France’s Eric Zemmour is running a campaign à la Donald Trump — in theory

The far-right French provocateur is struggling on the political pitch but succeeding in getting attention, similar to the former US president.

France’s Eric Zemmour is running a campaign à la Donald Trump — in theory

PARIS — On the face of it, Eric Zemmour has failed his Trumpian transformation.

Underneath the surface, it might be a bit more complicated.

During his first TV interview as an official French presidential candidate on Tuesday, Zemmour — a former journalist running an insurgent campaign heavy on culture wars and anti-immigrant rhetoric — appeared slight, tense and defensive. There was no fanfare, no alpha-male bravura. And at the end of the prime-time TV slot, he grumbled crossly that he didn’t like the journalist’s questions.

More broadly, Zemmour’s presidential campaign launch this week has been like watching a train wreck in slow motion.

First, there was a finger-flipping episode in Marseille. Then there was the campaign launch video the media could not run because Zemmour’s team didn’t get the TV rights approved. Lastly, there were the allegations that his 28-year-old de facto campaign director was pregnant with his child — Zemmour is married and has campaigned on traditional family values.

As Zemmour has spun from one moment to the next, the French Twittersphere has been alight with debate over whether he is doing some of this on purpose. Is there a method to his madness?

It’s the same question that was frequently asked about another is-this-a-joke presidential candidate: former U.S. President Donald Trump. The answer, however, might not be important. As long as people are paying attention, does it matter?

And with Zemmour — as with Trump — people are paying attention, even if it’s just to gawk.

One adviser on the Zemmour campaign team claimed the campaign’s early stages are all part of the “storytelling,” theorizing that “the hero needs to overcome tribulations” to keep the media on its toes. Another admitted plainly that the last couple of days “have been a bit complicated.”

But what is apparent is that Zemmour is saturating the media landscape with a trashy campaign launch at a time when his rivals in the conservative Les Républicains party are choosing their presidential candidate.

Currently, Zemmour is polling at 13 percent compared to 19 percent for his fellow far-right candidate Marine Le Pen and 24 percent for incumbent President Emmanuel Macron, according to POLITICO’s poll of polls.

Channeling his inner Donald Trump

In his quest for power, Zemmour has one role model: Trump. One friend and conservative ally said Zemmour responds to advice about how to do politics with a simple answer: He is running “a Trumpian campaign.”

Zemmour has even drawn the parallel himself.

Trump, he told French TV channel LCI, “succeeded in uniting the working classes and the patriotic bourgeoisie. That’s what I’ve been dreaming about … for 20 years.”

Zemmour hopes his strident immigration proposals and French industry will appeal to the working classes and that his connections in Parisian circles will help bring the French bourgeoisie on board — a combination that, in part, reflects Trump’s approach.

More directly, Zemmour’s constant provocations, attacks on the media establishment and love of social media are a page taken straight from Trump’s playbook.

Even Zemmour’s somber campaign launch video plays on a key Trumpian theme: nostalgia, according to Christopher Bickerton, a lecturer at Cambridge University.

“Both Trump and Zemmour appeal in an emotional sense to nostalgia,” Bickerton said. “Populists don’t always play on nostalgia, sometimes it’s more a white, exclusive vision. … Zemmour appeals to a certain image of France, much like Trump a certain idea of the U.S. It has a powerful effect.”

The video, which was released on YouTube, has been watched over 2.5 million times.

According to Bickerton, one of the lessons of Trump’s first campaign is that people behind the news media are not “necessarily connected” to society at large. So it’s difficult to measure the success of a populist candidate.

“[Zemmour] might be completely out of step and might fall flat on his face,” Bickerton said, “but maybe he is very much more in step with society, it’s hard to tell.”

With only four months to go before the election, however, turning YouTube views into votes is no easy task.

Lost in translation

On Sunday, Zemmour will hold his first campaign rally in Paris, with over 15,000 supporters expected, according to one campaign adviser. It will be his first speech as a politician, and opponents are hoping it could burst the Zemmour bubble.

“There’s something animalistic in politics, you have to project power,” said a close adviser to Le Pen. “Zemmour looks puny behind a lectern.”

The adviser said Zemmour is trying to ape another famous French anti-immigrant, law-and-order politician: Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father.

“He is trying to copy Jean-Marie Le Pen, but Le Pen was an orator who could hold thousands spellbound, they could cry and laugh, he really held them,” the adviser argued.

Then there are practical reasons why it might be difficult for Zemmour to simply roll out a Trump strategy in France.

France’s presidential election has two rounds, with the two leading vote-getters from the first round facing each other in a runoff. For candidates, the challenge has always been leading a campaign that is vivid enough to get past the first round, but consensual enough to appeal to over 50 percent of the electorate in a second round.

“Strategically, [Zemmour’s] campaign can’t work, because there are two rounds and the extremists, the eccentrics are always eliminated,” said the same Le Pen adviser. “The system is built this way.”

That is, however, similar to a mantra Trump’s critics preached during the 2016 American election — that the reality TV star’s pugilistic stances could perhaps break through in the Republican primary but would never be broadly appealing enough for a general election. They were wrong.

Another challenge for Zemmour is that he is campaigning alone, without the backing of an established party with funds and networks across France. Trump similarly got by initially with a small cast of political neophytes and cast-offs while nearly every Republican official refused to endorse him.

The difference, however, is that Zemmour legally needs elected official endorsements to run in the French election — 500 of them, in fact. Trump was able to just keep going it alone in 2016, relying on popular support until even most of his Republican rivals had no choice but to endorse him.

“We’ve got no structure, no party, we’re struggling more than the others,” said Dénis Cieslik, in charge of gathering those endorsements for Zemmour. “We are worried and at this stage, we are not in a position to say whether Zemmour will be able to run. But we are optimistic.”

Meanwhile, opponents had once hoped Zemmour would shy away at the first sign of such difficulties. Now, they hope he is becoming unhinged. More importantly, though, they haven’t dethroned him as the main act in the French media circus.