The French election campaign gets more complicated . . . and electrified.
Bruce Bawer is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
Last month, as we reported here at the time, the valiant French writer Éric Zemmour gave a powerfully patriotic speech announcing his candidacy for president. Adducing some of the proudest achievements of French culture, science, and statecraft, he declared that his country’s people “will not allow ourselves to be dominated, vassalized, conquered, colonized. We will not be replaced.” It was a stirring call to arms in the face of headlong Islamization, and it articulated the deeply but often privately held views of many - and likely most - French citizens. For a few weeks, the erudite, eloquent Zemmour, 63, seemed poised to succeed Marine Le Pen, 53, as the leading anti-establishment hope for France. Since then, however, he’s dropped slightly behind her in the polls. About 13% of voters now say they’ll pull the lever for Zemmour in April, compared to 16% for Le Pen and 25% for the incumbent, Emmanuel Macron.
One problem facing Zemmour’s candidacy is that if you want to make it onto the ballot for the French presidency, you need to submit formal endorsements from no fewer than 500 elected officials (French ones, of course). Then there’s this. In September 2020, a 25-year-old Pakistani jihadist who was incensed by the publication of Muhammed cartoons in the humor weekly Charlie Hebdo made his way to its former offices (he didn’t realize it had moved) and slashed two people with a meat cleaver. Zemmour reacted by publicly deploring the well-documented criminality of many young Muslims. He was promptly charged with hate speech, and on January 17 of this year was found guilty by a court that described him as having crossed “the limits of freedom of expression.” It’s Zemmour’s third hate-speech conviction, and carries a fine of €10,000. Some observers think this verdict will harm his candidacy. On the contrary, the whole sorry episode only confirms everything Zemmour has said in condemnation of the way in which the rise of Islam in France has diminished liberté, égalité, et fraternitẻ.
But there’s a more serious challenge to Zemmour’s odds of winning the presidency. Her name is Valérie Pécresse. In December, in a major upset, Pécresse, 54, who currently governs the Île-de-France region (i.e., Paris and environs), won the presidential nomination of Les Republicains, the conservative Gaullist party, and she’s been out on the stump ever since trying to drain votes from Zemmour’s core constituency. She asserted the other day, with a self-assurance that’s typical of her, that neither Le Pen nor Zemmour can beat Macron, but that she, Pécresse, has a real shot at it, because, unlike them, she speaks to the concerns of all Frenchmen. Polls taken shortly after her nomination suggested that Pécresse indeed stood the best chance to defeat Macron; in recent days, however, Le Pen has caught up with her, and they’re now running neck in neck.
What to make of Pécresse? While Zemmour, a prominent media commentator, is a genuine political outsider with a long track record of j’accuse-ing the political establishment, Pécresse is something else again. The daughter of a Gaullist economics professor turned big-time CEO, the poised, attractive Pécresse has been walking since her school days down the narrow path that, in France, leads to high-level government positions: after studying law at two of the republic’s so-called grandes écoles and spending several years teaching at Sciences Po, the grande école for political science, she served as an adviser to Jacques Chirac and a cabinet member under Nicolas Sarkozy. (Both have been described as her mentors.) Like all the haughty hommes in snappy suits who’ve inhabited the Gallic corridors of power in the past few decades, she’s a classic technocrat - a card-carrying member of the political class.
And yet she’s somehow managing to sell herself to a good chunk of the French electorate as a rebel. She likens herself to Margaret Thatcher (but also - ugh - to Angela Merkel). She resolves to retake control of violent, lawless Muslim enclaves. (So did Sarkozy. And so has Macron.) She promises to reduce immigration, fight crime, and toughen sentencing. She says she’ll bring down the national debt and deny welfare benefits to new legal residents for a period of five years after their arrival. And she proposes that EU countries bordering on non-EU countries cooperate closely on a common migrant policy that would ensure tight border controls. Indeed, on the topic of borders she can sound strikingly like Donald Trump: “There is no great power without borders,” she has proclaimed. She’s even spoken positively about border walls and fences.
Sounds good. But on many of these issues she’s a Jeanne-come-lately. And when she holds forth about French culture and national identity, she just doesn’t have Zemmour’s palpable passion.
Catching up on these latest developments in the French presidential race, I realized that the situation sounded oddly familiar. Why? Then it came to me: the face-off between Pécresse and Zemmour brought to mind the recent mayoral contest in my hometown of New York, a city that in the last couple of years, under the poisonous reign of the vile socialist Bill de Blasio, has gone to hell in a handbasket faster than anyone could ever have imagined. The Republican candidate, Curtis Sliwa, seemed the perfect choice to clean things up: he’s spent his adult life as the outspoken, often obstreperous, but undeniably brave and dedicated leader of the Guardian Angels, a non-profit volunteer organization whose members walk the streets and ride the subways to protect innocent citizens from violent thugs. But whom did New Yorkers elect? Eric Adams, a Democratic hack whose promises to restore law and order never rang true and who began to break them the day he was sworn in.
I hope I’m wrong, but Pécresse appears to me to have every sign of being a French version of Eric Adams - cynically campaigning on positions she doesn’t really believe in and making promises she has no intention of keeping. Why do voters - in France, New York, or anywhere else - keep getting bamboozled by such people, especially in a time when so much is dependent upon their decisions? A victory for either Macron or Pécresse - like Adams’s win in New York, or, for that matter, California governor Gavin Newsom’s survival of that recall election last September - could spell disaster for a crumbling polity that’s barreling down the road to utter chaos and that (depending on whom you listen to) may or may not already be past the point of no return.