Anyone familiar with horse racing tracks will know the unpredictable impact of a stalking horse. The beast is entered not to win but to target the challenge from rival stables and offset the odds of victory.
The French presidential election is still far off in mid-2022, but a stalking-horse challenge is already setting up a shake-out for the frontrunners. Eric Zemmour, a polemist and television pundit, has nudged into double-digit figures in the polls for his still-undeclared candidacy.
Mr Zemmour would be few people’s idea of a suitable friend. He has been convicted of hate speech twice. His anti-immigrant diatribes include calls for 2 million people to be expelled from France because they are foreign born. Never mind that his own parents arrived in France from Algeria, the land of their birth.
His rise in the polls is largely cannibalising the vote of Marine Le Pen, the fascist candidate who is President Emmanuel Macron’s presumptive challenger. There doesn’t appear to be much downside for Mr Macron on the sudden rise of a candidate with slim credentials for the job. In the two-stage French system, a straight fight against an outsider with extreme views almost guarantees that Mr Macron will win in the second round.
Mr Zemmour’s views on the French social and constitutional cohesion allow Mr Macron to run his own policy priorities. The president’s critics on the left are undermined when it is palpable that Mr Macron should not yield that policy ground to the more extreme parties.
With the German parliamentary election unlikely to produce a post-Angela Merkel government until next year, Mr Macron can use the freedom of a divided and squabbling opposition to concentrate on his international priorities. The French leader would like to be able to tell voters that he is indisputably leading Europe. But a close-run presidential campaign that began earlier would detract from his efforts to position himself at the apex of European politics.
Mr Macron is already in campaign mode. He has, for example, dramatically expanded government spending on high-profile projects. A trip to Marseille allowed him to put his stamp on an offensive against gangland warfare and the rise of extremism in French cities. It is another key area in which Mr Macron is willing to court controversy to show that the state is active and on the side of those voters who fear social change.
The danger for Ms Le Pen is obvious. She has struggled to convince the electorate that she is the true heir to the hardline legacy built up by her father, Jean Marie Le Pen. If a 30 per cent slice of the electorate is up for grabs, then a battle for 15 per cent each with Mr Zemmour ends up as a net positive for centrist and establishment candidates, such as Mr Macron.
Except that the concentration on the issues these candidates raise promotes their agenda by default. Or there is a danger of that happening.
Other candidates are chewed up in melee. On the left, the Socialist candidate slips further away from the main electoral battleground. There is no sign of a Green movement breakthrough as appeared to be on the cards in Germany only to slip away when the campaign began in earnest.
The impact of the situation on the centre-right Republicans is yet to play out, but this battle could be the most consequential. Depending on how it goes, Mr Macron’s seemingly strong position could quick erode in the campaign proper next year.
Michel Barnier is making his move for the nomination. The patrician former cabinet minister is perhaps the best-known candidate barring Mr Macron outside of France. As the point man for the Brexit negotiations with the UK, his style is well known both at home and abroad.
Speaking in London while promoting his memoir last week, Mr Barnier delivered a firm "no way" when he spoke of the potential for right-wing voters shifting to Mr Zemmour in a head-to-head with Mr Macron. The reason for his intervention was that there is speculation that the Republicans could admit Mr Zemmour as a candidate for the bloc’s nomination in December. Other leading candidates including Xavier Bertrand, the favourite in the polls now, have not closed the door on that.
The party chairman said Mr Zemmour was neither a racist nor far right. Yet Mr Zemmour has called for a ban on the name Mohammed and his work is obsessed with Replacement Theory, which is based on the assumption that white people are being "replaced" by non-white immigrants.
Mr Barnier is on to something. If he can keep Mr Zemmour excluded even as the writer continues to run, then Mr Macron could be end up facing a centrist challenger in the second round when only two candidates can run. That would open up a vulnerability that would drag Mr Macron’s attention back to the home front.
At a time when international tensions are easily triggered, this adds more risk to the global system. Which is why the coming months give France its best shot at providing leadership in a rudderless Europe. Mr Macron should use his time well to rally the continent to defend its own interests.
Before you know it, French election year will shift into global focus in a way that is both unpredictable and probably even upending.