It barely took half an hour to gravely wound the chances of an alliance on France’s far right that could turn the movement into a serious player in government instead of a token opposition presence.
On Sunday night after Marine Le Pen lost the presidential election to Emmanuel Macron but achieved a historic score for the far right, she announced that she was open to working with “all patriots” to win as many seats as possible in June’s parliamentary elections.
But when her far-right rival Eric Zemmour spoke shortly afterwards supposedly to call for a similar coalition, the former television pundit who preaches about France’s decline and the civilisational threat from Islam, could not resist starting with a barb. “Alas, alas, alas, this is the eighth time that defeat has hit the Le Pen name,” he said, adding Marine Le Pen’s losses to those of her father who founded France’s far-right party.
It was classic Zemmour, but did not reflect the power dynamics at play, given that he had finished in fourth place in the first round with only 7 per cent of the vote.
One of Le Pen’s lieutenants says with a smile: “I think we showed Zemmour that we knew a bit more about politics than he does.”
Given how the French system to elect the National Assembly heavily favours incumbents and traditional parties, teaming up would improve the far right’s chances of getting more seats than the paltry 8 out of 577 Le Pen’s party, the Rassemblement National, holds today.
Beyond the snarking, though, major obstacles remain that make it likely that the fratricidal war will continue. Not only are there sociological, political and financial factors that stand in the way, there is also the Le Pen family factor. Politics is the Le Pen family business. Like others before him, Zemmour tried to dethrone them and failed.
Sociologically, Zemmour’s base is wealthier and more urban than Le Pen’s, which skews more rural and working-class voters. The list of where he posted his best scores maps directly on to bourgeois enclaves such as Saint-Tropez, Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, Versailles and Neuilly-sur-Seine. Hers come in northern France, where the destruction of industrial jobs has left deep scars, and in small eastern towns, where she racked up more than 50 per cent of the first round vote.
Although the two camps agree on the core issues of limiting immigration and taking a harder line on crime, their economic policies are actually quite different. Zemmour espouses a traditional conservatism that calls for slashing government spending, shrinking the public sector and lowering taxes. Le Pen’s economic vision — to the extent she has one, since it evolves continuously — is more protectionist and populist with a focus on cost of living issues and a bigger role for the state.
That translates into different strategies. Zemmour dreamt of a grand coalition of all rightwingers regardless of party — from his new one, dubbed Reconquest, and the RN, right through to the conservative wing of Les Républicains. Le Pen, meanwhile, has sought to attract working-class voters, including the left, in a strategy pitting what she dubs the “popular bloc” against the “elite bloc”.
Finally, there is the money at stake. French political parties get their public financing based on their scores in the first round of legislative elections, creating an incentive to run many candidates even if they have little chance of winning. Every seat Le Pen “gives” to Zemmour’s team means less money for her party to pay back debts of around €24mn.
Despite all this, making peace would be tactically advantageous. Together, they would win at least 117 seats in the National Assembly, as against 75 if the RN went ahead alone, according to Harris Interactive, making them by far the biggest opposition group to Macron’s expected majority.
Will logic take a back seat to revenge? Le Pen may choose to snuff out Zemmour and his new movement — which also includes her estranged niece, Marion Maréchal, who was once a rising star of the RN. Without a deal, analysts say Reconquest might well win no seats at all. “They care less about winning than being the only force on the far right,” says one Reconquete strategist. “It is the Le Pen clan above all else.”