Minutes after the end of French presidential hopeful Valérie Pécresse’s Paris rally earlier this month, an uncharitable cartoon started to circulate among the WhatsApp and Telegram groups of the candidate’s own Les Républicains (LR) party. It showed a Titanic-like ocean liner sinking in the night among ice floes, while hundreds of marooned passengers, heads bobbing just above the freezing water, held up their smartphones to take snaps of the disaster.

Three weeks ago, Pécresse polled as a possible runoff winner (52-48%) against incumbent Emmanuel Macron. But the leaders of LR, the latest iteration of the party of Charles de Gaulle, Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, are painfully aware that if their candidate ends up not clearing the first-round hurdle, they might find themselves paddling unrescued in an ice-cold sea. In recent weeks, we have witnessed the complete disintegration of the historic French Left — could the centre-Right go the same way?

The thing to know about France’s traditional political parties, whether on the Left and Right, is that they are all a pit of voles. Not for nothing is Astérix the Gaul author René Goscinny’s other great comics series, Le Grand Vizir Iznogoud, all about a poisonous, pocket-sized Vizier in medieval Baghdad, hopelessly plotting to seize power from his boss, the benign Caliph — and being endlessly foiled, à la Wile E. Coyote.

The Iznogoud series has been translated, but unlike Astérix never achieved much success outside France. Yet here it is accepted as the other half of Goscinny’s essential civilisational portrait of French society. It was included by shrewd aides in the context briefing notes handed to Angela Merkel before her first meeting with Nicolas Sarkozy (who happens to share Iznogoud’s diminutive stature, raging ambition, and notoriously volcanic temper). “Je veux être Calife à la place du Calife!” — the irate Iznogoud’s leitmotiv is a classic of corporate as well as party politics. Indeed, it has become the shorthand used in almost any fractious work situation, from primary school bureaucracies to the competing factions of the French Catholic Church, most recently seen locked in a deadly but discreet battle over the restoration of Notre-Dame Cathedral.

That this usually ends in self-destruction ­— sometimes quasi-annihilation, as evidenced with the 2% polling estimates currently scored by the Socialist candidate, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo — doesn’t stop anyone. (A new documentary chronicling the decline of the French Socialist Party since the 14-year François Mitterrand monarchic presidency is called La Disparition for a reason.) Le Team Spirit is no staple of French politics.

At the big rally that had imprudently been billed as “make or break”, every Républicain grandee, starting with the Sarkozy entourage, started slamming Pécresse — thereby fuelling the most negative media coverage of anyone in the campaign to date. Her delivery was wooden, the décor dwarfed her, her speech was both “bureaucratic” and “inflammatory” (she named, seeming to decry it, Le Grand Remplacement theory, a Zemmour staple alleging indigenous French populations are being replaced by immigrants). Her voice coach, a highly respected stage actor, was named and shamed on Twitter. By midweek, post-rally polls projected Pécresse in fourth position (14%) for the first round on 10 April, after Emmanuel Macron (25%), Marine Le Pen (17%) and Eric Zemmour (15%). By Friday morning, one poll had Pécresse as low as 12%.

One way of looking at this election is to dismiss it as the predictable Second Coronation of Emmanuel Macron. The “Schrödinger candidate” has yet to declare formally that he is running, protesting that he hasn’t quite made up his mind yet, even though fundraising emails have already gone out in the name of his party, La République en Marche (LREM), to hundreds of thousands of email addresses collected five years ago, and constantly updated. If Macron wins the 24 April runoff, he will have broken the curse of the last three presidential elections, where no incumbent gets a second term.

Seeing her as the most dangerous candidate, Macron’s spin doctors were no slouches when it came to trashing Pécresse, with discreet sexist jabs. The French at large have no problem voting for women politicians; it’s politicians themselves, largely male, who block female promotion, all the while protesting the opposite. Look at the all-male, all-white core of Emmanuel Macron’s Élysée Cabinet and Spads; the clone-like thirtysomethings in narrow bespoke suits who all look like their boss and are right now in the process of resigning from their current jobs to join his non-campaign.

Apart from his wife Brigitte, the President’s first circle contains no women. The ones in his Cabinet are either sidelined, like the transparent Defence Minister, Florence Parly; novelty appointments like the erotic novelist Marlène Schiappa as Minister Delegate for Citizenship; or nose-on-the-grindstone drones who get replaced when they burn out.

Meanwhile, the President did presidential things, with varying degrees of success. His would-be shuttle diplomacy between Moscow and Kyiv, talked up by his staff, achieved nothing except to convince Vladimir Putin that France would, as usual, play a divisive game rather than push for European unity against Moscow. There was a performative One Ocean Summit hastily convened at Brest earlier this month, to burnish Macron’s green credentials and provide a superpower photo-op (albeit without Putin, Biden, Boris Johnson or Xi Jinping). Tax rebates, “social bonuses” — €100 for all State pensioners in March, for instance — and deferments are generously being granted, even though the National Court of Accounts has formally warned of France’s ballooning debt.

Make no mistake: Macron is running — and his dream opponent is Marine Le Pen. He trashed her back in 2017 in their only campaign debate, and expects to do so again, this time with one hand behind his back. In the past five years, she has worked on making her renamed National Rally party seem more acceptable — backtracking on remarks about France’s history; about Islam, which she pointedly differentiates from Islamism; and about the Euro (which she no longer wants to leave). This is all music to Macron’s ears: dressed up as a Centrist, he’s confident she can’t really compete on his turf.

So are members of her own National Rally. The result has been an exodus to Éric Zemmour’s Reconquête !. So far, a dozen or so Lepénistes, including influential local grandees, have splashily joined Zemmour. Each arrival is staged with viral social media videos in which le Z himself — who knows them all from his three decades as a political journalist — greets them with a huge smile and much backslapping in front of his rue Jean-Goujon campaign headquarters, half a mile from the Élysée Palace.

There’s a feeling of a chicken being methodically plucked prior to becoming a Poule au Pot. The biggest prize could be within reach: Marion Maréchal, Marine’s own niece. Maréchal — who was elected France’s youngest MP in history, aged 22, in 2012, but stepped back from politics five years ago — has said she agrees more with Zemmour’s ideas than her aunt’s. If she formally joins Reconquête !, Zemmour only needs to turn on the hob under the pot, and add leeks, carrots and onions.

Until the end of last week, Le Pen was still leading the polls behind Macron, but the momentum and the money were tilting to Zemmour’s side. (Le Pen had to get a loan from a Russian-influenced Budapest bank just to keep her campaign afloat, while Reconquête ! is currently garnering so many small and big cheques that many have not yet been cashed). On Friday afternoon a Paris-Match/IFOP poll showed Zemmour at 16.5%, just ahead of Le Pen (16) and Pecresse (15), while Macron led at 25%.

Zemmour’s rallies are packed, modelled on Donald Trump’s in 2016; like Trump’s, videos showing the long lines waiting for admittance swamp social media even before the start of the speeches. In two months, Reconquête ! passed its 100,000th member : Zemmour promises to personally cook an Aligot — a traditional Auvergnat recipe of potatoes, melted cheese, butter and cream — for the 150,000th.

If this sounds unexpectedly Instagram-worthy for French politics, it’s because Zemmour’s social media and internet team is entirely made up of enthusiastic digital natives, led by a 32-year-old former LR parliamentary assistant, Samuel Lafont. Lafont, who spent time observing US politicians, can unerringly quote ads and videos from Trump to Ted Cruz. He boasts of being able to deploy 1,500 eager, young volunteers across France to “flood the zone” with graphics, tweets, videos and TikToks. He tells me: “Where the Pécresse team has produced perhaps ten visuals, all carefully edited and checked to fit her campaign’s approved graphic design, we’ve sent out a thousand. Who cares if they don’t exactly match?”

Few, even Donald Trump, believed America’s 2016 election upset would happen. The result may not work out that way for Team Zemmour (although many old-time Paris pollsters like the legendary Stéphane Rozès or OpinionWay vice-president Bruno Jeambart have questioned whether his figures have been underestimated). But one month after the presidential elections will come the legislative ones, and a defeated and scattered French Right will be ripe for what Zemmour and his backers have been calling for from the start: a shift in the tectonic plates from the post-Pécresse Républicains all the way to Reconquête !, leaving the French centre to survive out at sea, heads bobbing just above the waterline in the icy night.

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