Just about two months ahead of the French elections, a first poll for Le Parisién suggests that Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour are at the same level: 14 per cent.
This is one out of many polls, most of which still show Le Pen ahead. But polls have been bad predictors in the past, and they can create their own momentum.
Both Le Pen and Zemmour held big rallies this weekend. We now see two different economic visions emerging: one social, one liberal. The only economic point that the two have in common is that they both want social services to be accessible only to the French, not to immigrants.
On everything else, the candidates are miles apart. Le Pen’s vision is aimed at the electorate of Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Zemmour’s appeals to conservative France. A far right, spit between social and liberal? This is about whether to target an alliance of the right or embrace protective policies from the left.
Marine Le Pen doubles down on where Zemmour showed no mercy, promising funds for handicapped and single parents. Zemmour revives Nicolas Sarkozy’s concept of merit-based work payment and anti-dependency. Public money is your money, Zemmour insists.
Both avoided directly addressing each other, perhaps a strategic choice in case one wants to back the other if one of them ends up in the second round. Instead, both turn against other contenders.
Le Pen focused on attacking Emmanuel Macron, in particular his vanity and cynicism. Zemmour, with his embrace of Sarkozy’s make-work-pay proposal, is clearly targeting the electorate of Valérie Pécresse.
Zemmour-Pécresse is the match to watch out for this month. He accuses Pécresse and Les Républicains of complacency when it comes to immigration. Zemmour also shows up where Pécresse is naturally weak, in the countryside.
He suggests a grant of €10,000 for births in rural areas. His discourse, liberal at the national level and protective towards the outside world, could well find supporters among the conservatives.
It is a bundle of economic ideas that Zemmour put together to create a wave. Will it succeed? Since the autumn, his themes flopped, notably on education. Will Zemmour be able to outstrip Les Républicains on Sarkozy’s make-work-pay theme? This battle will test what Pécresse is made of.
Zemmour’s team counts on Generation Z, its youth wing, to use social media to maximum effect. Le Monde analysed thousands of Twitter activities in the autumn and concluded that Zemmour content was pushed by robots, an illegal practice. Hashtags such as #femmesavecZemmour with photos of beautiful young women flooded Twitter.
So what we see may be a result of a campaign that was created out of thin air, yet it resonated with enough people to become real. Will there be legal consequences? And if so, will they matter? It’s hard to tell if Zemmour will get close to the second round. His journey is unlikely to end in April though, whatever happens, while Le Pen will be finished if she fails to qualify for the second round.
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