FREJUS, France â€” Marine Le Pen hit out at Emmanuel Macron on Sunday and sought to tamp down talk that controversial TV star Eric Zemmour is stealing her thunder on the far right as she launched her third bid for the French presidency.
Le Pen told her far-right National Rally members in the seaside town of FrÃ©jus, southern France, that she would be the â€œpresident of French freedomsâ€ after the COVID-19 pandemic, accusing Macron of ushering in â€œa society of surveillance and policingâ€ when he imposed a pass to show proof of immunity to visit many venues in France.
â€œThe government has deepened a divide between two Frances, either by design or by its method [of governing], as if there werenâ€™t enough splits in the country,â€ she told a gathering of MPs, councilors and other party officials.
Le Pen and Macron are predicted to face off in the presidential election next April, with polls currently suggesting she would lose to Macron in a run-off vote.
But journalist-turned-TV celebrity Zemmour has emerged as a new potential challenger for Le Pen, courting far-right voters with the promise of a no-holds-barred approach to immigration and Islam. While he has yet to officially declare his candidacy, Zemmourâ€™s presidential ambitions are an open secret in France, threatening to split the far-right electorate, with polls suggesting he would get up to 8 percent of the vote.
The pundit has been convicted several times for inciting hate speech and his anti-liberal rhetoric on identity politics, immigration and gender regularly sparks controversy. And yet even his opponents admit he has captured something of the current zeitgeist in France.
Speaking to reporters before the rally, Le Pen dismissed Zemmour as â€œa third manâ€ trend that often grips the media during presidential elections.
She conceded, however, that Zemmour could damage her prospects if he does enter the race. â€œIf his candidacy goes all the way, it could stop me from [overtaking Macron] in the first round,â€ she said.
Le Penâ€™s strategy of trying to give her party more mainstream appeal and court conservative voters has been questioned since the National Rally saw disappointing results in regional elections in June. But there were few signs she was going to change tack at Sundayâ€™s launch.
On stage, Le Pen also formally handed over the presidency of the party to her righthand man, 26-year-old Jordan Bardella, to focus on her campaign.
Zemmour on tour
Behind the scenes, many within the National Rally confide that Zemmourâ€™s ambitions have already upset the campaign.
â€œThey are very nervous,â€ said one National Rally party insider. â€œThe leadership talks about him all the time. Le Penâ€™s image is a bit stale and they are worried his bid could scupper her chances.â€
Next week, the TV pundit is set to launch a tour for his book â€œFrance hasnâ€™t said its Last Word,â€ a tell-all about French politics, and has several rallies planned in conference centers in the south of France. Â
â€œZemmourâ€™s campaign is starting to take off and looks more and more credible,â€ said a former National Rally campaign manager. â€œEven though the people around him are very much a motley crewâ€.
â€œWith Zemmour, the campaign will be eventful. He is a great talker,â€ the former campaign manager added. â€œAnd itâ€™s guaranteed political debates will be more authentic.â€
His fans also appear to be more active online than Le Penâ€™s supporters.
â€œWithout a doubt, Zemmour is winning the match,â€ said VÃ©ronique Reille Soult, a social media analyst. â€œA lot of people support him and while individually they donâ€™t have that many followers, they are very active.â€
Reille Soult said her analysis of recent social media activity shows there were 50 percent more posts about Zemmour than about Le Pen in the last month. And while posts donâ€™t necessarily show support, they show interest.
Pushing back against Zemmour is a difficult task for Le Pen, who doesnâ€™t want to antagonize voters who share her ideas. In a recent interview with Le Figaro, Le Pen said she didnâ€™t have any â€œadversaries among those who believe in France.â€
But some close to Le Pen also see a potential advantage to having Zemmour in the running, especially if heâ€™s knocked out of the first round of voting and his supporters must decide between Le Pen and Macron.
â€œThereâ€™s no reason why it couldnâ€™t be an advantage for Marine Le Pen,â€ said the former campaign manager. â€œIt creates a reserve of votes for her. Zemmour attracts people who are worried about [the future] of French civilization and Marine Le Pen is not strong on this issue.â€
The path to the ElysÃ©e is also a difficult one for candidates who do not have the support of a party behind them. Building a campaign team from scratch and raising funds alone could ultimately compel Zemmour to pull out at the last minute, insiders say.
Speaking Saturday on TV channel France 2, Zemmour said he believed â€œMarine Le Pen would never win, and everyone in the National Rally knows it.â€
â€œI think the French see that, and she knows it, and today a vote for Marine Le Pen is a vote for Macron. Because thatâ€™s what he is hoping for â€” to face her again [in the election] and beat her,â€ he said.