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Analysis

France’s Trump or the Parisian Johnson? Zemmour has studied the playbook

Controversial far-right TV pundit, of Algerian Jewish heritage, has not declared his intention to run for president, but has dropped plenty of hints

A woman walks past a poster of hard-right political talk-show star Eric Zemmour reading in French " Our Trump" in Biarritz, southwestern France, Oct. 28, 2021. (AP Photo/Bob Edme)
A woman walks past a poster of hard-right political talk-show star Eric Zemmour reading in French " Our Trump" in Biarritz, southwestern France, Oct. 28, 2021. (AP Photo/Bob Edme)

PARIS, France (AFP) — When asked about his strategy ahead of France’s presidential election next year, Eric Zemmour is candid about his admiration for Donald Trump’s US campaign in 2016.

“He succeeded in bringing together the working classes and the patriotic bourgeoisie. That’s what I’ve been dreaming about… for 20 years,” Zemmour told the LCI channel in one of dozens of recent TV interviews.

The far-right veteran political journalist and TV pundit has not declared his intention to run for president, but has dropped enough hints to raise expectations that he will.

Zemmour has suggested similarities between the ex-US president’s chief concerns and his own: immigration, de-industrialization, as well as opposition to “the politically correct.”

“That means the media, judges, the cultural elite,” he said.

While the American’s route to power represented one model he was considering, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s was another.

US President Donald Trump (R) and Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson speak before a working breakfast at the G7 Summit in Biarritz, France, on August 25, 2019. (Erin Schaff/Pool/AFP)

“He did pretty well,” the 63-year-old said with a smile about the former mayor of London who harnessed fear of immigration and anti-EU sentiment among the working classes during the Brexit referendum campaign in 2016.

Zemmour’s sudden emergence as a serious contender for the presidential election has electrified the French political class and led to frequent debates about his similarity to Trump and other successful right-wing populists of recent years.

The title of the Zemmour’s new book, “France Has Not Said Its Final Word,” faintly echoes Trump’s aspirational “Make American Great Again” slogan.

As politicians, both men present themselves as national saviors.

Zemmour admitted that even the front cover of his latest book, which features him set against the French flag, also borrowed the patriotic iconography of Trump’s 2016 tome “Great Again.”

Cultured figure

According to one theory doing the rounds in France, Zemmour is similar to both Trump and Johnson in the sense that he embodies an essential national characteristic which forms part of his appeal to voters.

Trump is an almost cartoonish representation of an American businessman — brash, braggadocious, fast-talking and wealthy.

Johnson, a graduate of England’s finest schools, has cultivated an image of upper-class cleverness and eccentricity.

French far-right media pundit Eric Zemmour poses at a televised debate between French far-left leader, Jean-Luc Melenchon in Paris, September 23, 2021. (Bertrand Guay, Pool Photo via AP, File)

And Zemmour, a self-taught historian, peppers his writing and interviews with sometimes obscure references to figures from France’s political past and literary canon in the manner of a public intellectual.

“I believe in the comparison to Trump and also with Boris Johnson,” said Gerard Araud, France’s ambassador to Washington during Trump’s time in office.

“Basically, the Americans want a billionaire, the British someone from Eton and Oxford, and the French want a cultured figure,” Araud told AFP.

Benjamin Haddad, a French analyst at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington, also sees parallels between Zemmour’s budding campaign and Trump’s.

He summarized it on Twitter as “being deliberately radical which gives the impression of authenticity, controlling the media space, and starting controversies that force others to react.”

At a visit to an arms fair in Paris, Zemmour turned a sniper’s weapon on journalists, telling them with a smile to “Get back, move.”

The video, which was quickly picked up by French cable news channels, recalled right-wing Americans’ love affair with guns as well as Trump’s unrelenting animosity toward the “fake news” media, as he calls it.

‘Not Trump’

Polls have suggested that support for Zemmour has surged in recent weeks as focus on his potential bid grows.

He is projected to garner around 15 percent in the first round, and some polls have put him in the second-round run-off against President Emmanuel Macron, ahead of the president’s traditional far-right foe Marine Le Pen.

No poll, however, has shown him coming even close to winning the presidency.

Demonstrators stand amidst tear gas fired by riot police as they protest against hard-right political talk-show star Eric Zemmour’s book signing event in Nantes, western France, Oct. 30, 2021 (AP Photo/Jeremias Gonzalez)

Despite the parallels with Trump, there are also clear differences.

Christopher Bickerton, a lecturer in European politics at Cambridge University who recently authored a book on populism, said the “parallels are good in theory but in practice you can see all the differences.”

“Trump captured Republicans and the Republican party in a way that Zemmour hasn’t tried to and might never manage to do with France’s right,” he said.

He also says that populism is often “the politics of bad manners, of being outspoken, of speaking your mind, being anti-intellectual.”

“Zemmour is cultured, well-read and bookish in a way that others aren’t,” he said.

The Parisian of Algerian Jewish heritage has been prosecuted several times for hate speech, however, from calling Muslim immigrants “colonizers” to describing under-age asylum seekers as “rapists and thieves.”

Hard-right political talk-show star Eric Zemmour, with aide Sarah Knafo, arrive at the train station in Biarritz, southwestern France, Oct. 26, 2021 ( AP Photo/Bob Edme)

Unlike Trump, Zemmour’s ability to command a stage and fire up supporters in public is also untested, although he is an experienced debater thanks to his long career as a TV personality.

An editorial last month in the left-leaning Le Monde newspaper listed the differences between the two men under the blunt headline “Eric Zemmour is not Donald Trump.”

It acknowledged some similarities between them as politicians, but concluded that the French political system and electorate were far too different to make the comparison valid.

“These major differences make it difficult to apply the American prism to the French campaign unreservedly,” it concluded.

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