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Defections and division: Is France's far-right tearing itself apart?

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By Lauren Chadwick
National Rally candidate Marine Le Pen (left); Reconquer candidate Eric Zemmour (right).
National Rally candidate Marine Le Pen (left); Reconquer candidate Eric Zemmour (right).   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Michel Euler (left); AP Photo/Daniel Cole (right)

In the run-up to France's presidential election on Sunday, Euronews is publishing a story at 16:00 each day to help you better understand the race for the Elysee.

Before the latest defection from Marine Le Pen to far-right newcomer Eric Zemmour, her party accused an MEP of sending strategic information to her rival.

It's a sign of the bitter battle raging on this wing of French politics since TV pundit Zemmour entered the race to be France's next president.

He has been polling fourth and threatens to split the right-wing vote, cutting into support for Le Pen and right-wing candidate Valérie Pécresse.

Over recent weeks, several of Le Pen's National Rally (RN) politicians, in particular, have defected to Zemmour's campaign.

It's an indicator of both internal squabbles within her decades-old far-right party and hopes newcomer Zemmour could launch a more successful presidential bid.

Jérome Rivière, one of Le Pen's MEPs who joined Zemmour, told Euronews he thinks the TV pundit has a better chance of winning.

"I realised that in fact, the weight of Marine Le Pen’s name and the weight of the National Rally’s name were too much to overcome the bad reputation that the party has,” said Rivière, who previously lead the party's European parliamentary group.

Both Le Pen and Zemmour want to drastically reduce immigration and prevent immigrants from accessing social funding but have differing stances on other economic issues.

'Sabotage'

Le Pen has condemned the defections, telling Le Figaro it was behaviour that “disgusts the French” and saying she has little interest in “small political games”.

"It's coherent because they are people who since the beginning of the campaign have reproached me for defending the purchasing power of French people as a priority," she said.

The most recent elected official to leave the National Rally was Nicolas Bay, who the party accused of "sabotage" before he had the chance to defect to Zemmour's camp.

Bay, the party’s former secretary-general and vice president, said the suspension came as he called a meeting to discuss an internal party “crisis” but it had been rumoured for weeks that he could defect to Zemmour’s campaign.

In a message sent to party staff, the National Rally’s executive bureau wrote that the attempts of “a handful of people to destabilise (the party) cannot taint the work carried out every day by elected officials and the movement’s staff”.

Those who have left include four MEPs, one Senator, a local elected official and Le Pen's own niece Marion Maréchal Le Pen, who is widely expected to join Zemmour's campaign.

Le Pen told cable channel CNews in January that the choice of her niece not to support her in 2022 was "brutal, it's violent, it's difficult for me."

Bay announced on Thursday that he would join Zemmour's campaign, saying Le Pen had destabilised her voters by changing views on a range of issues.

He said that the accusations of sending strategic information to Zemmour were false and that he had filed a complaint for defamation.

Jean-Yves Camus, the Director of the Observatory of Radical Politics at the Jean Jaurès Foundation, said that among some National Rally politicians, there's a sentiment that this is the third time that Le Pen has run for the presidency and that Zemmour has more of a winning appeal.

Despite Zemmour likely facing a massive defeat in the election's second round if he finishes in the top two, some think he has a better chance of unifying the right-wing, Camus said.

Regional electoral defeat

Rivière claims that the National Rally's inability to win a single region in last year's regional elections influenced his choice to leave the party.

Far-right candidate Thierry Mariani suffered a defeat in the southern region of Provence-Alpes-Côte-d'Azur to the mainstream right-wing incumbent as the opposition rallied together against him.

"Mariani was coming from the former (mainstream) Les Républicains party like myself, had a profile that should appeal to the right-wing, broad base electorate. But he did not win despite his best effort," Rivière said.

Le Pen has worked for years to bring her movement into the mainstream with a campaign to "un-demonise" the National Rally, including changing the name of the political party her father Jean-Marie Le Pen founded.

She expelled the senior Le Pen from the party in 2015 over his controversial views that included downplaying the Holocaust.

But after the regional defeat in the south, many party members said the effort did not work.

MEP Gilbert Collard, who has since defected to Zemmour's campaign, called the effort to un-demonise the party a "trap" following the regional election.

Le Pen's effort has influenced the party's performance, according to polls, with her likely to get a much higher percentage of votes in a second-round against Macron, Camus says.

But that effort to bring the party into the mainstream "won't mean she can pass the 50% threshold," he added.

'A reshuffling of the playing field'

Rivière, who was reported to have had disagreements with the leaders of the RN, has become a spokesperson for Zemmour and says his candidacy is changing the election.

"It's fully reshuffled the playing field because suddenly we have a different offer, much closer to all of the subjects that I've been fighting for," Rivière said.

He's called Le Pen too left-wing on social-economic issues, including retirement. She has previously been in favour of lowering the retirement age to 60, though now she has specified that it would only apply to people who started working early. Zemmour wants to raise the retirement age to 64.

Erwan Lecoeur, an expert on France's far-right, told Franceinfo last week that it was unheard of to have 30% of voting intentions in the first round going to the far-right.

"This is the first time that there are really two important candidates on the right of the right," he said.

Le Pen has said that there are stark differences between their two campaigns including that Zemmour isn't "interested in social questions". She says that in her view there is no "war of religion" either.

Zemmour, on the other hand, supports a far-right conspiracy theory that non-Europeans will replace Europeans through massive immigration.

Les Républicains candidate Valérie Pécresse drew heavy criticism after mentioning the same conspiracy theory in a large campaign event on Sunday.

French anti-racist organisation SOS Racisme condemned her use of the term, saying the presidential debate had collapsed into "mediocrity, irrationality and violence" under the influence of the extreme right, in a statement published in several French newspapers.

The theory was referenced in the manifesto of the terrorist who killed 51 people in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand in 2019.

Members of her party were quick to clarify that there is no "great replacement" in which immigrants are changing the demographics of Europe, trying to once again separate the right-wing party from the far-right.

Her party has also had several defections to both Zemmour's campaign and to incumbent President Emmanuel Macron.

For the moment, the three right-wing candidates are now neck-and-neck in the polls, around 10 points behind Macron who has branded himself as a centrist.

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