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Whatever one thinks of Eric Zemmour, it’s hard to imagine him here in Britain.  Like Boris Johnson, he is a political journalist and was a leader writer.  Like him again, he has spent much of his working life at a big centre-right newspaper: the Daily Telegraph in Johnson’s case, Le Figaro at Zemmour’s.

But the latter’s career path is different, in a characteristically Galllic way.  Johnson’s first book outside conventional political writing was Seventy-Two Virgins, a comic romp.  Zemmour’s was Le Premier Sex, an anti-feminist tract.

He later waxed nostalgic about the pre-feminist days when a bus driver could “slide a concupiscent hand over a desirable female bottom” without risking prosecution for sexual harassment.  This sounds a bit Stanley Johnson, if not quite Boris Johnson, at least according to Caroline Nokes.

Zemmour wrote those words in his best-known book, Le Suicide français. In short, he is a product that retails more successfully in France than Britain: the public intellectual.  But his focus is not so much now on feminism as on immigration, multiculturalism and Islam.

In Britain, the centre-right has drawn a distinction between Islam, a great religion, and Islamism, a political ideology.  Zemmour thinks differently: his take is that “Islam is incompatible with the French republic”.  He is thereby tapping into one of the country’s national myths, at least since its revolution: the separation of church and state.

He has supported the Great Replacement theory as “neither a myth, nor a conspiracy, but a relentless process”.  And now he is a challenger for the presidency of France.  Why hasn’t he happened here?  I tentatively advance three reasons.

The first is inseparable from Zemmour’s status as a candidate, and indeed from the progress of the man wants to topple, Emmanuel Macron.  Zemmour comes without any party political baggege.  So did Macron – in the sense that he invented a party of his own, En Marche.

It took support from the centre-right – whose main party, Les Républicains, is itself an adaptation of its predecessor, the Union Pour Un Mouvement Populaire (the UMP), which emerged from a union of rightist parties with De Gaulle’s Rassemblement pour la République (RPR).

Britain’s first past the post electoral system for Parliamentary contests helps to shore up our two biggest parties, the Conservatives and Labour, and shield them from this kind of making and re-making.  The SDP couldn’t see off Labour during the 1980s. Nor did UKIP break the Tories during the last decade.

Nigel Farage’s party did, of course, burst into the big time: it won the 2014 election for the European Parliament, having come second in the 2009 contest and third in 2004.  Which helps to prove my point, since those elections were conducted under proportional representation.

You may say that Farage won in the end – since Britain has left the European Union, which wouldn’t have happened without him.  But that only serves to support the case I’m making, the second part of which is: look at the beneficiary.  It isn’t UKIP. Nor the Brexit Party.

It’s Boris Johnson and the Conservatives, currently in office with a majority of 80 – the first substantial Tory win since the halcyon days of Margaret Thatcher.  Johnson, Michael Gove and Vote Leave took populism into the mainstream: to use a provocative word, they civilised it.

The Prime Minister is, in his own words, a “Brexity Hezza” – leading a high spend, interventionist, high tax government: one that is nationalising the railways, reversing the competitve element in the NHS first introduced by Ken Clarke and liberalising immigration policy: pre-Covid, net EU migration was down but net non-EU migration up.

Johnson shows no interest whatsoever in fighting a culture war, unless one is to count within it attempts get more conservatives appointed to public bodies.  In which, as Paul Dacre’s sulphorous withdrawal of his application for the  OFCOM chairmanship demonstrated, the Prime Minister is having mixed success.

Look no further than the terse welcome that he gave to the Sewell Report, or his slowness to denounce the vandalisation of Churchill’s statue (Keir Starmer got off the mark quicker), or the contraditory timeline of his views on taking the knee.

His best-known venture into culture controversy was his Daily Telegraph column on the burka.  What’s less well remembered is that he came out against a ban.  By contrast, Zemmour once asked a woman to remove not a burka, nor even a niqab (a face veil) but a hijab (a head veil) when he appeared with her on television.

Which draws me to my third point – or rather, to vary one I’ve made already.  Britain and France are separated by only a small strip of water.  But the latter truly is “another country”, as reading Graham Stewart’s masterly account of the Conservatives during the 1930s, Burying Caesar, has reminded me.

In Britain, fascism failed to gain lift-off, and Oswald Mosley made no progress worth reporting in Parliamentary elections.  As the decade ended, the system that he ridiculed and railed against gave us Churchill.  Courage, luck, and the channel held up – until Russian endurance and American strength crushed Hitler.

Meanwhile, France collapsed.  And even the heroics of the French resistance can’t erase the memory of Petainist collaboration.  You may ask why conservative writers can’t break their habit of looking back to the war.  To which my answer is: its legacy persists in troubling us today.  Look again at Zemmour.

“I say that Vichy protected French Jews and handed over foreign Jews,” he said recently.  Zemmour himself is Jewish, which complicates accusations of anti-semitism.  But although his biggest vulnerability with voters is his lack of interest in economic policy. this kind of sally may help to explain why he is unlikely to win the presidency.

Indeed, he seems to be fading in the polls.  If he fails, he won’t be the first outsider from the populist right to fail at the polls.  Macron defeated Marine Le Pen last time round.  Her father was unsuccessful back in his time. Nonetheless, France has a way of casting off established forces – as none knows better than Macron himself.

And for all Britain’s insulation from eruptions, we no more have a divine right of parties than we had a divine right of kings.  The small boats saga is reviving the public salience of immigration.  We will see tomorrow what Old Bexley and Sidcup has made of Richard Tice.  But can we be sure that Zemmour couldn’t happen here?