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A new far-right figure may disrupt Macron's goal of being reelected president

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

French President Emmanuel Macron is trying to win a second presidential term. But he's got to beat out a list of contenders, including a new figure on the far right. Rebecca Rosman is in Paris with the story.

REBECCA ROSMAN, BYLINE: Macron came to power in 2017 after disrupting the traditional left-right model of French politics and defeating a far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen, in a runoff.

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PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON: (Non-English language spoken).

ROSMAN: Macron promised to govern from the center. But seeing his only political threat from Le Pen, he shifted to the right on many of the issues that spoke to her supporters like immigration, law and order and the need to preserve, quote-unquote, "traditional French values." By stealing from the conservative party's playbook, Macron has left the center-right party stuck with an identity crisis. Sarah Belouezzane, a reporter for Le Monde, says its presidential hopefuls are struggling to distinguish themselves.

SARAH BELOUEZZANE: Because they have to find their way between Macron and Marine Le Pen.

ROSMAN: But there is a new figure on the scene who could once again shake French politics like Macron did in 2017.

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ERIC ZEMMOUR: (Non-English language spoken).

ROSMAN: Eric Zemmour is a TV pundit and writer with no political experience, no party. And he hasn't even officially said he's running for president. But the far-right commentator is already way ahead of the others challenging Macron.

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ZEMMOUR: (Non-English language spoken).

ROSMAN: Zemmour says France is on the decline because of progressive ideas and unrestricted immigration. Pollster Mathieu Gallard of Ipsos France says Zemmour may be appealing to a part of French society that's long been in the shadows.

MATHIEU GALLARD: He has very contentious positions on immigration, on identity, on law-and-order issues and so on. And in the public opinion of France, there are many people who are very conservative on this issue.

ROSMAN: Zemmour even has his fans within the mainstream right.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

ROSMAN: At a recent rally for young members of Les Republicains, France's traditional conservative party, some people supported the idea of Zemmour running as the party's presidential candidate. Among them was 27-year-old Matthieu Louves.

MATTHIEU LOUVES: (Through interpreter) Eric Zemmour speaks the truth. No one doubts his beliefs. He's united the right with his books, TV shows, general discourse. And who's to say he can't be a presidential candidate?

ROSMAN: But most of the people I spoke to thought Zemmour was too extreme to lead the party into the 2022 election or, like Alexis Chanteloupe, thought Zemmour was an inexperienced populist.

ALEXIS CHANTELOUPE: He has never been elected, so a lot of people are going to say, like, oh, maybe he's the one. Maybe we need him. But I actually believe that there's a huge step between commenting politics and making it.

ROSMAN: Meanwhile, Macron has been polling at around 25%. That's low but still a relatively comfortable lead over all his rivals, says Le Monde's Belouezzane.

BELOUEZZANE: Everyone says the people hate Macron or he can't go for a second term. But you've seen his polls. We have that - what we call in French the (speaking French).

ROSMAN: Belouezzane says there's a reason they're called the silent majority. People like Zemmour may make for exciting headlines, she says, but for now, that majority is still with Macron.

For NPR News, I'm Rebecca Rosman in Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE AMERICAN DOLLAR'S "GHOSTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.