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An increasingly bitter fight between far-right doyenne Marine Le Pen and acid-tongued media pundit Eric Zemmour is shaking up France’s presidential election race and casting the issue of immigration to the heart of campaigning.

Over the last month, Le Pen has lost her almost monopoly grip over the far-right which she has enjoyed since taking over from her father as head of the National Front party in 2011.

Pundit-turned-politician Zemmour, an ultra-nationalist with several convictions for racist hate speech, has stolen much of her thunder since emerging as a more radical challenger in the same political space.

A shock poll on Wednesday measuring voter sympathies ahead of next April’s election showed Zemmour eclipsing Le Pen for the first time.

“A candidate has never been known to experience such a change in voter intentions in so short a space of time as we’ve seen with Eric Zemmour,” pollster Antoine Gautier from Harris Interactive commented on the results of the survey.

Some 17-18 percent of people polled said they would vote for Zemmour in the first round scheduled for April 10 next year, up from 7.0 percent at the start of September, compared with 15-16 percent for Le Pen.

That score would be enough for Zemmour to qualify for the second round run-off vote where he would face President Emmanuel Macron, who was shown winning the contest by a margin of 55 percent to 45 percent.

Analysts stress the election remains highly unpredictable and the final line up of candidates is still unknown, with Zemmour himself yet to formally announce his bid.

But the poll, published in Challenges magazine, is likely to lend further momentum to Zemmour’s anti-immigration, anti-Islam campaign which has been boosted by exhaustive media coverage and interviews over the last month.

– ‘Intellectual Trump’ –

Zemmour, who is of Algerian Jewish origin, views France as slipping towards a civil war and he is an open advocate of the “great replacement” theory which posits that white Europeans are being replaced by immigrants.

In his best-selling books and regular appearances on television, the 63-year-old casts the future as a battle between France’s Christian traditions and the culture of Muslim newcomers who he has described as “colonisers”.

Speaking to journalists on Monday night after a sold-out debate show at a conference hall in Paris, Zemmour put his popularity down to his ability to connect with the concerns of regular people.

“I think many French people were waiting for this message, that someone speaks to them about France, about how they feel: that the country is in danger of dying, subverted by an unprecedented wave of migration, that whole areas of the country have become enclaves of foreign Islamists,” he said.

One of his policy suggestions is to force parents to give their children French-sounding first names.

Philippe Corcuff, a left-leaning French political scientist who has recently published a book on the far-right, views Zemmour as more dangerous than Marine Le Pen and a sort of “intellectual Trump”.

“If he gets to the second round, he has a better chance (than Le Pen) against Emmanuel Macron,” Corcuff said, explaining how Zemmour was considered more mainstream than Le Pen thanks to his long career as a journalist for right-wing Le Figaro newspaper and his TV career.

“He is more on the far right than Marine Le Pen, but he is considered more respectable on the right,” said Corcuff from the Institute of Political Studies in Lyon.

Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti blamed the media this week for focusing on Zemmour, while Socialist candidate Anne Hidalgo said his rise made her “disgusted to the point of nausea”.

– ‘Brutality’ –

Zemmour’s surge has left Le Pen struggling to respond.

Over the years, she has sought to distance herself from her firebrand father and reposition the party — since rebranded the National Rally (RN) — as a mainstream nationalist group.

She initially sought to ignore Zemmour’s challenge, and privately urged him to step aside.

“Eric, you’ll get three percent and you won’t stop me from making it to the second round,” she told Zemmour, according to his new book.

Le Pen’s low-key grassroots campaigning has been overshadowed by the pundit’s media blitz over the last month that has seen him feature daily on France’s biggest TV and radio shows.

“Apart from a form of brutality, what is he offering in terms of solutions?” Le Pen said of Zemmour in an interview at the weekend that signalled a more aggressive stance.

Other Le Pen allies have attacked Zemmour for his views on women, whom he views as lacking the same strength and leadership abilities as men.

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