In a big speech yesterday, Macron presented himself in almost Nixonian terms as guardian of law and order. He said he would rewrite the penal code and double the number of police on the streets. But only if he’s re-elected. He further promised at least ten specific security measures and €500 million in additional spending. Ever the triangulator, he mixed hard with soft — promising also a parliamentary oversight body to clamp down on police brutality.
Nobody can accuse Macron of lacking policies, though they’re mostly more show than go. His attempt to co-opt the security agenda is thus far merely rhetorical. Body cameras for all police, a new national police academy or reporting crimes by email will not immediately make it safe for French women to ride the tube after dark. The beheading of a French school teacher for insulting the prophet isn’t forgotten. Nor has it escaped attention that on the day Macron announced himself as the premier cop of France, his former bodyguard, Alexandre Benalla, went on trial for a bouquet of crimes, including impersonating a police officer.
Macron will be anxious about an extraordinary new poll showing that support for the prospective candidacy of polemicist Eric Zemmour has doubled since the end of July. He’s now at 10 per cent.
Zemmour’s nightly TV appearances on CNews have been cancelled by the broadcasting regulator, rather spoiling Macron’s big law-and-order: news of the ban was ubiquitous on all French channels while Zemmour declared that he has already set the agenda for the election. He announced the launch of his own YouTube channel. He subjected himself to numerous hostile interviews while plugging his book, La France n’a pas dit son dernier mot, which will be published on Friday.
Marine Le Pen, leader of the Rassemblement National (née National Front), sees the threat. On Sunday, she delivered an interminable if not risible speech to her dwindling faithful. She promised to nationalise the fabulous French motorway network without confiding how she would pay for this or how the mighty state might run it better., She promised to scrap the redevance audiovisuelle (a television and radio licence added to property tax to make it harder to evade). That could be slightly more popular, except everyone knows she’ll never deliver.
Xavier Bertrand, the semi-detached Républicain who is refusing to participate in the party’s primary, has for his part delivered bromides on immigration. He did that to counter his rival Michel Barnier’s promise to offer a referendum on the flood of in-comers who are widely blamed for lawlessness.
Bertrand also promised his own law-and-order crackdown with mandatory prison sentences for anyone found to have attacked police officers. Some readers are telling me that I’m underestimating him, but inspiring he is not.
If nothing else, Zemmour, who warns that France is in danger of submersion by immigrants who reject the supposedly indivisible Republic, is choosing the music to which almost everyone else is dancing. To get an idea of the gigantic media momentum being reaped by Zemmour, I suggest looking at his presence on YouTube. Since he was cancelled by the regulator, he’s become omnipresent. He vigorously denounced those who have tried to silence him. Marine Le Pen, who had assumed a divine authority to represent the right, is apoplectic.
On the left, meanwhile, Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris who is the presumed nominee of the official Socialist party, promised €30 billion in additional spending, including doubling the salaries of school teachers. Again, she offered no clue as to how she might pay for this in a country where the ratio of government debt to GDP already exceeds 115 per cent. She has appointed Carole Delga, president of the Occitanie region of southwest France, as her campaign manager. Delga is charged with helping Hidalgo connect to socialist voters who live outside the Paris périphérique. Given the chasm in values between the leftist Paris bubble and rural France, that is a Herculean task.
Hidalgo’s bid to unite the left, allowing her to make it into the second round, depends on vanquishing Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the extreme left lane. But he’s a proud, stubborn politician and it seems improbable that he will concede to the bobo metropolitan red-green Hidalgo. So, exclude the left from the second round, is my opinion.
Like the dog that didn’t bark, Covid has in recent days been entirely absent from the political discourse. Macron is betting that by March, it might not be such a pressing issue. But this morning, hospitals were crippled by a walkout of thousands, if not tens of thousands, of health care workers. They are refusing vaccination in defiance of the President’s threats to fire them and deny unemployment benefits. Half a million or more demonstrators are expected on the streets of 200 cities on Saturday to protest health passports and the coerced vaccination of children.
Macron-friendly media, still dominant here, is already demonising Zemmour and his politics, which might not be so extreme to many voters as Parisian journalists imagine. He’s a convicted hate criminal for his criticism of Islamism, but everyone knows French prosecutors are zealous pursuers of the right and Zemmour answers reasonably that he wouldn’t be the first president with a conviction. General De Gaulle was at one stage sentenced to death. The trial of the alleged masterminds of the Bataclan massacre currently underway is a reminder of what many see as a state that has lost control — even if Macron claims his security services have subsequently disrupted scores of further attacks.
More problematic for Zemmour is his colourful sexual history, which his opponents will use against him when the time is ripe. He could be brought down by #BalanceTonPorc, the French equivalent of #MeToo.
He’s brilliant, cultivated, but is going to have to prove his political programme is more rounded than attacking immigration and Islamism. I hear from his camp that he might pursue a full-throated attack on the power of the EU. He won’t go for full Frexit — nonetheless, he will offer a manifesto to put Brussells back in its box.
The largest political group in France for the moment is the abstainers, who have massively boycotted recent regional and departmental elections. They’ve weakened the legitimacy of all politicians and it’s unclear if they can be lured back to the voting booths by mere promises. Zemmour will be looking to attract these voters with plain speaking and less nonsense.
Zemmour isn’t a French Trump. He’s a solid intellectual who writes his own books, but he seems to be attracting the disenchanted from left and right. Given the unpredictability of the two-round French presidential voting system, there is everything to play for in the race to confront Macron in the second round. Macron must still be considered favourite to win, by default, exploiting the divisions in the right and left, but he is evidently nervous, as his speech last night shows.
Macron’s party, La République En Marche!, has been shown to be chimerical and the chances of regaining a majority in the National Assembly seems wildly improbable.
Will Zemmour, who is not a politician, cut through? It’s a huge ask but even if he does, he has no party through which to govern. Perhaps a cohabitation looms, with whoever is to be president lacking any legitimate mandate. The bewildered French will look on and wonder what they’ve done to deserve this.
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