gaulle is a very good halo to have. Another brilliant move.
Zemmour calls out the entire political elite on both sides for its failure over the past 40 years. On paper, the National Front and several of the small right wing parties have views that are similar to Zemmour. But by saying the whole establishment has failed, left and right, he immediately differentiates himself from these parties. The National Front has only had a few officials in regional posts, and so it isn’t really fair to blame it for the current mess in France created by the two party system. But by putting them alltogether, it becomes clear that a voter who wants change has only one option. This will allow him to quickly knock out the support for other right wing and center right parties and make it to the second round.
The move that will win him the election though is that he says by challenging the entire establishment, he is awakening “a cold dark monster”. And that this monster will come at him relentlessly. Now when voters see intense criticism of Zemmour, they will be more likely to support him. All this criticism and the usual attacks (racist, misogynist, Islamophobe, no experience) will just confirm that his narrative is the correct one. “Zemmour was right – the establishment really does hate him. That means he’s telling the truth” is what they will think. No doubt there will be many instances of personal smearing and labeling of him as a far right extremist, so there will be plenty of opportunities for Zemmour to smile and say “See, I told you so. Look at how much I angered the monster”. And lastly, this imagery makes Zemmour a hero. You’re not voting for a smart political pundit – you’re voting for a dragon slayer! What voter, when entering the voting booth, is going to choose a candidate affiliated with the ‘cold dark monster’ over a hero?
Another facet of this hero myth is that Zemmour says he waited for a long time for a politician to step up and take the mantle, but no one did. So, he was forced to run because no one else would be able to do the job. He knows the stakes are high, and this makes him look courageous. Both of these points reinforce the hero narrative. He has now turned into the Frodo Baggins of this political tale. He’s a diminutive guy, he even looks like he could be a hobbit. And it further differentiates him from the other candidates, all part of a failed establishment. They may have repeated the same words and themes as Zemmour, but they didnothing.
The Jujitsu Champion
Now that we see how perfect Zemmour’s framing of every issue and detail is, it becomes rather obvious that he will win. On every single issue, Zemmour has chosen the battlefield, placed his metaphorical troops in the best location, fortified them well, and supplied them with plenty of ammunition. The others in this campaign are walking into a trap. They will get slaughtered by Zemmour and his counterattacks. They assume that they are going up against a little TV commentator who they can name call until he drops out. They don’t realize that Zemmour has already anticipated their every move and counterattack, and is ready to spring with the takedown jujitsu move at the right time.
By the end of the campaign, vast numbers of French people will consider themselves voting for a hero up against a monster. Zemmour is the only person who upholds French values and can save France from the elite’s failed policy of dispossession viamass immigration and creeping Islamization. Almost anything the media or other candidates do will just confirm Zemmour’s story, and they will discredit themselves by looking like part of the establishment selling out France. This is going to be an amazing campaign and election to watch.