PARIS – A few days before the first round of the French presidential election, President Emmanuel Macron is still the favorite par excellence to cross the political juggernaut and win a second term. But even if he succeeds, and before a single ballot is cast, another clear winner has already emerged from the race.
The French right.
Despite a late push from left-wing lead Jean-Luc Mélenchon, virtually the entire French campaign has been on the right and the far right, whose candidates dominate the polls and whose themes and points of view discussion — issues of national identity, immigration and Islam — dominated the political debate. The extreme right has even become the champion of pocket problems, traditionally the domain of the left.
Mr Macron himself has pivoted to the right so consistently to rise to the challenge that there are even now discussions about whether he should be considered a centre-right president, although he walked out of a government led by the now moribund Socialists in 2017.
In a tight race, the candidate he is most likely to face in a runoff two weeks before Sunday’s initial vote is Marine Le Pen, the far-right leader of the National Rally, according to polls. It would be his second consecutive appearance in the final round of the presidential election, cementing his place in the political establishment.
“The great movement to the right is done, it’s over,” said Gaël Brustier, political scientist and former adviser to left-wing politicians. “It won’t go the other way for 20 years.”
Ms. Le Pen and her party for decades have softened the ground for the growth of the right. But the right’s recent political rise follows many years in which conservatives have successfully waged a cultural battle – largely inspired by the American right and often adopting its codes and strategies to appeal to younger audiences.
Not only has the French right in recent months brandished the idea of “wokism” to effectively stifle the left and blunt what it sees as the threat of an “awake culture” on American campuses. But it has also actively established a cultural presence after years with little or no mainstream media.
Today, the French right has crossed social barriers and is represented by its own version of a Fox-style TV news channel, CNews, a growing network of think tanks and multiple social media platforms with a substantial and increasingly young audience.
These things “didn’t exist in France or were in an embryonic state” just a few years ago, said François de Voyer, 38, host and funder of Livre noir, a year-old YouTube channel. devoted to right-wing and right-wing politicians. far right.
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Preparations for the first round of elections were dominated by issues such as security, immigration and national identity.
“We said to ourselves, ‘Let’s do like CPAC in the United States,'” Mr. de Voyer said, referring to the Conservative Political Action Conference, the annual gathering of the right in American politics.
So he did.
In 2019, Mr. de Voyer co-organized “The Convention of the Right”, a one-day conference that brought together figures from the right and the far right. It was a political launching pad for Éric Zemmour, television pundit and best-selling author.
More than any other presidential candidate, Mr. Zemmour embodied the effects of the right-wing cultural battle on the campaign.
In his best-selling books and in his daily appearances on CNews, Mr. Zemmour for a decade became a leader of the new right-wing media ecosystem that portrayed France as being existentially threatened by Muslim immigrants and their descendants, as well as by importing multicultural ideas from the United States.
Although he has now slipped in the polls to around 10% support, Mr Zemmour’s meteoric rise last year caught the eye of France and ensured that the presidential campaign would be almost exclusively on the terrain of the right, while he managed to expand the borders of what was politically acceptable in France.
Mr. Zemmour has brought into the mainstream a racist conspiracy theory that white Christian populations are intentionally replaced by non-white immigrants, said Raphaël Llorca, a French communications expert and member of the Jean Foundation research institute. -Jaures.
The “great replacement”, as the theory is called, was later taken up as a topic of discussion even by Valérie Pécresse, the candidate of the center-right establishment Republican Party.
Such penetration into the mainstream is the result of a decade-old right-wing organizational effort.
Thibaut Monnier, a former adviser to Ms Le Pen’s party who later joined Mr Zemmour’s movement, said that in the mid-2010s conservatives like him set themselves a “metapolitical” project of creating new political institutions and their own media.
In 2018, with Marion Maréchal, Ms. Le Pen’s niece, Mr. Monnier co-founded a conservative political institution in Lyon called Issep, or the Institute of Social, Economic and Political Sciences. The school is an alternative to what he describes as left-leaning higher education institutions.
But even as it worked its way through the educational establishment, the far right also managed a parallel campaign to spread its ideas on social media to make itself appear attractive and transgressive.
At the heart of Mr. Zemmour’s cultural battle is his mastery of social media and pop culture codes, Mr. Llorca said.
The far-right candidate is very active on networks like TikTok and Instagram, where he posts daily messages and videos aimed at younger audiences. His YouTube campaign launch video, full of cultural references, drew millions of viewers.
Mr. Llorca said that Mr. Zemmour had successfully waged a “battle of the cool” intended to “de-dramatize the radical content” of his ideas without ever changing the substance. He was helped by a network of Internet users who humorously defuse the violence of his extremist ideas. On Facebook and Instagram, accounts followed by tens of thousands of people frequently post light-hearted memes about Mr. Zemmour.
Mr Zemmour has received support from far-right influencers on YouTube who poke fun at everything from feminism to veganism to unions. One such influencer, Papacito, whose videos sometimes reach a million views, recently backed Mr. Zemmour.
“Our goal is really to make a counter-cultural Canal+,” he told the magazine Valeurs Actuelles, referring to the entertainment television channel that dominated the progressive cultural scene in the 1980s and 1990s. which is just as fun, but full of patriotic and more reactionary ideas.”
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Samuel Lafont, the head of Mr. Zemmour’s digital team, said some 1,500 people were working to promote Mr. Zemmour’s discussions on social media and create new visuals to accompany his media appearances.
Mr. Lafont acknowledged that several independent “cells” had even been created to lead the fight on Wikipedia, which he called an “important cultural battle”.
Ms Le Pen’s camp has often boasted that it has already won the battle of ideas, pointing out that the government has even adopted some of its language, including the use of the term “wildness”, a tinted dog whistle of far-right racism suggesting the nation is going wild.
But perhaps the right’s most striking success is the growing use in public debate of “wokisme”, a term unfamiliar to most French people just months ago.
Google data shows that interest in “wokism” only emerged in September, just as media began to focus on the presidential elections. It peaked in November, fueled by controversies around so-called woke ideas such as the use of non-binary pronouns.
Nicolas Vanderbiest, a communication expert who has studied the appearance of the notion online, estimated that 15% of the exchanges which sparked wide controversy on French social networks last year were related to “wokism”.
This anti-awakening movement has become so powerful that Mr. Macron’s Minister of National Education, Jean-Michel Blanquer, last October launched a think tank aimed at combating “wokism”, telling Le Monde that “the France and its youth must come out of it”.
Although the meaning of “wokism” has never been clear, it has become a catch-all wielded by conservatives to blunt demands for social justice.
The French left has been “intimidated” by words like “wokisme”, making it nearly impossible to engage in frank discussions about racism and other social issues during the presidential race, said Sandrine Rousseau, an economist, eco- feminist and a leader of the French Greens.
The French right managed to win the culture wars, largely because the left offered no alternative, Rousseau said.
“We on the left have backed down in the face of attacks from the right,” Rousseau said. “As they advanced, we were afraid to fight this fight.
Mr. Brustier, the analyst, said left-wing organizations “don’t work” to produce new ideas. A few years ago, he said, he unsuccessfully tried to start a school to train left-wing activists. “It annoyed everyone,” he said.