Two men; two completely different visions for France.
In a debate that lasted more than two hours, the hard-left presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the hard-right Éric Zemmour, expected to be a presidential candidate, went head to head on prime-time television on Thursday evening.
The much-publicised clash featured mentions of gulags, Mao, Stalin, pizzas and couscous in a verbal slugging match that Mélenchon had said he hoped would not be “a cockfight”. In the end, it was.
Mélenchon, the leader of La France Insoumise (Unbowed France) vaunted the merits of what he called “créolisation”, which he described as the idea in which “human beings come together and create something in common”.
Zemmour, a political essayist, writer and TV pundit, hammered home his trademark themes: immigration, opposition to Islam, the ethno-nationalist Great Replacement Theory and a plan to ban “non-French” given names.
Islam is “incompatible” with the Republic’s motto “liberty, equality, fraternity”, Zemmour said. The French “feel colonised … and have an existential fear of disappearing”. Lawlessness in the country was “a jihad … a war being waged against us, a war of civilisations, a war of looting, a war of theft, a war of rape and a war of murder,” the political writer added.
Mélenchon accused Zemmour of having a “stunted vision of France” and being “a danger for our country”. “There are many of us and we will not let you drive out Muslims, Monsieur Zemmour,” he said. “You are a racist and you’ve been convicted as such.”
“Aren’t you ashamed?” he asked.
“No, not all,” Zemmour replied.
Zemmour said he would limit social security benefits, Mélenchon said he would increase them “including for foreign families” and raise the minimum wage for good measure.
Mélenchon said he was more interested in the environment and climate crisis and would drop nuclear power. “Life has taught me that it is dangerous,” he said. Zemmour responded that France’s nuclear production that supplies 75% of electricity in the country was to be praised. “He wants to save the planet, I just want to save France,” he said.
And so it continued. One of the rare subjects both agreed on was that France should pull out of Nato. That, and the fact they were not going to be called to order by the television journalists trying to keep the debate on track. The debate was a hit for BFMTV, which recorded 3.8 million viewers for the debate.
The Moroccan-born Mélenchon, who ran in the 2012 presidential election and again in 2017 when he came a respectable fourth in the first round against a field of 11 candidates, has already announced he will be standing again next April.
Zemmour, born in France to a Jewish-Algerian family of French nationality that came to France during the Algerian war, has yet to officially declare his candidature, but supporters have already started canvassing the country’s mayors for the 500 signatures necessary to stand. If he does, he will be trawling in the same pool of voters as the far-right Rassemblement National candidate, Marine Le Pen.
Opinion polls suggest neither man will be collecting the keys to the Élysée Palace next spring. Currently, the most predicted outcome is a Macron-Le Pen second-round runoff as in 2017. Still, seven months is an eternity in French politics.