Win or Lose, Éric Zemmour is the Future of the French Right | Opinion

Despite Éric Zemmour's grand entrance into the French presidential race—in which the right-wing politician was expected to contend for second place—recent polling puts him in fourth behind established right-wing party candidates Marine Le Pen and Valérie Pécresse, who are neck-and-neck for second. But regardless of which woman makes it to the runoff against Emmanuel Macron, polling indicates neither has a solid chance of rallying enough voters to defeat the incumbent. The probable defeats of Pécresse and Le Pen risk being the swan songs of both the already weakened political parties they lead: Les Républicains and the National Rally, the historical center-right and far-right parties, respectively. Their fading legitimacy raises the question of what lies ahead for the French right, which is proportionally the largest ideological force in France, encompassing over 40 percent of French voters. In the political long game that will begin post-election, Zemmour and his call for a "union of the rights" will play a central role in any attempts to forge a new right-wing political force capable of winning elections.

Since announcing his run, Zemmour has aimed for an unprecedented union of the different right-wing elements in France. This idea gained traction in the past decade in both far-right and traditional right-wing militant circles as an innovative strategy to win elections, but its rise has correlated with the structural weakening of Les Républicains and National Rally.

Les Républicains has historically been the center of gravity of a heterogenous "Gaullist" right: from centrists and economic liberals to security and immigration hawks to cultural conservatives. This ability to unite diverse strains of the right enabled Les Républicains to succeed electorally in the past. Until now, they have refused any alliance with the far-right, branding themselves not as a party of populism but as a party capable of governing.

Nevertheless, in recent years under the leadership of Laurent Wauquiez, the party worked diligently to woo far-right voters by adopting their themes and rhetoric. This strategy enjoyed support amongst the party's militants, who had broadly begun warming to the idea of a union of different right-wing elements. However, it did not suit all ideological factions, and many centrist elements of the party departed—including current presidential nominee Valérie Pécresse.

Eric Zemmour campaign rally
French far-right party Reconquete! presidential candidate Eric Zemmour (C) raises his arms flanked by Reconquete!'s spokesperson Gilbert Collard (L) and Digital Communication Manager of the "Friends of Eric Zemmour" Samuel Lafont (R) during a campaign rally in Lille, northern France, on February 5, 2022, ahead of the April 2022 presidential election in France. JULIEN DE ROSA / AFP/Getty Images

The current regional council president—somewhat similar to a governor—of the wealthy and culturally liberal Ile-de-France region that encompasses Paris, Pécresse rejoined Les Républicains and won the party's presidential primary by campaigning as an experienced moderate capable of reuniting the center-right. However, this reconciliation has little chance of holding after the election if Pécresse loses. A loss would likely pull the party apart; centrist elements will continue their already significant flight to Emmanuel Macron's party, La République en Marche, while the hard-right factions of Les Républicains will defect to Zemmour, whose beliefs they largely share. Recent defections by two of Les Républicains' former leaders, Eric Woerth to Macron and Guillaume Peltier to Zemmour, foreshadow what is to come.

The picture for the National Rally party is even more dire. Marine Le Pen has lost favor among her base through her attempts at moderating the party's positions to widen its electoral appeal. A large part of this base has been absorbed by Zemmour (the summer prior to his candidacy, Le Pen was polling at 25 percent, but is at 16 percent today). Furthermore, Le Pen has already lost two presidential runs, and it is unlikely her leadership will survive a third.

Without any logical successor to Le Pen, many in her party will abandon the debt-ridden National Rally for Zemmour's new, ideologically similar Reconquest party, which benefits from a war chest filled with the dues of its over 100,000 members. Here again, the defection of prominent National Rally leaders to Zemmour, from Gilbert Collard to Jean Messiha, foreshadows what is to come.

It is unclear whether Zemmour's vision for a "union of the rights" is totally realistic. There are important ideological differences between the Gaullist right and the far-right, including disagreements over economic liberalism, the European Union and the future of the welfare state. However, there is consensus on the need for increased state authority and security, as well as an overhaul of immigration and assimilation policies—precisely the themes Zemmour has focused on. The deterioration of the other parties, combined with the ascendance of the Reconquest Party, will enable Zemmour to act as kingmaker in the realignment that is to come. His influence will also solidify the role of populism, as long as it advocates for the defense of the notion of a French people and civilization, as a primary goal for the French right. If such a reconstruction occurs and proves capable of winning elections, the implications for the future strength of European populism cannot be understated.

Angélique Talmor is a graduate student at Harvard's Kennedy School and a fellow at the Tikvah Fund.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.