Eric Zemmour: Far-right journalist cast as Macron election rival

By Lucy Williamson
BBC News, Béziers

Image caption,
The child of Jewish Algerian immigrants, Zemmour has long drawn attention for his controversial views

There were still 100 people queuing outside the auditorium when they closed the doors. Not bad for a man who hasn't officially declared his candidacy yet.

Eric Zemmour is shaking up France's presidential race before it's even begun.

And his rally in the small southern town of Béziers made an unsettling image for France's far-right leader, Marine Le Pen. Polls suggest he's on track to challenge her for leadership of the nationalist hard-right in France.

The child of Jewish Algerian immigrants, Zemmour has long drawn attention for his controversial views - claiming, for example, that French Jews were protected by the state during World War Two. In fact, France's wartime Vichy regime sent thousands of French Jews as well as Jewish refugees to the Nazi death camps.

Now, he says, France is being "submerged" by migrants, and parents should be forced to give their children "French names".

His speech in Béziers targeted France's education system - "infiltrated by Marxism, anti-racism, and LGBT ideologies", in his view.

As for the French media, he dismissed them as "a propaganda machine that hates France".

"Paid with your taxes, they constantly spit on you," he said. "They spit on French history and culture, and they spit on the French people, whom they want to see disappear."

If the language was violent, it wasn't unexpected. Many in the audience here knew him from his role as an outspoken TV presenter and commentator for the French right-wing channel C-News.

Sitting in the front row was Christian, who had driven from a nearby town with his family. He told me they'd never been to a political meeting before, and didn't belong to any political party.

But they liked Eric Zemmour.

"He tells it like it is," Christian explained. "He's more down-to-earth [than other politicians]. It's great he's shaking up the French presidential elections. I think he's a bit like Boris Johnson."

After the rally, I asked Mr Zemmour how he would do French-UK relations differently if he were president of France.

"I respect the British," he said. "They're a great people, who deserve respect. I think the European Commission in Brussels doesn't respect them. They never forgave them for Brexit."

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Marine Le Pen is now battling to keep far-right voters

Béziers has been home turf for Marine Le Pen. She did very well here in the last presidential race, but as Eric Zemmour has risen in the polls, she has dipped. One recent survey even had him beating her to a run-off with President Macron.

After years "de-toxifying" her party, in order to woo a broader range of voters, Le Pen is now facing a challenge from the right as well.

But it's not only Le Pen supporters who are here in Béziers tonight.

Gérard told me he'd never voted for Marine Le Pen.

"I was very interested in Macron," he said. "But he's not doing enough on security. Zemmour appeals to me now - I find it a bit bizarre!"

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
President Macron faces strong opposition on both right and left

President Macron has lost support on the left over the past five years, as he's responded to growing concerns about security and immigration, and tried hard to win over the centre-right.

The mayor of Béziers, Robert Ménard, is politically close to Marine Le Pen - and is friends with both her and Zemmour.

Mr Ménard told me he was pressing them to join forces, to take on Emmanuel Macron.

"I explained to Eric: 'You can't win without Marine Le Pen - it's impossible'. And I told Marine: 'You can't win without Eric,'" he said. "Divisions must not lead our camp to defeat. For once, we could win."

Despite all the attention surrounding Zemmour's rapid rise, no poll has yet suggested that either he or Marine Le Pen would beat President Macron in a run-off vote for the presidency. Marine Le Pen had a disappointing result in regional elections earlier this year.

Nevertheless, French politics has shifted to the right in recent years. And politicians from Macron to Le Pen are intent on carving up the pie.

France's mainstream right-wing party, Les Républicains, have yet to decide on a candidate - a sign of just how divided the right here has become.

The last presidential election redrew the political map, excluding both mainstream parties from the run-off.

It all but destroyed the Socialists; many in Les Républicains fear that, if they're not careful, this time it could be them.

In the meantime, it's Zemmour - not Macron or Le Pen - who's dominating coverage here.

It's early days, and the official campaign is still months away, but the race for the future of France has already begun.

More on this story