France 2022: The credibility gap

Albrecht Sonntag |

There is no doubt that French politics have been ever strongly tilting to the right for months now. It’s not even exaggerated to claim that the political discourse is dominated, if not polluted, by far-right vocabulary and semantics. Want to study first-hand the mechanisms of the Overton window? This is the place.

Paradoxically, at the same time, all three right-wing pretenders that are currently jockeying for position in the race to win the second spot for the second round of the presidential election are battling with serious credibility issues.

The primary curse

In November 2016, the great comeback of ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy (2007-12) was ended before it had even started. With no more than 20% of the votes he was eliminated in the first round of the primaries organised by the party he had himself rebranded as Les Républicains.

Nicolas Sarkozy at the Sens Commun rally in 2014.

His credibility had already been severely tarnished two years before, when he set out to reconquer the party’s presidency in order to have the necessary resources at hand for a successful presidential bid in 2017. Shortly before the party’s conference in November 2014, he was filmed addressing a rally of the reactionary movement of the traditional catholic movement Sens Commun. He promised them to reformulate, once elected again in 2017, some aspects of same-sex marriage law (officially named “marriage for all”) of 2013. But when the audience started to chant “Repeal! Repeal!”, he caved in immediately: “If you prefer (…), if that makes you happy, frankly, it doesn’t cost me much!”

Just an anecdote. But one that illustrates two of the major weaknesses of the Républicains, who claim to be the heirs of true Gaullist faith and want to position themselves as the grand old party of the moderate right.

On the one hand it highlights that the system of party primaries has revealed itself to be an unintentionally radicalising force, both for the party chair in in 2014 and for the presidential nomination in 2016 and 2021. Each time, the intended moderate, conservative no-nonsense discourse has massively hardened under the pressure of a radical, vocal and highly mobilised minority among party members, pushing candidates to adopt extreme right-wing issues and vocabulary.

On the other hand, the anecdote points to the Gaullist’s fundamental dilemma: even in an increasingly polarised France, the presidential race is still won in the centre. Right there, where local and regional conservatives were perfectly able to impose themselves, as could be observed both during the municipal elections of 2020 and the regional elections of 2021. But that’s local politics. On the national level, the rightward tilt intentionally launched by Sarkozy has left the liberal-humanist centre up for grabs. It was immediately seized by Emmanuel Macron’s La République en Marche. With the consequence that the formerly Republican right now shamelessly adopts far-right discourses while wanting to sell themselves as moderate.

It’s a paradoxical situation: half of the French electorate will give their vote in April to a candidate explicitly labelled as right-wing. And that’s without even counting Macron’s voter base (stable at 25%), despite the obvious overlaps with moderate Républicains in terms of policy preferences and human resources.

Even more disturbing is that more than a third of the vote will in all likelihood go to candidates who unambiguously belong to the far right. That’s three times more than what the infamous Alternative für Deutschland obtained at the German parliamentary elections last autumn.

And despite this discursive hegemony, the right will have serious difficulties in its conquest of the Elysée palace. All three candidates who may reasonably hope to enter the second round are caught in the credibility trap.

Valérie Pécresse between a rock and hard place

Before she entered the primaries of Les Républicains, Valérie Pécresse had gained a strong profile since 2015 as the respected leader of the Ile-de-France, one of Europe’s most economically powerful, most densely populated regions, which hosts both France’s richest municipalities and poorest suburban ghettos. Her main accomplishment was a successful budget consolidation, for which she even received praise from the court of auditors (very rare in France, for good reasons!). Her self-description as “a mix of two thirds Angela Merkel and one third Margaret Thatcher” was deemed pretty accurate and she was comfortably re-elected in 2021.

Campaign poster of Valérie Pécresse, inspired by the traditional postal stamps with the effigy of the Republican allegory “Marianne”.

Considering her bourgeois-catholic origins and her political career following graduation as top student in two elite schools (HEC and ENA), you would expect her to be firmly rooted in the liberal wing of Gaullism, as embodied for instance by Jacques Chirac. To no surprise, Sarkozy picked her for a ministerial post in 2007.

Yet, all of a sudden, in order to have the slightest chance in the 2021 primaries, she felt obliged to change in tone and style. All of a sudden, it was all about seemingly exploding crime, presumably uncontrolled immigration, and apparently threatened national identity. Issues that were imposed on her by the nationalist and xenophobic hardliner Eric Ciotti, who had come first in the first round of the primaries.

That sounded all strangely inauthentic, and even now, in the hottest phase of the election campaign, it simply does not sound convincing. Since her nomination in December, she has been stagnating in the breathlessly published, but generally rather reliable polls, at around 15% of voting intentions. And her big rally on 13 February, in front of 7,500 supporters in the Parisian Zénith concert hall, hyped as the kick-off for the decisive campaign weeks, was an oddly embarrassing, pathetic performance.

What are you supposed to think of a speaker who very obviously does not believe herself in half of what she thinks she needs to say? How trustworthy is a conservative party that on the one hand hardens its discourse by the minute and on the other hand has been aggressively bashing a president who launched so many of the reforms that Chirac and Sarkozy always kept announcing but never had the courage to tackle in all their years in power?

Valérie Pécresse has fallen into the credibility trap. The politics she could have represented with competence and authenticity, are entirely covered by Emmanuel Macron. The politics he has been forced to embody by the party and the circumstances are very obviously not hers. In the tectonic upheaval of the national French political landscape, there’s not enough room left any more for herself and the Républicains. 

Marine Le Pen’s risky business of normalisation

At her third run for the presidency, Marine Le Pen faces a positioning conundrum of a different type. It’s been more than ten years since she took over the nationalist-populist party called the Front National from her dad. Since then she has been unwavering in her attempt to clean the party from its disreputable, unsavoury, shady aspects and turn it into an eligible alternative for all parts of French society.

The key word in this process is “de-demonizing” (French: “dédiabolisation”). In order to bestow on her party a new gentrified respectability, she purged the leadership committees of the numerous “crazy catholics” and “extreme idiots” (according to a leaked confession) and broke with all those who were unwilling to follow her path. These included her long-standing lieutenant Florian Philippot, who had been highly successful in giving the Front National a solid social appeal, and her niece Marion Maréchal, who was already considered as a future star (and competitor of her aunt) by the old hardliners.

Her disastrous, almost surrealistic performance in the television debate with Emmanuel Macron in early May 2017 certainly made many of her supporters doubt she had the necessary clout and gravitas to climb that last step in the ladder. Rather surprisingly, though, it did hardly impact her authority within the party. In 2018, she successfully imposed its re-branding to Rassemblement National (RN), a symbolic act that took the de-demonization process one step further, towards full-fledged mainstreaming.

Campaign poster of Marine Le Pen. The “M” is pronouced “aime”, as in “The France one loves”.

This consistent normalisation strategy, reflected in a still aggressive but much less verbally abusive opposition to the Macron government as well as a calm and controlled pre-campaign, seemed to work out just fine. A no-go like “Frexit” or, at the least, withdrawal from the Eurozone – both impossible to sell to the average voter and perceived by many as evidence of amateurism – was discreetly deleted from the official party programme. Until November 2021, there was no doubt that Marine Le Pen would qualify for the second round of the election like she had done in 2017, and why not with a stronger share of the vote than the incumbent President.

That was when Eric Zemmour officially announced his presidential bid. The outspokenly Islamophobic pandit/polemicist/populist suddenly offered a self-confident far-right alternative to all those who disapproved of Marine Le Pen’s rebranding. All those Vichy patriots and nostalgic colonialists, racists and homophobes, Europe-haters and authoritarians who did no longer feel at home in the mollified, assuaged Rassemblement National.

It turns out there are more of them around than previously suspected. Immediately, Marine Le Pen’s voting intentions collapsed from 25 to 17 percent. Clearly, her gentrification strategy was much less accepted among her long-standing followers than was thought. While her base seems to have consolidated since – she’s still the favourite for the second place – there is no week without a prominent party member leaving her for Zemmour. Heavyweights like Stéphane Ravier (the RN’s only Senator) or MEPs Gilbert Collard and Jérôme Rivière simply slammed the door in anger. More embarrassingly, campaign spokesman Nicolas Bay (another MEP) had to be fired for having leaked relevant internal information to the Zemmour team.

If one is to believe the latest polls, Marine Le Pen does not seem to suffer from the “rotten fruit falling from the tree”, as she poetically called the renegades. But that does not change the one big question at the heart of her rebranding as the new mainstream: how trustworthy is a candidate, who owes her political standing and popularity to anti-establishment positions and who decides, at the most important moment of her career, to adopt the behaviour codes and verbal norms of the despised “system”, the very system she vociferously (and successfully) decried all those years?

Even if she is still well placed to qualify for the second round, it remains unclear how she could possibly manage, within only two weeks, to reconquer all those disenchanted voters who left for Zemmour and simultaneously gain several million new votes in the mainstream.

Eric Zemmour and the limits of the reactionary protest potential

In the genuinely brilliant television series Baron Noir (three seasons between 2016 and 2020) the French party spectrum is all shaken up by a totally unknown populist newcomer boosted by the social networks. It’s a scenario whose plausibility was vindicated by the yellow jackets movement and feared by the governmental majority.

In real life, the meteoric maverick finally does not stem from the hardcore anticapitalistic left, but from a right wing that unmistakably deserves the adjective “extreme”. And he was not put on orbit by a diffuse protest movement on the internet, but from old-fashioned traditional media. For thirteen years Eric Zemmour wrote for Le Figaro, the formerly venerable conservative daily that has been trying hard for years now to reach the level of British tabloids. But his current name recognition is due to television exposure. More precise: to the very specifically French constellation of four competing 24/7 news channels, all available to French citizens within the basic TV offer. All four of them are under existential pressure to reach a market share beyond 1.5 or 2 percent.

In this crammed ecosystem, the only way to differentiate yourself from the competition is to engage in an uninterrupted hysterization of political life, spiced up with regular purposeful verbal transgressions that will be picked to pieces (and tweeted!) by the entire Parisian media landscape for days. On one of these four channels, CNews – an originally harmless branch of Canal+, now systematically foxified by the reactionary industrial industrialist and multi-millionaire media czar Vincent Bolloré – Eric Zemmour managed to reach, by deliberately breaking taboos, ratings of 5 percent (roughly one million viewers) in his access prime time talk show.

Campaign poster of Eric Zemmour. The slogan is a quote attributed to Napoléon Bonaparte.

In doing so, he shifted the limits of what could be said in public to a spectacular degree. Inspired by the success of the transgressive, inflammatory rhetoric of Donald Trump, with whom he has frequently been compared and who recently apparently even supported him in a phone call. The fact that he has repeatedly stood trial for inciting racial hatred only seemed to play in his favour with his supporters, who claim he merely says out loud what the “silent majority” (populism’s favourite fantasy) thinks.

Attempts to denounce the rhetorical mechanisms of his hatemongering – as exemplified in a strong little pamphlet by the renowned linguist Cécile Alduy – or debunk his grotesque falsifications of history – picked apart by an army of indignant French historians – also don’t have much of an impact.

What Zemmour feeds on is the deep distrust of citizens towards parties and politicians, media and experts, democratic institutions and procedures. As the yearly “Trust Barometer” of the CEVIPOF institute at Sciences Po regularly confirms, distrust and wariness are much deeper engrained in French society than in other comparable European countries (check out slides 31 and 44 here).

Eric Zemmour’s qualification for the second round of the presidential election would be a political earthquake. It would raise very fundamental questions about the causes of so much resentment, sullen offendedness, and outright hatred. It would, however, have next to no impact on the result of the election. True, Zemmour was able to conquer 15% of the electorate in one strike, just by announcing his bid. But since then, he has stagnated at exactly the same level, despite the recruitment of numerous well-known renegades both from the Républicains and the Rassemblement National, and despite a permanent media buzz.

And he remains by far the most despised political actor in France: 67% of the French declare having a bad opinion of him (Le Pen 59%); 61% refuse him explicitly (Le Pen 49%, source: recent Odoxa polls, here und here). He has a massive credibility deficit: only 23% of the French grant him the necessary competence for the job (Le Pen 35%, Pécresse 38%, source: current IPSOS survey).

Zemmour has exhausted his reactionary potential. He may serve as useful and worrying indicator for the irritability of a distraught nation whose nerves are on edge. But even in an insecure, destabilised France that is not sufficient for capturing the mainstream of society.

Parallel worlds

France’s tilt to the right is real. The “self-dwarfed left” – kudos to Nadia Pantel from the Süddeutsche Zeitung for this pertinent adjective – is close to inaudible. The presidential election campaign clearly suggests that the radical, reactionary discourse has become hegemonic. But this impression is misleading. The centre of society, the oft-invoked middle classes (which always come in the plural in colloquial French), certainly want to be taken seriously in their existential unease and anxiety, but have no wish to be governed by marginal ideologists.

As the pandemic has kindly recalled, France does not have the monopoly on disenchanted citizens and enraged conspiracy theorists caught in their filter bubbles. The same goes for the slow and painful decline of previously hegemonic popular parties in an increasingly fragmented political landscape. But what distinguishes France from other comparable democracies is the astonishing, striking discrepancy between the political spectrum on the national and the local level.

While Socialists of all shades of pink, moderate down-to-earth Conservatives and more and more pragmatic Greens are entrusted with the government of all regions and the overwhelming majority of cities and small towns, the national level is almost entirely dominated by a kind of cultural struggle between political movements that play next to no role in local affairs.

This spectacular gap between political realities may perhaps serve as an approach to explaining why a rather well-functioning daily life in a profoundly liveable country is permanently overshadowed by a shrill siren of decline and civilizational despair.

Fortunately, with regard to the forthcoming elections, it is possible to predict with a good deal of probability that while the hardened discourse of the right may reflect certain non-negligible tendencies, the political actors that are pushing it are not perceived as credible leaders by society at large. Emmanuel Macron is likely to benefit from the credibility deficit of his opponents. He is certainly not everybody’s darling, yet when it comes to competence and what the French call “embodiment of the presidential function”, he is clearly identified as number one.

Macron’s probable re-election will first and foremost be based on his credibility edge. It will, however, not change anything to the toxic discursive and mediatic environment that continues to poison French political life and public debate.

This is post no. 4 of the ‘France 2022’ series.
The previous ones can be found here.
All ‘France 2017’ posts can be accessed here.