As the first turn of the French presidential election on April 10th comes closer, two far-right candidates have drawn all the attention: Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour. This article argues that their approach toward French-speaking Maghreb countries (Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco) is symptomatic of the difference between a “normalized” and an always more radical far right: while Le Pen seeks to position herself as a serious and pragmatic international partner, Eric Zemmour risks credibility by focusing on resentment about the Algerian war of independence and on the “decline of French” civilization caused by the “migrative invasion” from Muslim North-Africans.
The upcoming French presidential election on April 10th has seen the uprising of two far-right candidates: Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour. Emmanuel Macron seems in a strong position to win the election – but Le Pen and Zemmour have managed to place subjects like immigration, French “identity” and the “Great replacement” at the heart of public debate. Though some similarities exist between them, differences in their speeches, interviews, and diplomatic programs, and especially the way they picture France’s relation with French-speaking Maghreb countries reflect their contrasts and oppositions (see Le Pen’s program and Zemmour’s program). Le Pen’s attempts to hide her extremist views behind a more moderate labelling are simply an effort to claim credibility, rather than a substantive ideological shift away from views also held by Zemmour, this blog contribution argues.
Le Pen and Zemmour: two sides of the same coin?
At first sight, one could argue that both candidates’ foreign affairs programs are very similar. Both Le Pen and Zemmour despise multilateralism and international organizations and argue for France’s exit from NATO’s integrated command in line with a policy of international non-alignment. They value ultraconservative dictators like Vladimir Putin, who is a generous funder of Le Pen’s Rassemblement National and an inspiration for Eric Zemmour. However, while both Le Pen’s and Zemmour’s programs revolve around xenophobic discourses of religion and immigration, deemed by both candidates as the greatest danger for the survival of France’s cultural identity, they have a different approach on these subjects.
Marine Le Pen, who is a candidate for the third time in a row and the strongest opponent to President Emmanuel Macron, has sought to “normalize” her party in the last years. In contrast to the party founded by Marine’s father Jean-Marie, which focused on racist and nationalist arguments, Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National party has shifted its discourse toward the populist defense of French “patriots” marginalized by an unfair globalization. In the process, explicitly xenophobic themes have been pushed more to the background, however, these are still very much present in Le Pen’s program, so the party’s far-right ideology should not be forgotten. Eric Zemmour, on the other hand, is much closer to Jean-Marie Le Pen’s ideas. His speeches focus on the “defense” of French civilization and on the “dangers” of Islam; he claims for instance that Human Rights are an ideology used by Leftists to cause the demise of French national identity through the “Islamization” of France. Zemmour’s strategy of constant radicalization contrasts with Le Pen’s “normalization”. But how are these differences exemplified in the far-right candidates’ visions of France’s foreign policy, and especially concerning Maghreb countries, which have historically strong ties to France?
The French far right and Maghreb: Morocco as a valuable partner and Algeria as an eternal feud
Concerning Maghreb countries, both see in the authoritarian Moroccan monarchy a key partner in the fight against “Islamism”, but their relations to Algeria are much more complicated for historical reasons. The French far-right’s deep distrust of the Algerian Republic is mainly rooted in the Algerian War of Independence, an eight-year long war waged against France and culminating in Algeria’s independence in 1962. The far right, through the Organisation de l’Armée Secrète (OAS), a group of French nationalist officers, and through Occident or Ordre Nouveau, opposed Algeria’s independence and tried to orchestrate a coup against the French Republic to continue the war. It is therefore no surprise than Le Pen and Eric Zemmour both criticize Macron’s policy of recognizing war crimes perpetrated by the French state as “self-hatred” and repentance. If either one was elected, France’s relationship with Maghreb countries would be overtly conflictual: fewer visas would be given and the crackdown on French Islam would surely upset Maghreb countries.
Beyond similarities: Le Pen’s African “normalization”
Despite similarities, this parallel falls too short for two main reasons: Le Pen’s African connections and her surge for “normalization”. Over time, the Le Pen family was able to build a small but significant network of like-minded entrepreneurs and presidents on the African continent, which eventually funded its presidential campaigns. Furthermore, Marine Le Pen has developed a rather complete diplomatic program ranging from a new beginning for the Francophonie (a loose association of French-speaking countries) to the fight against terrorism in Northern Africa: the Rassemblement National has used its ties to Africa to strengthen its image as a credible diplomatic force – should Le Pen win the election. Although the fear of uncontrolled immigration coming from Maghreb countries is still very present, Le Pen has therefore diversified and above all “normalized” her program concerning (Northern) Africa.
Eric Zemmour is moving in the opposite direction. His past as a controversial journalist has shaped his undiplomatic and often explicitly racist discourse. Passionate about French history and revisionism, which he uses as a tool of legitimization for his assertions, he defended the colonization of Algeria and of Maghreb by France. General Bugeaud, guilty of numerous war crimes during the conquest of Algeria in the late 19th century, is depicted by Zemmour as a peace bringer in a miserable, dangerous country full of Muslim terrorists. Zemmour’s self-proclaimed aim is not to propose a clear program on international affairs, but to warn against the decline of French civilization caused by the „Great Replacement“ of “true French” by North-African Muslim “invaders”. His solutions are hardly applicable as he wants to discuss with Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco about the “remigration” of one million immigrants – which means flying “immigrants” back to their “homeland” (although a vast majority of these people are French), a popular theme inside the far-right Identarian movement. His focus on Islam and immigration as the main causes of the French decline have led Jordan Bardella, spokesperson of the Rassemblement National, to name Zemmour’s program as “demagogical” – a cynical and hypocritical posture symptomatic for the clash between two sides of the far right.
Discursive shift or meaningful programmatic difference?
It seems Zemmour’s constant radicalization has made him lose the battle for credibility before the election, as the case of his Maghreb-policy shows it. Recent polls document his slow decline: with voting intentions around 18% when he announced he was running for President two months ago, he is now stuck around 10% of support, while Marine Le Pen climbed up to 20% and is in a good position to challenge Macron on the second turn of the election on April 24th. Zemmour bet on radicalization to challenge Le Pen’s hegemony at the far-right; this strategy made him lose not only voters but also international credibility. Nonetheless, both candidates’ diplomatic programs show one thing: Le Pen’s and Zemmour’s opposition comes down to the Rassemblement National’s discursive shift away from polemic outings, and not to a fundamental ideological opposition. Le Pen’s program stays firmly rooted on far-right ground and should not make us naively expect a peaceful relationship between France and Maghreb if she is elected.