Even Before France Votes, the French Right Is a Big Winner

The dominance of right-wing ideas in France’s presidential election campaign follows years of cultural wars waged successfully by conservatives on television, in social media and in think tanks.

PARIS — With just days to go before the first round of France’s presidential election, President Emmanuel Macron is still the odds-on favorite to make it through the political juggernaut and win a second term. But even if he does succeed, and before a single ballot is cast, another clear winner has already emerged from the race.

The French right.

Despite a late surge by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leading left-wing candidate, virtually the entire French campaign has been fought on the right and far right, whose candidates dominate the polls and whose themes and talking points — issues of national identity, immigration and Islam — have dominated the political debate. The far right has even become the champion of pocketbook issues, traditionally the left’s turf.

Mr. Macron himself has pivoted to the right so consistently to confront the challenge that there is even discussion now of whether he should be regarded as a center-right president, though he emerged from a government run by the now-moribund Socialists in 2017.

In a tightening race, the candidate he is most likely to face in a runoff two weeks from Sunday’s initial voting is Marine Le Pen, the far-right leader of the National Rally, according to polls. It would be her second consecutive appearance in the final round of the presidential election, cementing her place in the political establishment.

“The great movement to the right — that’s done, it’s over,” said Gaël Brustier, a political analyst and former adviser to left-wing politicians. “It won’t set off in the other direction for 20 years.”

Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times

Ms. Le Pen and her party for decades softened the ground for the growth of the right. But the right’s recent political ascendancy follows many years in which conservatives have successfully waged a cultural battle — greatly inspired by the American right and often adopting its codes and strategies to attract a more youthful audience.

Not only has the French right in recent months wielded the idea of “wokisme” to effectively stifle the left and blunt what it sees as the threat of a “woke culture” from American campuses. But it also has busily established a cultural presence after years with few, if any, media outlets in the mainstream.

Today the French right has burst through social barriers and is represented by its own version of a Fox-style television news channel, CNews, an expanding network of think tanks, and multiple social media platforms with a substantial and increasingly younger following.

These things “did not exist in France or were at the embryonic stage” just a few years ago, said François de Voyer, 38, a host and financial backer of Livre Noir, a year-old YouTube channel focusing on politicians on the right and far right.

“We told ourselves, ‘Let’s do like CPAC in the United States,’” said Mr. de Voyer, referring to the Conservative Political Action Conference, the annual gathering of the right wing of American politics.

So he did.

In 2019, Mr. de Voyer co-organized “The Convention of the Right,” a one-day conference that featured leading figures of the right and the far right. It constituted a political launchpad for Éric Zemmour, the TV pundit and best-selling author.

Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times

More than any other presidential hopeful, Mr. Zemmour has embodied the effects of the right’s cultural battle on the campaign.

In his best-selling books and on his daily appearances on CNews, Mr. Zemmour over a decade became a leader of the new right-wing media ecosystem that painted France as being under an existential threat by Muslim immigrants and their descendants, as well as by the importation of multicultural ideas from the United States.

Though he has now receded in the polls, to about 10 percent support, Mr. Zemmour’s meteoric rise last year captured France’s attention and ensured that the presidential campaign would be fought almost exclusively on the right’s home turf, as he successfully widened the boundaries of what was politically acceptable in France.

Mr. Zemmour brought into the mainstream a racist conspiracy theory that white Christian populations are being intentionally replaced by nonwhite immigrants, said Raphaël Llorca, a French communication expert and member of the Fondation Jean-Jaurès research institute.

The “great replacement,” as the theory is called, was later picked up as a talking point even by Valérie Pécresse, the candidate of the establishment center-right Republican Party.

Such penetration into the mainstream is the result of a decade-old organizational effort by the right.

Thibaut Monnier, a former councilor for Ms. Le Pen’s party who then joined Mr. Zemmour’s movement, said that in the mid-2010s conservatives like him set for themselves a “metapolitical” project of creating new political institutions and their own media.

Bertrand Guay/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In 2018, along with Marion Maréchal, the niece of Ms. Le Pen, 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 higher-education establishments dominated by the left.

But even as it elbowed its way into the educational establishment, the far right also succeeded in a parallel campaign to spread its ideas on social media to make itself appear attractively transgressive.

Central to Mr. Zemmour’s cultural battle has been his command 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 a younger audience. His YouTube campaign-launching video, riddled with cultural references, drew millions of viewers.

Mr. Llorca said that Mr. Zemmour had successfully waged a “battle of the cool” designed to “play down the radical content” of his ideas without ever changing their substance. He has been helped by a network of internet users who defuse with humor the violence of his extremist ideas. On Facebook and Instagram, accounts followed by tens of thousands of people frequently post lighthearted memes about Mr. Zemmour.

Mr. Zemmour has received support from far-right YouTube influencers mocking everything from feminism to veganism to trade unions. One such influencer, Papacito, whose videos sometimes reach one million views, endorsed Mr. Zemmour recently.

Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times

“Our goal is really to make a countercultural Canal+,” he told the magazine Valeurs Actuelles, referring to the entertainment TV channel that dominated the progressive cultural scene in the 1980s and 1990s. “One that is just as fun, but carrying patriotic and more reactionary ideas.”

Samuel Lafont, the head of Mr. Zemmour’s digital team, said that some 1,500 people were working to promote discussions of Mr. Zemmour on social networks and create new visuals accompanying his media appearances.

Mr. Lafont acknowledged that several independent “cells” had even been created to wage the fight on Wikipedia, which he called “an important cultural battle.”

Ms. Le Pen’s camp has often boasted about having already won the battle of ideas, pointing to how the government has even adopted some of her language, including use of the term “ensauvagement,” a racially tinged dog whistle of the far right suggesting that the nation is turning savage.

But the right’s most striking success may be the growing use in the public debate of “wokisme,” a term unknown to most French just months ago.

Data from Google shows that interest in “wokisme” emerged only in September, just as the news media began focusing on the presidential elections. It peaked in November, fueled by controversies around so-called woke ideas such as the use of nonbinary pronouns.

Nicolas Vanderbiest, a communication expert who studied the appearance of the notion online, estimated that 15 percent of the exchanges that sparked widespread controversy on French social media last year were related to “wokisme.”

Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times

“Wokisme” spread thanks to conservative publications. Le Figaro, a daily with the second largest circulation nationwide, used the term woke 417 times in its articles last year. That was about 12 times more than Le Monde, a center-left daily with the biggest readership in France.

This anti-woke movement became so powerful that Mr. Macron’s minister of national education, Jean-Michel Blanquer, launched a think tank last October meant to combat “wokisme,” telling Le Monde that “France and its youth must escape from this.” 

Though the meaning of “wokisme” was never clear, it became a catchall wielded by conservatives to blunt demands for social justice.

The French left has “allowed itself to be intimidated” by words like “wokisme,” making it nearly impossible to engage in frank discussions about racism and other social problems during the presidential race, said Sandrine Rousseau, an economist, an eco-feminist and a leader of the French Greens.

The French right has succeeded in winning the culture wars, in great part because the left has offered no alternative, Ms. Rousseau said.

“We, on the left, have shrunk back in the face of attacks from the right,” Ms. Rousseau said. “As they gradually advanced, we were afraid to lead this fight.”

Mr. Brustier, the analyst, said left-wing organizations “do not work” to produce new ideas. A few years ago, he said, he tried unsuccessfully to launch a school to train left-wing activists. “It annoyed everyone,” he said.

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