France's provocateur is coming to London

3 September 2021

7:34 AM

3 September 2021

7:34 AM

Five years ago, London’s affluent French poured their dosh into the campaign of Emmanuel Macron. This time around, supporters of France’s rising provocateur are trying a similar tactic.

Eric Zemmour is the Tucker Carlson of French media. A potential rival to Marine Le Pen, he is planning a visit to London in October. His undeclared but badly concealed French presidential campaign has the backing of ‘Generation Z’, a shadowy group of French political consultants and fundraisers, who are looking at the monied expatriates of South Kensington and seeing potential campaign money.

I profiled Zemmour in the magazine in March. His Jewish family fled Algeria during the war of independence, and he now makes a living frequently attacking Islamism on his nightly TV show, which consistently outperforms its rivals. His star appeal means that Marine Le Pen fears him, since he attracts many of her supporters who are increasingly doubtful of her third bid for the presidency.

Zemmour remains a long shot for the Elysée: his highest poll ratings tend to be around 13 per cent. But French presidential campaigns can produce unpredictable results and he has momentum. His new book, a manifesto, France Hasn’t Had its Last Word, is already the number one best seller on French Amazon, even though it won’t be published for two more weeks and is under the label of an almost unknown publisher.

And if Macron’s people aren’t spooked by Zemmour, they aren’t acting like it. A few days ago, the government’s spokesman Gabriel Attal said that Zemmour represented “France on its knees, France stunted, a spirit of permanent defeat.’ It’s true that Zemmour is a prophet of decline, but if he is politically irrelevant, then why bother commenting?

Zemmour’s visit to London will test his mettle. An intellectuele first and foremost, he is known to be outside his comfort zone when abroad. A friend who attended a conference with him in Budapest tells me that he seemed eager to stay in his hotel room. There will be no hiding place for him during his media appearances: the Generation Z team have made a slot on Nigel Farage’s GB News show their prime target. That might be tricky, since Zemmour’s English is at best approximate, but the Z team is nothing if not optimistic.

A wider goal is to persuade the British that Zemmour is the man to reset the strained Anglo-French relationship. He has praised Brexit and attacked Macron’s obsession with the EU, even if he’s so far stopped short of advocating Frexit. Zemmour’s task will be to appear sympathetic towards the Brexit cause, without alienating the bien-pensant Remainer types who make up a good deal of London’s French population.

To present himself as a credible candidate at home, Zemmour knows he has to be seen as more than a media controversialist. He has to look like someone capable of representing France abroad. While donations from French Londoners would help his operation, the greatest impact of his trip to London is likely to be on voters back in France.

There are 222 days remaining until the first round of the 2022 French election. Expect to hear the name ‘Zemmour’ a lot more in the coming weeks.

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