Home Featured Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour face off in rival rallies
Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour face off in rival rallies

Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour face off in rival rallies

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REIMS/LILLE, France – There was a time when a rally with Marine Le Pen meant trouble. No longer.

Under a towering portrait of the French far-right candidate, supporters filed calmly into a conference hall for her official campaign launch in the eastern city of Reims on Saturday. Apart from a blink-and-you’d-miss-it interruption of her speech by two campaigners from the feminist activist group Femen — who were promptly wrestled away — there were no local protests. Certainly no picket lines.  

Inside the hall, supporters of her National Rally party clustered around the regional food stands, chatting over a plates of potato chips, bobbing up and down to 80s music blaring in the background.

Instead, it is Eric Zemmour, her competitor to be the far-right challenger to President Emmanuel Macron in April’s election, who is feeling the heat from demonstrators. Ahead of his rival rally in the the northeastern city of Lille, police fired tear gas at a leftwing protest against the firebrand TV pundit.

Outside the Lille rally, the scene was more convivial — twentysomethings handed out invites to a “Soirée Patriote” later that night. But scores of police vans lined the sidewalk and machine gun-carrying police officers in bullet-resistant vests patrolled the long lines that disappeared around the street corner. Inside, security was similarly omnipresent. Zemmour himself walked to the stage surrounded by burly bodyguards.  


For more polling data from across Europe visit POLITICO Poll of Polls.

Trouble has changed sides.

“He has drawn the hatred away from us,” said Tanguy Lepingre, a police officer who came from the Calais region to support Le Pen’s rally. “So long as he doesn’t harm Marine Le Pen, it’s fine.”

The difference in the reception between the two far-right leaders is partly due to Le Pen’s tireless efforts to make her party more mainstream and remove more radical members from her party. According to a recent opinion poll by Elabe, only 40 percent of the French now think she represents the “nationalist and xenophobic far right” in France.

Still, Le Pen faces a crowded field of candidates on the right ahead of the presidential election in April. According to POLITICO’s Poll of Polls, Le Pen would grab 17 percent of the vote, beating the conservative Valerie Pécresse on 16 percent and Zemmour on 14 percent, but lose to Macron in the run-off.

Facing Macron, battling Zemmour

Appealing to hundreds of supporters waving French tricolors, Le Pen riffed on familiar themes of the decline of France, the evils of progressiveness and the forgotten French in a lengthy speech. The northeast of France is a well chosen support base because it is close to the National Rally’s rustbelt strongholds.

But she broke her flow with an unusual heart-to-heart, opening up to supporters about her unusual childhood, her absent father Jean-Marie Le Pen, being bullied at school and a failed bomb attack against her family in 1976.

“I was eight years old, there was the silence of the blast that deafens. Smoke, then voices… and the question who is dead, who is alive?” she said. “That morning, I was brutally thrown into the world of adults where everything is fragile and the evil people exist.”

Le Pen explained that her own sufferings meant that she was more sensitive to the suffering of others and better able to be in touch with the ordinary French people, and to represent them. She was interrupted several times by outbursts of clapping from the audience.

“I am ready because I have met thousands of French, I have met heads of state… you are my force and my energy,” she said.

In a bid to project herself as fit for leadership, her campaign team also aired a string of messages of support from European politicians, including Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom, Italy’s former deputy PM Matteo Salvini and Herbert Kickl, chairman of Austria’s the Freedom Party.

But at every turn in France’s election race, Le Pen faces her rival Zemmour, who is trying to prove that he is leading a more dynamic campaign than the National Rally leader. Even referencing the tribulations of her childhood is a way to try to put clear water between herself and her rival, who conspicuously refuses to be drawn on his private life. An adviser to Le Pen would only say she made her speech so personal in order to distinguish herself from unspecified “other candidates” — but it’s clear who her main target is.

Rivals for the north

In Lille, Zemmour gave a speech to thousands of supporters only a couple of hours before Le Pen and made a series of proposals to boost spending power, one of the National Rally’s key campaign themes.

In his speech, Zemmour repeatedly returned to the theme of sapped purchasing power in French households. The villains impeding family budgets were common Zemmour themes: High taxes, entrenched politicians and immigrants, immigrants and Islam. It was the last point that drew the biggest applause from the crowd.

Zemmour made a play to those who lived outside France’s major metropolitan area, expressing his love for the Hauts-de-France region and recalling an era when France’s industrial heart beat in the north. Although speaking in the major city of Lille, he saluted smaller towns like Lens, Dunkirk and Valenciennes.

“On est chez nous,” the crowd chanted repeatedly — We are at home. 

Zemmour told stories about blue-collar workers and middle-class professionals — supermarket and hospital employees got shoutouts — and proclaimed he would bring the same advantages that citizens enjoy to the rest of the country. One example Zemmour touted: Workers can get reimbursements for taking the bus or metro to work — drivers can’t.

“It’s unjust!” he declared. 

At the back of the crowd, Pierre, a retired doctor who lives near Lille, described Zemmour as a more erudite defender of the same ideas Le Pen has been promoting for years. Le Pen, he said, had become too demonized by the left and others. At this point, he said, she is too hated.

“Zemmour is more intellectual and speaks more to the bourgeois,” he said.

Conversely, at Le Pen’s rally, supporters said Le Pen’s rival bid hadn’t swayed them.

“It makes us want to support Marine Le Pen even more,” said Sylvain Cernon, a childcare worker who came with several friends from northern France. “She has been taking so many hits from Zemmour, it’s not been easy. We’ll stay loyal to her, she’s one of us.”

But many know others who have been tempted to switch allegiances.

Le Pen, for her part, has been trying to marginalize Zemmour, who has twice been convicted for inciting hatred.

“He has a couple of Nazis with him,” said Le Pen in a conversation with reporters ahead of the rally. “He needs to clear some people out. They must be kicked out without hesitation. It makes me despair that they have found a new political outlet.”   

But many within the upper ranks of the National Rally fear that while Le Pen has edged more to the mainstream, she has become part of the furniture. And that is not the best place to be ahead of an election.

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