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Meet Eric Zemmour, France’s far-right presidential contender

Eric Zemmour, candidate to French president.

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Eric Zemmour, often referred to as France’s version of former U.S. President Donald Trump, has joined the race for the French presidency.

His far-right views are highly controversial and political experts argue he is the biggest political threat to the anti-immigration politician Marine Le Pen ahead of a key election next spring.

French voters will chose their next president in the April vote. Polls indicate that current President Emmanuel Macron will be reunited with far-right leader Marine Le Pen in the second round of the vote. However, as new players announce their candidacies — Zemmour in particular — the outcome of the vote remains highly unpredictable.

“[Zemmour] is the ideal candidate for Macron because he is splitting the vote with Le Pen,” said Tomasz Kamil Michalski, associate professor at H.E.C. Business School.

Michalski said that while Le Pen has been in politics for a while, Zemmour brings no baggage to the election, thus offering an alternative to far-right supporters. He has, however, been involved in a number of court cases over alleged incitement to racial hatred.

Meanwhile, at his first major campaign rally on Sunday, a man reportedly grabbed at his neck amid some clashes between his supporters and anti-racism campaigners. Zemmour has subsequently been signed off work for nine days.

Opinion polls project Zemmour getting 14% of the public vote in the first round of the French presidential vote due in April, and Marine Le Pen receiving 19%. However, there’s plenty of time for voting intentions to change in the coming months.

The entire electoral campaign has markedly shifted to the right, with all front-runners taking a tough line to varying degrees on immigration.

Anna Rosenberg

Head of Europe and U.K. at advisory firm Signum Global

Some anti-immigration supporters argue that as voting day nears, either Le Pen or Zemmour should resign to give the other a stronger chance to dispute the second round of the vote against Macron. The latter has not yet announced his intention to run for a new mandate but is currently leading the polls with about 24% of the vote.

Other political experts argue that Zemmour is in it for the long run and is unlikely to drop out of the race.

“More likely, still, is that Le Pen and Zemmour will split the extreme votes, delivering a second-round election between Macron and Pecresse,” Erik Nielsen, group chief economist at UniCredit, said in a note to clients Sunday, referring to the conservative party candidate Valerie Pecresse.

Anna Rosenberg, head of Europe and U.K. at advisory firm Signum Global, also expects Zemmour and Le Pen to “cannibalize each other.”

“Their discourse is no longer unique: The entire electoral campaign has markedly shifted to the right, with all front-runners taking a tough line to varying degrees on immigration and Islamic radicalization, denying the far-right the opportunity to exclusively benefit from this sentiment,” Rosenberg told CNBC via email.

Who is Zemmour?

Zemmour, 63, a former TV pundit and familiar face to French voters, is best known for his vocal anti-immigration views. These are just some of the reasons why he’s often compared to Trump, who also campaigned on an anti-immigration platform and was a well-known public figure.

However, Rosenberg said that Zemmour’s “attempt to rise to power based on former U.S. President Donald Trump’s social media tactics … will not work in France to the same degree.”

Zemmour, for his part, thinks he has more in common with U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who also started his career in the media. However, he also told French media that Trump “succeeded in uniting the working classes and the patriotic bourgeoisie. That’s what I’ve been dreaming about … for 20 years,” Politico reported.

Michalski, though, noted one key difference: “Trump is about himself. But, Zemmour is about the ideology.”

Zemmour’s party, Reconquest, was built on the premise that France needs to “find itself” — catering to an audience that thinks the country has lost its traditional values. He also appears to link immigration with many of France’s modern-day ills, claiming on Twitter, for example, that there is a connection between immigration and threats to women.

“I am the only one to establish, without false modesty, the obvious link between immigration from the other side of the Mediterranean, and the threats which weigh more every day on French women, on their freedom and sometimes on their lives,” Zemmour said on Sunday, without providing any evidence.

In a recent video outlining his plans for the French presidency, Zemmour said he wants “to save France.” He added that although immigration is not the source of all problems, it is making them even worse.

Critics, however, say Zemmour lacks substance beyond his anti-immigration views.

“Zemmour does not really have anything to offer on the pandemic,” Michalski said.

Rosenberg also noted that “the far right has not been able to benefit much from the pandemic, and [it] is unlikely that will change at this point.”

Back in November, Zemmour said that fears related to the coronavirus pandemic were overblown, Reuters reported.

He has also attacked the elites, the media, politicians, academics, trade unionists, religious authorities and the European Union.

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