French far-right leader launches presidential bid as TV star lurks in wings

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FREJUS, France – Marine Le Pen slammed Emmanuel Macron on Sunday, trying to suppress talk that controversial TV star Eric Zemmour is stealing her thunder on the far right as she launched her third bid for the French presidency.

Le Pen told her right-wing members of the National Rallye in the coastal town of Fréjus in southern France that she would be the “President of French Freedoms” after the COVID-19 pandemic, and accused Macron of “running a society of surveillance and policing” “When he imposed a passport to provide proof of immunity to visit many venues in France.

“The government has widened the gap between two French people, either by intent or by method” [of governing]as if there weren’t enough divisions in the country, ”she told a gathering of MPs, city councils and other party officials.

Le Pen and Macron are expected to compete in the presidential election next April Polls are currently suggesting she would lose to Macron in a runoff election.

But television star journalist Zemmour has emerged as a new potential challenger for Le Pen, who woos far-right voters with the promise of an uncompromising approach to immigration and Islam. Although he has not yet officially declared his candidacy, Zemmour’s presidential ambitions in France are an open secret and threaten to divide the far-right electorate Polls suggest this he would get up to 8 percent of the vote.

The expert has been convicted several times for inciting hate speech and his anti-liberal rhetoric on identity politics, immigration and gender regularly causes controversy. And yet even his opponents admit that he has captured something of the current zeitgeist in France.

Speaking to reporters prior to the rally, Le Pen dismissed Zemmour as a “third man” trend that often hit the media during presidential elections.

However, she admitted that if Zemmour got into the race, it could hurt her prospects. “If his candidacy goes to the end, it could stop me [overtaking Macron] in the first round, ”she said.

Le Pen’s strategy of giving her party more mainstream appeal and condemning conservative voters has been questioned since the National Rally in the regional elections in June had disappointing results. But there was little evidence that she would change course at the start on Sunday.

On stage, Le Pen also officially handed over the party’s presidency to her right-hand man, 26-year-old Jordan Bardella, to focus on her election campaign.

Zemmour on tour

Behind the scenes at the National Rally, many trust that Zemmour’s ambitions have already messed up the campaign.

“You are very nervous,” said a National Rally Party insider. “The leadership talks about him all the time. Le Pen’s image is a bit old-fashioned and they fear that his offer could ruin their chances. “

Next week the TV expert is starting a tour for his book “France Didn’t Say Its Last Word”, an insight into French politics, and is planning several rallies in conference centers in the south of France.

“Zemmour’s campaign is picking up speed and looking more believable,” said a former National Rally campaign manager. “Even if the people around him are a diverse group”.

“With Zemmour, the campaign will be eventful. He’s a great speaker, ”added the former campaign manager. “And it is guaranteed that political debates will be more authentic.”

His fans also seem to be more active online than Le Pen’s supporters.

“Zemmour wins the game without a doubt,” said Véronique Reille Soult, social media analyst. “Lots of people support him and even though they don’t have that many followers individually, they’re very active.”

Reille Soult said her analysis of recent social media activity shows that there have been 50 percent more posts about Zemmour than about Le Pen in the last month. And while posts don’t necessarily show support, they show interest.

Pushing back against Zemmour is a difficult task for Le Pen, who does not want to upset voters who share their ideas. In a recent interview with Le figaroLe Pen said she had no “opponents among those who believe in France”.

However, some close to Le Pen also see a potential advantage in having Zemmour in the running, especially if he was eliminated from the first round of voting and his supporters have to choose between Le Pen and Macron.

“There’s no reason why it couldn’t be beneficial to Marine Le Pen,” said the former campaign manager. “That creates a reserve of votes for them. Zemmour attracts people who worry [the future] French civilization and Marine Le Pen is not strong on this issue. “

The way to the Elysée is a difficult one even for candidates who have no party behind them. Building a campaign team from the ground up and just raising funds could ultimately force Zemmour to pull out at the last minute, insiders say.

Speaking to France 2 television on Saturday, Zemmour said he believed “Marine Le Pen would never win and everyone in the National Rally knows it”.

“I think the French see this and they know, and today a vote for Marine Le Pen is a vote for Macron. Because that’s what he hopes – to face her again [in the election] and hit them, ”he said.

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