How do Le Pen, Zemmour, and Pécresse present themselves ideologically and socially in relation to the right and the extreme right?
originally published: 3/2/2022, updated: 18/2/2022
For the moment, it is the choice between Valérie Pécresse, Marine Le Pen, and Éric Zemmour, that will determine the how the second round with Emmanuel Macron will play out. For four years, opinion polls predicted that the candidate of the Rassemblement National (RN) would be Macron’s opponent in the second round, but in autumn she fell from her pedestal with the entry into the race of the far-right candidate Zemmour and then the coronation of Pécresse.
Pécresse, now neck and neck with Le Pen in the polls, has been working since her election at the LR congress to carve out a space between Macronism (within which she could nevertheless embody its right wing) and the far right. The candidate, who defines herself as ‘2/3 Merkel and 1/3 Thatcher’ and regularly invokes her Chirac heritage, is conducting a campaign mainly directed at Macron, trying to appear more serious and firmer than him.
On Europe, for example, she faces the difficulty of finding a niche between Macron’s Euro-enthusiasm and far-right Euroscepticism. If most of her programme is also on the agenda of the Union or already embraced by Macron (carbon tax, major industrial projects, the regulation of social networks, etc.), she distinguishes herself from him on security and migration issues. It was in Greece that the candidate made her first campaign trip outside of France, where she displayed her firmness on migration issues denouncing a ‘Europe as a sieve’ and praising ‘the barbed wire walls’ against migrants. Pécresse is also very attached to budgetary rigour and the need to cut public service workers. With her recent call to ‘bring out the pressure washer’ to ‘clean up the popular neighbourhoods’ during a trip to a working-class neighbourhood, the candidate was hunting for the 2007 Sarkozy voters.
Socially, she gathers a rather standard electorate of the liberal and conservative right: the elderly (her best score is among those aged 65 and over), mostly retired professionals, but also company managers, craftsmen, and business owners. Buoyed by her position as president of Ile de France, she enjoys the strong support of the region’s right-wing inhabitants.
Zemmour, for his part, is engaging in an aggressive campaign for the votes of the uninhibited far right. However overused the adjective ‘populist’ is, it is justified here. With Zemmour, the rhetoric ‘the people’ and ‘the system’ is not anecdotal; it underpins the entirety of his discourse whose confrontational level is very sharp. For him, the individuals who make up the ‘system’ have not simply failed, or even betrayed the people; they have ‘taken an oath to make them disappear’, threatening their very ‘existence’. Also noteworthy is his use of fake news in the media, especially regarding historical facts with various revisionist statements, or those regarding working-class neighbourhoods or foreign unaccompanied minors (whom he portrays as rapists), for which the candidate has been indicted on several occasions.
More concretely, Zemmour conducts his campaign on two main principles: a tougher judicial system, especially vis-à-vis immigrants and their families, and strictly controlled immigration (abolishing citizenship based on ius soli, prohibiting the legalisation of people who have entered illegally, etc.). His campaign is openly Islamophobic (banning the Islamic veil in public spaces, banning the construction of Muslim places of worship), even if it means proposing unconstitutional measures.
He ostentatiously proposes ‘shock’ measures such as withdrawing social benefits from parents of children who are disruptive in school, or banning wind turbine construction projects. His economic programme remains deliberately vague, only demagogic measures are mentioned such as a slight increase in the minimum wage or an obligation for companies to share in the fuel costs of their employees. But his proximity to the business community is plain to see.
From a strategic point of view, Zemmour is trying to position himself as the keystone of the right, as the only candidate on the right who can unify his camp. He wants to put an end to what he describes as a ‘moral dam’ erected between the extreme right and the right that prevents them from gaining power. If former members of the RN (and even some LR figures) are now on the candidate’s side, one of his limitations lies in the fact that he dissolves the reconcilable right by situating himself on the most radical or extremist right.
The candidate owes most of his 13% in the polls to the votes of former Le Pen and Fillon voters (in 2017 Fillon was the candidate of Les Républicains). These movements in the electorate make it possible to sketch the profile of Zemmour’s voters. Among Le Pen voters, it is those from the upper classes who most turned towards Zemmour. On the Republican side, it is among the least upper groups that we find the greatest number of voters who now say they will vote for Zemmour.
Zemmour’s scores are very high among the upper categories, followed by the middle classes, but his support remains very low among the popular classes. Indeed, he scores lowest among the working class. Zemmour has not managed to reach voters in rural areas, has not been able to convince young voters, and still faces a gender gap.
Marine Le Pen is running a less audible campaign, being described by some observers as the ‘nice victim’ of the ‘nasty Zemmour’. But we must be wary of this discourse, for the RN candidate is placing well and the polarisation operated by Zemmour allows her to continue her process of de-demonization. She is thus betting on making second place, based on laxness in the Republican front as well as a strong abstentionism, which always favours her party. Moreover if Zemmour is omnipresent in the media, Le Pen puts showcases her superior knowledge of the field and of the French people, and stresses her competitor’s lack of political experience.
In 2017, Le Pen proposed leaving the Euro, but this year this position is no longer possible. In her 2022 programme, Le Pen continues to blur economic issues with proposals to the left than her father’s (such as his defence of low pensions and wages, and cuts to public services), and upper-class-oriented policies that position her within liberal orthodoxy (such as repayment of the debt as a moral necessity). If her sharply profiled measures are largely those devoted to stopping all forms of immigration and the eradication of Islamist ideologies, she also proposes some economic measures largely inspired by the demands of the Yellow Vests: lowering the VAT on energy products, raising the minimum wage, and abolishing the television licence fee. Marine Le Pen goes so far as to advocate socially progressive measures but on condition that they only benefit ‘French’ families. Essentially, she proposes marginal adjustments rather than offering an economic vision, but her electorate initially joined her for her anti-immigration, anti-Islamic, anti-Europe discourse – an electorate for whom identity issues take precedence over everything else.
Sociologically, Le Pen’s strength is to have put together an electorate with a strong proportion of young voters (22% among those under 35 years of age), members of the popular classes (she garners 31% of the working-class vote), and more female than male voters (respectively 20% and 14%). In addition, she remains strong in rural areas and among the least educated populations.
The right and far right are in an interesting and worrying paradox: it is advancing divided, yet dynamic and powerful. Their omnipresence in the media focuses the general election campaign on their preferred issues – immigration and security. Macron benefits from this development by appearing, in comparison, to be the candidate of the progressive camp. The left, divided and less audible, needs to quickly gain space for real emancipatory politics and projects.