The Zemmour Effect
‘The American writer in the middle of the 20th century has his hands full in trying to understand, describe, and then make credible much of the American reality,’ Philip Roth wrote in Commentary in 1961. ‘It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meagre imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.’
When Donald Trump was elected president, many people were struck by the eery prescience of Roth’s 2004 novel The Plot Against America, an alternative history in which the right-wing isolationist Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election, imposing a reign of terror. But the Roth of 1961 had it right. Trump provided a humbling reminder that fiction is no match for what Roth called ‘the American berserk’.
America is hardly alone. The most hysterical – and also the most articulate, and therefore dangerous – manifestation of what might be called the French berserk is the journalist and potential presidential contender Éric Zemmour. His emergence has thrown into relief the ‘meagre imagination’ even of Michel Houellebecq, whose 2015 novel Soumission told the story of a Muslim businessman of Tunisian origin who becomes France’s president and imposes sharia. The reality is no less wild: the rise of a North African Jewish intellectual who calls for the rehabilitation of Pétain and Vichy, while depicting immigrants and Islam as mortal threats to the Republic.
Zemmour resembles Trump in his ability to recast the rhetorical rules of right-wing politics. While Marine Le Pen invokes the threat of ‘Islamism’, Zemmour speaks bluntly about ‘Islam’ tout court. ‘It’s more even than a civil war,’ he says, ‘it’s a war of religion that threatens us.’ Zemmour thinks France has nothing to apologise for, especially not colonisation or metropolitan racism. French citizens of Algerian origin should be grateful that when their ancestors came to settle in bidonvilles in the Hexagon, ‘France was a good daughter, and a good mother, and very generous.’
As Le Pen is learning, a lot of French people like what they’re hearing from Zemmour: they don’t want a ‘de-diabolised’ Rassemblement Nationale. They want their racism and rage served up straight, just as many Republican voters in the States turned out to prefer Trump’s explicit white nationalism to the dog-whistling versions the Republican Party had been peddling for decades. (Zemmour is currently polling at 17 per cent, Le Pen at 16 per cent. Their combined support exceeds President Macron’s 24 per cent.)
Still, the differences between Zemmour and Trump are also striking. Unlike Trump, whose ‘books’ were all ghostwritten, Zemmour is an intellectual, who models himself on reactionary writers such as Maurice Barrès. He is also a skilled polemicist. And he really believes what he says.
Zemmour’s ideas are extremist, racist and exclusionary, but the groundwork for his rise was laid by mainstream intellectuals and politicians who suffer from a milder version of the French berserk. Zemmour has popularised the ideas of the ‘great replacement’ theorist Renaud Camus, but he also owes a debt to ‘respectable’ intellectuals such as Alain Finkielkraut, who has described anti-racism as worse than racism itself. More important still, Zemmour’s anxieties about the threat posed by Muslims to laïcité have been echoed for years – if in a less overtly toxic form – by centrist politicians from Manuel Valls to Emmanuel Macron.
Macron has denounced critical race theory and intersectionality as an American invasion that must be stopped at the gates of French universities. In fact, many of these ‘Anglo-Saxon’ theories about the construction of identity can be traced back to the work of French thinkers (from Sartre, Beauvoir and Derrida to Césaire and Fanon). In any case, France’s most original thinkers, including Macron’s teacher Paul Ricoeur, have always looked for inspiration outside the borders of France.
But Macron – for all his lofty talk about a memorial ‘reconciliation’ with Algeria – is now afraid that such ideas might be deployed to raise uncomfortable questions about colonisation, racism, Islamophobia and police violence, and to imperil France’s fragile glory. In the US, it is for precisely these reasons that a Republican-led offensive has emerged to defend America’s ‘greatness’ by preventing American high school students from being taught the history of slavery and racial segregation. The attack on the idea of ‘repentance’ is an attack on memory itself.
By legitimising anti-Muslim expression, by promoting an exclusionary version of laïcité, and by mainstreaming xenophobic attacks on ‘foreign’ ideas, the French establishment paved the way for Zemmour. But now it is Zemmour who is setting the agenda. Macron’s recent remarks on Algeria – his suggestion that the land was terra nullius before the 1830 French conquest; his decision not to recognise the 17 October 1961 massacre as a crime d’état – are a powerful indication of the Zemmour Effect.
If Zemmour had confined himself to attacks on Islam and migrants, his racism might be seen as a more lurid and archaic version of déclinisme. Racism directed against Muslims in the form of mockery of their faith, their food, their clothing or their prophet is mostly given a pass in France: as Houellebecq has said, one can’t be ‘racist’ against a religion. But, in what may prove to be his undoing, Zemmour has crossed a red line by flagrantly defending Vichy’s record with respect to France’s Jews.
Not only has he repeated the lie that Vichy sacrificed foreign-born Jews to save French Jews. He has also said that Vichy’s legislation on the status of Jews was not designed to exterminate them, but an affirmation that ‘Jews at the time were thought to have too much power, too much influence, that they had too much control over the economy, the media, French culture, like elsewhere in Germany, in Europe, and it was in part true.’ He has not specified which ‘part’ of this anti-Semitic belief he considers true, but he has derided Bernard Henri-Lévy as a cosmopolite, a term of which Barrès would have approved; he has also described the family of three Jewish children killed in a terrorist attack in 2012 as ‘foreigners above all … even after death’ because they were buried in Israel. If nothing else, Zemmour is consistent in his France-first chauvinism.
So far, Zemmour’s defence of Vichy does not appear to have dampened the enthusiasm of his supporters. In recent years, the French press has depicted antisemitism as a thing of the past – except among citizens of Muslim origin, among whom it was said to be rife. Writers such as Finkielkraut and Pierre André Taguieff (whom Zemmour has cited admiringly) have contributed to this perception. But, as Reza Zia-Ebrahimi argues in his new book Antisemitisme et Islamophobie: une histoire croisée, ‘you can see today that the strategies for promoting Islamophobia put in place by the ultra-Zionist movement entail, as a ricochet effect, a legitimation of antisemitism.’
That the legitimation of antisemitism should come from a man whose Algerian-Jewish father was stripped of his citizenship in 1940 by the Vichy government, which his son now exalts, is a plot twist that no novelist could have invented. For Muslims and Jews in France who have increasingly come to view one another with suspicion and hostility, it should be a wake-up call.
A French version of this piece was published by Le Un.