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Far-right French commentator Eric Zemmour is garnering a lot of attention.ERIC GAILLARD/Reuters

French presidential races are usually full of surprises.

The previous two, in 2012 and 2017, resulted in outcomes no one would have predicted six months before the vote. And the 2022 race has already produced its share of rebondissements, or plot twists, as a dozen or more official and unofficial candidates jockey for position.

No potential candidate for the Élysée Palace is garnering more attention right now than Éric Zemmour, an essayist and ex-cable news host who spouts incendiary views about immigration, Islam and France’s collaborationist past. His rivals fear that Mr. Zemmour is not just another grande gueule, or big mouth, but a real threat.

Mr. Zemmour, who has called for the deportation of two million immigrants and banning “non-French” first names, was previously fined by a French court for “provoking racial hatred” and faces yet more charges of the sort. But that has only seemed to encourage him, as his fans clamour for him to officially enter the race.

Support for Mr. Zemmour has doubled in the past month to between 13 per cent and 15 per cent, according to polls released in recent days, putting him within striking distance of knocking National Rally leader Marine Le Pen off the ballot in the first round of next spring’s vote.

Only the top two first-round finishers go on to a second-ballot runoff election. Polls shows incumbent President Emmanuel Macron, who has yet to officially announce that he is running, leading on the first ballot with about 24 per cent of the vote. But, depending on who makes it on to the second ballot, he is not assured of victory.

Mr. Macron would prefer to face off against Ms. Le Pen on the second ballot, as he did in 2017, when he won 66 per cent of the vote to her 34 per cent. Voters from across the spectrum rallied behind Mr. Macron, a former Socialist who created his own political party to launch his presidential bid, to prevent the far-right Ms. Pen from getting anywhere near the Élysée.

Since then, Ms. Le Pen’s strategy to “detoxify” the NR brand has produced mixed results. She has markedly toned down her anti-immigration rhetoric and now talks more about protecting working-class jobs and pensions than deporting migrants. Her attempts to project a softer image have not gone over well with hardcore NR supporters, however, who accuse her of abandoning them.

Into this breach has stepped Mr. Zemmour. Long a fixture of the French chattering classes, the articulate 63-year-old essayist rose to national prominence thanks to his perch as the host of his own show on CNews, France’s version of Fox News. He recently lost that gig amid speculation that he was preparing to launch a presidential bid. But he no longer needed the exposure, anyway.

In recent weeks, Mr. Zemmour’s face has been splashed across magazine covers and billboards everywhere across France as he promotes his new book, La France n’a pas dit son dernier mot (France has not said its last word). He even made the cover of Paris Match, which showed him frolicking in the sea with a 28-year-old aide.

Observers noted that Ms. Le Pen had never made the cover of the gossip magazine, best known for its glossy photo spreads of French movie stars and aristocrats. Many concluded it was a sign that Mr. Zemmour’s political appeal extends beyond the far right to bourgeois voters on the traditional French right. After all, he favours free-market economic policies more in line with those advanced by the centre-right Les Républicains party than the populist ones promoted by the National Rally.

That makes Mr. Zemmour a threat not only for Ms. Le Pen, but for Xavier Bertrand, who is favoured to become the presidential candidate for Les Républicains. Mr. Bertrand quit the party in 2017 but has indicated he would be willing to return – as long as members agree to crown him as their candidate at a December convention.

Polls show that Mr. Zemmour has drained support almost equally from both Ms. Le Pen and Mr. Bertrand. All three are now neck-and-neck, suggesting any one of them could secure a spot on the second ballot in May.

While a divided opposition may appear to work in Mr. Macron’s favour, it could also complicate his path to re-election, as he fends off attacks from three rivals on the right and several candidates on the left and far-left. The President, who had previously ignored Mr. Zemmour, last week took a swipe at the former CNews host, saying France’s identity was not built on first names, a reference to Mr. Zemmour’s contention that “naming one’s child Mohamed amounts to colonizing France.”

Suddenly, the prospect of a Macron-Zemmour second-ballot battle no longer seemed so far-fetched.

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