Can a right-wing French TV personality take on Macron and win?

Anyone familiar with the horse racing tracks will know the unpredictable impact of a stalking horse. The beast is not engaged to win but to target the challenge of rival teams and compensate for the chances of victory.

The French presidential election is still a long way off in mid-2022, but a stalking-horse challenge is already setting up a reshuffle for the favorites. Eric Zemmour, polemicist and television expert, reached double-digit figures in the polls for his still undeclared candidacy.

Mr. Zemmour would be the idea that few people have of a suitable friend. He has been convicted twice for hate speech. His anti-immigrant diatribes include calls for the expulsion of 2 million people from France because they were born abroad. It does not matter that his own parents arrived in France from Algeria, their native land.

Its rise in the polls largely cannibalizes the vote of Marine Le Pen, the fascist candidate who is the presumed challenger of President Emmanuel Macron. There doesn’t seem to be much downside to Mr Macron over the sudden rise of a candidate with slim credentials for the job. In the French two-stage system, a direct fight against a foreigner with extreme views almost guarantees that Mr Macron will win in the second round.

Mr. Zemmour’s views on French social and constitutional cohesion allow Mr. Macron to manage his own political priorities. The president’s criticism on the left is undermined when it is palpable that Mr. Macron should not cede this political ground to the most extreme parties.

With Germany’s parliamentary elections unlikely to produce a post-Angela Merkel government until next year, Mr Macron can use the freedom of a divided and contentious opposition to focus on his international priorities. The French leader would like to be able to tell voters that he is unquestionably at the head of Europe. But a tight presidential campaign that started earlier would hamper his efforts to position himself at the top of European politics.

Mr. Macron is already in campaign mode. It has, for example, dramatically increased government spending on large-scale projects. A trip to Marseille allowed him to make his mark on an offensive against gang warfare and the rise of extremism in French cities. This is another key area where Mr Macron is poised to stir up controversy to show the state is active and on the side of voters who fear social change.

The danger for Ms. Le Pen is obvious. She struggled to convince the electorate that she is the true heir to the uncompromising legacy built by her father, Jean Marie Le Pen. If 30 percent of the electorate is up for grabs, then a battle for 15 percent each with Mr. Zemmour ends in a net positive for centrist and establishment candidates like Mr. Macron.

Except that the concentration on the questions raised by these candidates favors their agenda by default. Or there is a risk that it will happen.

Other candidates are chewed up melee. On the left, the socialist candidate moves further away from the main electoral battlefield. There is no sign of a breakthrough by the Green movement as it seemed to be on the cards in Germany to slip away when the campaign began in earnest.

The impact of the situation on center-right Republicans has yet to play out, but this battle could be the biggest. Depending on how it goes, Mr Macron’s seemingly strong position could quickly erode over the course of next year’s campaign proper.

Michel Barnier is a candidate for the nomination. The former minister of the patrician cabinet is perhaps the best-known candidate except for Mr. Macron outside of France. As a privileged interlocutor in the Brexit negotiations with the United Kingdom, his style is well known both at home and abroad.

Speaking in London while promoting his memoir last week, Mr Barnier uttered a firm ‘no at all’ when he raised the possibility of right-wing voters turning to Mr Zemmour at the time. of a tête-à-tête with Mr. Macron. The reason for his intervention was that there was speculation that Republicans might admit Mr Zemmour as the bloc’s nomination contestant in December. Other leading candidates, including Xavier Bertrand, now favorite in the polls, have not closed the door.

The party chairman said Zemmour was neither racist nor far-right. Yet Mr Zemmour has called for a ban on Mohammed’s name and his work is obsessed with the replacement theory, which is based on the assumption that whites are “replaced” by non-white immigrants.

Mr. Barnier is on to something. If he manages to exclude Mr Zemmour even as the writer continues to present himself, then Mr Macron could find himself facing a centrist challenger in the second round when only two candidates can stand. It would open up a vulnerability that would bring Mr Macron’s attention back to the home front.

At a time when international tensions are easily triggered, this adds even more risk to the global system. This is why the coming months give France its best chance of being a leader in a rudderless Europe. Mr Macron should use his time well to rally the continent to the defense of his own interests.

Before you know it, the French election year will turn into a global orientation in ways that are both unpredictable and possibly even overwhelming.

Posted: Oct 2, 2021, 2:00 p.m.

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