PARIS – The nationalist French presidential candidate Éric Zemmour has captured international attention with his anti-immigration stance and talk of “le grand remplacement” — the idea that the French are being demographically and culturally displaced by non-European peoples. What has received less attention is the broadcaster-turned-candidate’s disproportionate appeal to men, which not only has implications for the election but raises timely questions about the relationship between nationalism and gender — not just in France, but more widely.
The gender gap in support for Zemmour is larger than that of any other candidate, according to a recent report by the Fondation Jean-Jaurès, a think tank associated with the French Socialist Party. That includes the other nationalist candidate, Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Rally.
This gap is visible in polls, such as one for Le Monde published on 18 December, which found a gender gap of 7 percentage points for Zemmour. It was even larger in the under-35 age group, where 21 per cent of men intend to vote for him, compared with just 4 per cent of women, giving a gender gap of 17 points. Emmanuel Macron has roughly the same support among women as among men, and Le Pen in fact has slightly more support from women.
Zemmour’s appeal is part of a wider pattern: in many countries the far right is more popular among men. In an academic article published in 2004, the American political scientist Terri Givens termed this the “radical right gender gap”. In Poland, for example, where I was previously based, the far-right nationalist Confederation is disproportionately supported by men, specifically young men.
Researchers are studying what causes this gap, but part of it seems to be a deliberate appeal by far-right parties to male voters. In a 2018 article for the Guardian entitled “Why is the far right dominated by men?”, Cas Mudde, a Dutch specialist on political extremism, noted that “many radical right parties espouse a strongly gendered discourse, in which they appeal to a frail masculinity, threatened by emasculating feminists, effeminate liberals, and overly virile ‘Others’”.
Back to Zemmour, who not only has a history of inciting racial hatred and hate against Muslims, but whose record on women is problematic. Since he set out to run for president, the French press has dug up misogynist comments made by him in the past, including in his 2006 book Le Premier Sexe (The First Sex), a response to Simone de Beauvoir’s landmark feminist book The Second Sex, in which he complains of the “feminisation” or “devirilisation” of society. This has been picked up by voters: in a poll published on 9 December, six out of ten of respondents said they considered Zemmour “misogynist” or “sexist towards women”. In another poll, two-thirds of women said they would be worried about their rights if he were elected president.
Zemmour has done little to appeal to women. While researching this article, I came across a website called “Les femmes avec Zemmour” (Women with Zemmour), along with related Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts, which feature photos of women posing with Zemmour paraphernalia — or the man himself. In a video with the caption “Many mothers support Éric Zemmour” posted on its Facebook page on 10 January, a handful of women explain why they support him. “As a mother, I support Éric Zemmour as he does not wish to give up France’s intellectual greatness,” says one woman. “I do not want my granddaughters to wear a veil one day,” says another.
Yet the website and social media accounts have a slapdash feel to them. The website consists only of a form where visitors can sign up to the Zemmour newsletter, and the Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts each had fewer 7,000 followers at the time of writing — hardly a strong following.
The Zemmour gender gap echoes that of Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who ran for president five times, most recently in 2007. Yet the National Rally’s image has changed since his daughter took over: she was viewed as having successfully closed the “radical right gender gap” in France (until Zemmour came along). Firstly, she is a woman herself. Secondly, she has sought to soften her father’s old party’s image, potentially making it more palatable to a wider range of voters. Finally, she has courted women directly to get their votes, giving questions of immigration and integration — typical far-right nationalist territory — a gender spin.
Her party’s website features a women-focused pamphlet produced for the European Parliament elections in 2019. The cover depicts a woman wearing shorts and, beneath it, the words “Will French women still be able to dress as they please tomorrow?” After a smattering of thoughts on subjects from the gender pay gap to the veil, the pamphlet ends with a picture of a smiling Le Pen expressing her concern about what she calls “silent attacks” on women’s rights.
With the first round of the presidential election on 10 April rapidly approaching, it is too late for Zemmour to shed his misogynist image, which seems likely to limit his appeal. A poll published this week put him in third place, with 16 per cent support behind Macron (26 per cent) and Le Pen (16.5 per cent), and only narrowly ahead of Valérie Pécresse of the Republicans (15 per cent). That means that he is unlikely to make it into the second round runoff on 24 April, and his loss could well be Le Pen’s gain.