Years of anti-Muslim prejudice in France have created a climate for even more extreme political actors to enter the fray. Can established parties put the genie back in the bottle?

The announcement by the French far-right pundit Eric Zemmour that he will run for president puts an end to months of speculation by France's political and media class and even coy sashaying by the candidate himself across the country.

Set against ominous music, footage of street violence, immigrants, and women in headscarves, Zemmour had a clear pitch – he's the man to save France from the decadence afflicting the country and minorities that "oppress the majority."

"Eric Zemmour is directly targeting Islam and Muslims," says Yasser Louati, a French human rights activist leading the NGO Committee for Justice & Liberties For All.

"Zemmour wants to simplify the debate that a hostile population is invading France and that the only means of resistance is outright violence through the institutions or through the military and the police," adds Louati speaking to TRT World.

With a background in journalism, the media-savvy Zemmour, who has been convicted of inciting racial hatred, has sucked the political limelight, with media organisations lining up to platform him in a bid for higher ratings.

In that race to the bottom, Zemmour has "normalised this extreme far-right rhetoric in the mainstream which is no longer confined to the fringes of French society," says Louati.

It's not hard to see why. Zemmour, who's on the right of even the far-right of the political spectrum, has thrown the gauntlet down to the rest of the country's political class.

In August, Zemmour didn't figure in the national polls; by October, he was neck and neck with the country's other more established far-right leader Marine le Pen, polling on 16 percent.

Le Pen, who ran against Emmanuel Macron in 2017, has been widely seen as the primary challenger and threat to Macron in next year's presidential elections in April 2022.

And while some have speculated whether the pugnacious Zemmour could sideline Le Pen or cut into her popularity, that is far from certain, and the opposite may well materialise.

Zemmour's poll ratings dipped back to 14 percent in recent weeks, with Le Pen opening a clear lead heading towards 20 percent in the polls.

Zemmour's rhetoric against Islam and Muslims has had the impact of making a candidate like Le Pen seem palatable.

"Because Zemmour has no filter and is openly racist and Islamophobic and has openly pitched himself as a radical," says Louati, Le Pen has, in contrast, become "less radical, less scary, and less vulgar."

Normalising hate

The gravitational pull exerted by Zemmour on France's broader political landscape is also worrying other human rights observers.

Rayan Freschi, a legal jurist in France and a researcher at the British-based human rights organisation CAGE, chillingly predicts that Islamophobia is becoming even more normalised in the country and "will deepen in the years to come."

"Zemmour's extreme positions and constant Muslim bashing will make Le Pen's stances and Macron's Islamophobic policies look decent," says Freschi speaking to TRT World.

Earlier this year, even Le Pen, at least in public, tried to distance herself from the widely established view that she leads a party whose central platform is against Muslims and Islam leading Macron's Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin to accuse her of being "soft on Islam."

Macron's party over the past few years has incrementally ratcheted up his government's anti-Muslim policies, which has included the closure of Muslims schools, mosques, Islamic charities, organisations monitoring Islamophobia, publishing houses, and even pressuring mosques to sign a charter that forbids talking about discrimination and racism faced by the community.

While such policies reflect a conviction by Macron's governemnt that Islam and Muslims are a problem in the country, they were also aimed at heading off attempts by Le Pen to capitalise on a law and order platform.

In doing so, however, the regular drumbeat of anti-Muslim rhetoric has created the impression of a country fractured, adrift, and struggling to hold itself together.

Retired and serving military officers earlier this year warned of the "disintegration" of France, which, if not stemmed, would result in the "intervention of our active comrades in a perilous mission of protecting our civilisational values."

Following that, polls should that 58 percent of the public backed intervention by the military in the country's politics.

It is mainly against this ever-increasing polarised backdrop that a figure like Zemmour finds fertile territory to push his ideas.

Louati cautions that while Zemmour will not win the presidency, his ultimate success lies in moving the "center of gravity in French politics even further to the right."

France's traditional parties on the right and the left have increasingly sought to craft positions closer to Zemmour's and Le Pen's to maintain relevance and slow down or reverse a drift in the population towards extremist parties. However, that might not succeed, warns Louati.

"Racism has been so much part of the French political DNA that it is unable to resist the Eric Zemmour discourse. Had French institutions been staunchly anti-racist, and anti-fascist someone like Zemmour would have been unable to emerge."

Source: TRT World