January 24, 2022 - 1:00pm

The transfer window is open on the French hard-Right.

Two politicians elected to the European Parliament under the banner of Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National have defected to her ultra-nationalist rival, Éric Zemmour. So has a parliamentary assistant.

Two of them are moderately big fish. The best known is Gilbert Collard, a celebrity lawyer turned politician who has been a fellow traveller of Lepennism for 10 years. He was elected to the national parliament and then the European parliament on an RN ticket but never actually joined her party. 

The other renegade Euro MP, Jérôme Rivière used to belong to the main centre-Right party, Les Républicains, then called the UMP. He joined Le Pen in 2017 and was a spokesman for her campaign in this year’s presidential election.

This is unquestionably embarrassing for Le Pen. But the timing is, on the surface, surprising. Le Pen has been rising in the opinion polls in recent weeks. She now looks a reasonable bet once again to take one of the top two places in the first round on 10 April and reach the run-off two weeks later.

Zemmour, her far-Right rival, has fallen to fourth place in the polls on 12-13% after zooming to 19-20% in September. His chances of reaching the run-off appear close to zero. Why then abandon a rising candidate for a struggling one? Is this a rare case of rats joining a sinking ship? 

The explanation is the longer-term view. The three renegades have probably written off the chances of either Le Pen or Zemmour winning the presidency this year. They are discouraged by the amateurish muddle and lack of funds in Le Pen’s Rassemblement National. They believe that her defeat will mark the end of the dominance of Lepennism on the far-Right. They expect a broader, hard-Right, nationalist movement to emerge before the next presidential election in 2027 and want to be part of that tectonic shift in French politics.

All the indications are that Zemmour’s campaign will fall flat and fail this spring. His negative ratings have grown during the campaign. In the latest Paris Match-Ifop league table of political popularity he comes 34th with only 27% approval; Le Pen is 12th with 40%. 

Could she therefore beat President Emmanuel Macron in a two-way battle on 24 April? The polls suggest that she would get closer than she did in 2017 (66-34%) but Macron would win by 10-12 points. The three renegades evidently agree with the polls. 

Zemmour’s people remain bullish about his chances this year. They see the three mid-season signings as proof that the campaign is about to swing back in his direction. They speak of further defections, this time from the centre-Right Les Républicains (LR). 

One reasonably senior centre-Right figure, Guillaume Peltier, a former vice president of the LR, has already joined Zemmour. But he, like Collard and Rivière, is an allegiance-fluid politician, who was once a Lepennist. No core personalities from Les Républicains have moved into the Zemmour camp so far.

The next big transfer could come once again from the Le Pen camp — or at least the Le Pen family. All eyes are on a possible pro-Zemmour declaration by Marine Le Pen’s niece, Marion Maréchal. Maréchal, the grand-daughter of the far-Right patriarch Jean-Marie Le Pen, has split with her aunt Marine and stepped away from frontline politics. She is a friend of Zemmour’s.

Although only 32, she is seen by many people on the French Right and far-Right as the possible leader of a new nationalist-conservative movement which could mount a serious challenge for the presidency in five years’ time.

A Marion declaration for Zemmour would not be enough to revive his campaign. It would be a political version of the celebrated sign at French railway level crossings. “Un train peut en cacher un autre. (One train can conceal the next.) ” One campaign can also conceal another.

John Lichfield was Paris correspondent of The Independent for 20 years. Half-English and half-Belgian, he was born in Stoke-on-Trent and lives in Normandy.