Until recently, a rematch between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen in April’s presidential election looked inevitable, with polls predicting a comfortable Macron victory, albeit narrower than in 2017, when he won 66 per cent of the vote. But then, last summer, a new candidate emerged, as it became clear that the right-wing writer and commentator Éric Zemmour had presidential ambitions. Long before he formally announced his candidacy on 30 November, he was dominating media coverage. His campaign launch was held on 5 December at a convention centre in the Paris suburbs in front of a wildly enthusiastic crowd of 13,000. Marine Le Pen could only dream of filling a hall that big. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leading candidate of the left, held a rally at the same time, also in the Paris suburbs, and attracted an audience a third of the size. There were many more young people – most of them men (and many maskless) – at Zemmour’s rally than you see at meetings held by the established political parties. Almost all of them were white and looked like they came from Paris’s posher areas. They were not the progeny of the gilets jaunes or working-class Le Pen voters in the dying mill towns of northern France. Many of them would have received their political baptism in La Manif pour tous, which led the opposition to gay marriage legislation in 2013, taking the entire political class by surprise. The conservative Catholics of La Manif pour tous were a key constituent of François Fillon’s base in 2017, when he was the presidential candidate for Les Républicains (LR), the current incarnation of the main centre-right party in France. LR’s candidate this time, Valérie Pécresse, is seen as insufficiently right-wing by this group, who have instead given their support to Zemmour.
The polls, which haven’t changed much since early December, show Macron with a quarter of the vote – all but guaranteeing a win in the first round on 10 April – followed by Le Pen in the mid to high teens, with Pécresse and Zemmour just behind. Any of these three could reach the second round on 24 April (the candidates of the left, barring an unexpected surge by Mélenchon, are out of the picture). Zemmour is now a major actor on the French political scene. He is often described as ‘extrême droite’, but there are clear differences between him and the Le Pen family and their Rassemblement National (RN). For one thing, he is not a career politician. He has never run for election or had a government job, he has never been a card-carrying member of a political party or engaged in political militancy. He enters the race without the baggage of a far-right or lepeniste past.
Since the 1990s Zemmour has been a ubiquitous presence in the national newspapers, especially Le Figaro, a frequent commentator on the radio station RTL and a debate-show host on CNews, whose proprietor, Vincent Bolloré, France’s answer to Rupert Murdoch, is one of his biggest supporters. While working as a political journalist for Le Figaro, Zemmour got to know every important person on the right and most of those on the left, as well as CEOs and other corporate high-flyers. Unlike Marine Le Pen and her father, he is not an outsider in the elite political world in Paris. He is not a man with whom one does not want to be seen in public.
Zemmour has published some twenty books, in which he expounds on modern French politics, society and culture. Many of them are very long and have an air of monumental importance, but they are divided into short, breezy chapters that read like extended blog posts. Still, they’re not without interest. Zemmour is a declinist, in the French tradition that goes back to the 18th century, but his account is an idiosyncratic one. It does not begin with the storming of the Bastille, but with the 1763 Treaty of Paris, which ended the Seven Years’ War and enshrined the global primacy of England (Zemmour rarely calls it Great Britain, and never the United Kingdom). For him, the Treaty of Paris led to the continental supremacy of Prussia, and then to a unified Germany.
Napoleon tried to restore France’s glory but overreached by extending its continental empire beyond its ‘natural’ borders, which, Zemmour writes in Mélancolie française (2010), encompass Belgium, Luxembourg, the German Rhineland and northwestern Italy. The consequence of his hubris was the defeat at Waterloo in 1815, a huge tragedy, since France had been the ‘beating heart of Europe, and thus of the world, for a thousand years’. Unlike many on the far right, Zemmour isn’t a nostalgist for colonialism. The English got the best parts of the world, as he sees it, while France’s colonial conquests yielded little of value apart from soldiers to fight its wars. Worse, colonial rule led to the arrival, or counter-colonisation, of immigrants from France’s empire, most of them Muslims – the source of most of France’s woes.
There was, he believes, a final effort to rescue France in the mid 20th century, with the creation of the Fifth Republic by Charles de Gaulle, his hero and model – another thing that sets him apart from the Le Pen dynasty and others on the French right, who see de Gaulle as the man who surrendered to the FLN and ‘lost’ Algeria. But it was too late: France was already ‘withdrawing quietly from History’. In Le Suicide français (2014), which sold more than half a million copies, Zemmour gives an apocalyptic inventory of the calamities that have afflicted France since de Gaulle’s death in 1970. These range from the 1970 law establishing equality between husband and wife, thus ending the primacy of paternal authority, to the birth of neoliberalism; from the spread of American influence to the rise of gay and environmental politics; from the legalisation of abortion and divorce by mutual consent to the translation of Robert Paxton’s Vichy France. He even includes an attack on French filmmakers for portraying French people as narrow-minded and racist, not to mention feminising the image of the ‘white heterosexual male’.
And that was only the 1970s, before the arrival of new waves of North and West African immigrants, the rise of anti-racist movements, the successive rows over Muslim women’s headscarves, the abolition of military conscription, the triumph of rap music, and the election in 2001 of Bertrand Delanoë, a gay socialist, as mayor of Paris, now transformed into a global city and gentrified playground for bobos. Meanwhile, China’s admission to the WTO all but finished off French industry, and Germany, its historic adversary, reunified. The responsibility for all this didn’t lie with France’s existential enemies – the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ (Britain and America) and Germany (the Prussian part of it) – whose enmity is a given. For Zemmour, the real culprits are the French elites, left and right, who sold France out to globalisation, economic liberalism and multiculturalism.
Most of this is predictable enough, but there are several novel twists, such as Zemmour’s surprisingly sympathetic treatment of the French Communist Party (PCF), and his admiration of Georges Marchais, its proletarian secretary-general from the 1970s to the 1990s. From 1945 until the early 1980s, the PCF was the leading party of the working class, winning 20 to 25 per cent of the vote in most elections. Zemmour, despite his anti-communism, respects the party’s record and its close relationship with the French working class, which he idolises. The Communists were France-first patriots and adhered to a state-led economic model that was compatible with the dirigisme of the Gaullist era. But what he finds most attractive about the PCF is its warning in the early 1980s of the supposedly negative impact on wages of immigration (from the African continent, though that wasn’t said explicitly at the time). According to Zemmour, PCF mayors in the ‘red belt’ in the Paris banlieues saw the difficulties created by the government policy of encouraging family reunification. Migrants from Mali, Senegal, Morocco and other ex-colonies were coming to France for good; they weren’t just sending money home. And they were bringing over their wives (sometimes more than one per husband) and children, thereby altering the composition of the banlieues. One of the effects of this demographic shift was to accelerate the defection of PCF voters in the 1980s to Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front (FN). Zemmour’s nostalgia for the PCF and its relationship with the old white working class clearly sets him apart from extrême droite of the FN/RN, which would never have anything good to say about ‘socialo-communistes’. But Zemmour, unlike the RN, doesn’t have a significant working-class following; his appeal is much stronger among the social classes viscerally hostile to the left, especially conservative middle-class Catholics.
Until the mid-2000s, Zemmour belonged to the nationalist, Eurosceptic, souverainiste camp of the parliamentary right that emerged during the referendum campaign over the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. Its leading figure was the late neo-Gaullist Philippe Séguin, for whom Zemmour expresses great affection. He still identifies with the Rassemblement pour la République (RPR) founded by Jacques Chirac in 1976 – of which LR is the successor – which, as Zemmour sees it, had healthy Eurosceptic reflexes until Chirac betrayed it by endorsing Maastricht. The souverainiste current also has a counterpart on the left – represented at first by Jean-Pierre Chevènement and for the last decade by Mélenchon. The lines between right and left sovereigntism are fluid, an ambiguity Zemmour has exploited adroitly, cultivating friendly relations with Mélenchon and other figures on the left in a way that would be inconceivable for a member of the FN/RN.
Zemmour’s views have been radicalised over the last two decades. Although he is Jewish, he has tried hard to rehabilitate Philippe Pétain and the Vichy regime. What’s more, he doesn’t see this as clashing with his exaltation of de Gaulle. Zemmour has revived the discredited thesis of Robert Aron, who argued that de Gaulle and Pétain operated in tandem – although Pétain had sentenced de Gaulle to death – as the ‘glaive et bouclier’ (‘sword and shield’) challenging the German occupation, with Pétain surreptitiously turning the French army in North Africa into a force which, at the opportune moment (with Italy having left the Axis), would be able to resume the war against Germany. Once the war was over and France had regained sovereignty, Pétain would, so Zemmour believes, have unveiled a new constitution very much like the one implemented in 1958. As for the deportation of the Jews, Zemmour insists that Vichy fought to save French Jews by assisting in the round-up of ‘foreign’ Jews (many of them had been naturalised in the late 1920s and 1930s but were stripped of their citizenship by Vichy), in what was still a solely German operation commanded by the Gestapo. Pétain and the Vichy regime thus had nothing to reproach themselves for. Zemmour goes so far as to let Vichy off the hook for the 1940 and 1941 Statuts des Juifs, which were even more draconian than the Nuremberg laws. That the French legislation was enacted without any pressure from the Germans does not prevent Zemmour from insisting that there was in fact implicit pressure from the occupation authorities, and that if Vichy had not taken action against the Jews, Germany would have invaded the ‘free zone’, occupying all of France (which it did in any case in November 1942). This argument is shocking enough, especially coming from a Jew whose family lost its citizenship under Vichy, but Zemmour has also suggested that Jews in 1930s France were a little too powerful and overbearing, with recent immigrants from Eastern Europe a bit too visible on the streets, and that this rubbed ordinary Frenchmen and women the wrong way.
Zemmour’s claims about Pétain and Vichy have been demolished by professional historians who have conducted research on the subject (which Zemmour has not), among them Laurent Joly, Simon Epstein, Patrick Weil and Paxton, whose 1972 book disproved Aron’s interpretation, which had been dominant in the 1950s and 1960s. But Zemmour remains fixated on Paxton and what he calls the Paxtonian ‘doxa’, because the effect of his work has been to encourage a feeling of collective guilt for what happened to the Jews in France. For the same reason, he deplores the speech President Chirac gave in 1995 on the anniversary of the 1942 Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup, in which he took responsibility in the name of the French state for the deportation of the Jews. For Zemmour, this speech constituted an unacceptable rupture with Gaullist dogma: the true French state during the occupation was the one in London run by de Gaulle, not in Vichy, and France thus had nothing to apologise for after the war. Zemmour’s anger at Chirac’s apology was shared by neo-Gaullist souverainistes at the time but he is pretty much alone in continuing to express it.
This radical sovereigntism leads him to see immigration and Islam as grave threats to French identity and national survival. But although he compulsively invokes the danger of Islam, he is seldom described as an extremist on this account, in large part because many, not just on the far right, share his obsession. There are between four and five million people in France today who identify as Muslim, about 90 per cent of whom have roots in the former French colonies on the African continent. The Muslim minority accounts for about 7 per cent of the population, a higher proportion than in any other Western country. A growing number of young Muslims go to mosques, wear the hijab and generally identify as ‘Muslims’, where their parents and grandparents would have been more likely to define themselves by their country of origin. A small minority has turned to radical Islam, and an even smaller one to violence. The terrorist incidents of the last decade – Mohammed Merah’s killing of seven people, including three children, in 2012; the attacks by al-Qaida and IS in 2015; the beheading of the schoolteacher Samuel Paty in 2020 – have stoked fears of Islam, and the French mainstream has fanned the flames, making the country’s Muslim citizens even more vulnerable. Macron and his education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, for example, have launched a campaign against ‘Islamic separatism’, though there is no movement that advocates Sharia law or ‘separating’ from the Republic. The notion – held almost universally on the right and shared by a good part of the left – that political Islam poses a challenge, even a threat, to the French Republic is a figment of the collective imagination.
For Zemmour, however, the danger to France is Islam tout court: he does not differentiate Islam from Islamism, asserting that they are one and the same. Although he insists that he doesn’t have anything against individual Muslims, his writings suggest otherwise. In 2016 a 540-page compendium of his morning RTL editorials, Un quinquennat pour rien, came out with a 37-page introduction called ‘La France au défi de l’islam’ (‘France and the Challenge of Islam’). He claimed that the 2015 terror attacks were the opening salvo in a ‘French civil war, indeed a European one’, an unprecedented ‘challenge to European civilisation in its heartland’. The assailants were no different from the FLN ‘mujahedin’ in the Algerian war of independence, ‘combatants for jihad chasing away infidels from a land of Islam that had been sullied by the infidels’ presence’. What they seek, according to Zemmour, is the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of ‘Français de souche’ – native ‘white’ French – and the ‘descendants of assimilated European immigrants’ and to achieve ‘the conquest of enclaves in France now under the thumb of Islam’. This is France’s version of QAnon. In a recent televised debate, Zemmour offered as evidence for his dystopian portrait of Islam-controlled enclaves the 2021 movie BAC Nord (English title: The Stronghold), an action thriller about three cops who take on drug trafficking gangs in the tough quartiers nord of Marseille. There’s no mention in the film of Islam or jihad.
Zemmour makes it clear that he doesn’t believe Islam can be modernised. What place, then, can Muslims have in his France? He offers them the possibility of ‘assimilation’ into the French nation, which, at minimum, would oblige them to make their religious practice private (as if the great majority don’t already do this), ‘a simple spirituality, ahistorical and apolitical’, as Napoleon demanded of Judaism. Zemmour is fond of repeating the line from Count Stanislas de Clermont-Tonnerre’s famous speech in 1789: ‘We must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation and accord everything to Jews as individuals.’ Muslims, similarly, ‘must choose between Islam and France’. But for Islam to be relegated to the private sphere is, Zemmour informs us, ‘vehemently rejected by 99 per cent of Muslims’. So much for assimilation. He sums up his conception of assimilation with the shopworn proverb, ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do.’ In France today, this means two big things: a ban on the wearing of the hijab or headscarf in public, and the legal obligation of parents to give their child a French first name, as mandated in a repealed 1803 law proclaimed by Napoleon (to be reinstated in a Zemmour presidency) that restricted first names to those figuring in ‘the various calendars’ – the principal one featured Catholic saints – and those of ‘known figures from ancient history’. Muslims would thus be obliged to give their children Christian names, which wasn’t the case even when the Napoleonic law was on the books.
Zemmour’s parents migrated to France in the early 1950s, before the outbreak of the Algerian war of independence. Almost all of Algeria’s 135,000 Jews had left for France by the end of 1962, most of them in the months leading up to independence. He has never set foot in his parents’ homeland, but grew up in a milieu deeply marked by the traditions of Algerian Jewry. At home, in the synagogue and at school (he attended Jewish schools), his world was defined by the rites of conservative Judaism. But, as he notes in his book Destin français (2018), there were no displays of religious belief in public. They did not wear a kippa on the street, because israélites – as assimilated Jews in France were called until the end of the Second World War – honoured the implicit taboo in laïque France against religious symbols in public space. According to Zemmour, all immigrants respected this prohibition: Italians, Spanish, Poles, as well as Kabyle Berbers from Algeria, who were, he claims, only nominally Muslim. What ‘Anglo-Saxons’ call ethnic identity was effaced in the name of greater social harmony. For someone who thinks France’s decline began in 1763, his account of his childhood is nostalgic, evoking a country where everyone got along just fine.
Although he attends a synagogue, he does not speak about his religion in sentimental terms; nor – unlike Alain Finkielkraut, say – does he make claims for the uniqueness of the Holocaust or the specialness of his people. But his defence of assimilation, and his impatience with those who reject the confinement of religion to the private sphere, reflects his attachment to the Algerian Jewish experience. He sees Algerian Jews as being in the vanguard of French Jewry, thanks to the 1870 Crémieux decree, which granted them French citizenship. The decree, which did not apply to Muslim Algerians, was preceded by the rabbinate’s recognition of the primacy of French law. (Zemmour claims the same deal was on offer to Algeria’s Muslims but that it was impossible for them to agree to it.) Algerian Jews began to Gallicise then, and when they arrived in metropolitan France in 1962, they were already assimilated. Zemmour does not mention that the French settlers in Algeria refused to accept this decree, treating the Jews as they did the Muslim indigènes.
Zemmour sees himself as French above all, and only very secondarily as Jewish, which explains the sharp distinction he draws between French and foreign Jews during the occupation and his excuses for Vichy’s supposed sacrifice of the latter to save the former. He reproaches ‘foreign’ Jews – those who came in large numbers to France from Eastern Europe from the 1880s on – for their failure to assimilate, explaining the antisemitism of Charles Maurras, the founder of Action Française and one of Zemmour’s guiding intellectual influences, as driven by repugnance for the Jews’ stubborn attachment to their identity. This attitude, he claims, was quite unlike the racialised antisemitism of the Nazis, and it largely faded away after the war. That he, a Jew, is now the presidential candidate of neo-Maurrasian Catholic traditionalists suggests that he may not be entirely wrong.
But the dislike of Jews has not vanished among the conservative Catholic bourgeoisie, even if Zemmour has been willing to look past it – he dined in 2020 with Jean-Marie Le Pen and the daughter of the Nazi foreign minister Von Ribbentrop. Meanwhile, French Jews – the majority of whom are of North African extraction – have begun to call themselves juifs, not israélites, emphasising their connection to an ethnic identity rather than their assimilation. Zemmour regards Israel as a foreign country like any other and never visits it. He laments the Zionism that has developed among French Jews since the Six-Day War in 1967, as well as the increase in Orthodox Judaism (the result of the arrival of Jews from Morocco and Tunisia in the 1950s and 1960s). The celebrations of Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War, he claims, provoked de Gaulle’s ‘petite phrase’ from 1967: the Jews, he said, were ‘an elite people, sure of itself, and dominating’. Zemmour has been fiercely critical of the Conseil Représentatif des Institutions Juives de France (CRIF), the main association of French Jewry, for acting as something like a second Israeli embassy in Paris. French Jews, in other words, are not spared his assimilationist obsessions.
According to the ‘great replacement’ theory, put forward by the novelist Renaud Camus and supported by Zemmour, a conspiracy is underfoot to replace white European populations with dark-skinned peoples from Africa and Asia. Supporting the contention that to be French is to be ‘white’, Zemmour refers to the higher authority of de Gaulle, who, according to the politician Alain Peyrefitte, once said:
It is very good that there are yellow Frenchmen, black Frenchmen, brown Frenchmen. They show that France is open to all races and that it has a universal vocation. But on the condition that they remain a small minority. Otherwise, France would no longer be France. We are first and foremost a European people of the white race.
Zemmour is fond of quoting other remarks supposedly made by de Gaulle to Peyrefitte, for example that the village where he had his country home, Colombey-les-Deux-Églises, would become ‘Colombey-les-Deux-Mosquées’, and that trying to assimilate Algeria’s Muslims into French society was like mixing oil and vinegar: they might appear to blend but will inevitably separate.
We know that de Gaulle regarded only his public statements and whatever he committed to paper as a true reflection of his thinking, but Zemmour doesn’t care about that. In any case, he doesn’t need the backing of great men or statistical data to support his insistence that the ‘great replacement’ is underway. In an interview on the radio station France Inter on 16 December 2021, he offered as proof what he saw every day on the street, the metro, the train, in cafés, at the post office, in schools: lots of dark-skinned people ‘colonising visual space’. He looks at a group of non-white people and, without wanting to know who they are, what they do, essentialises them and sees their presence as a problem, indeed as a threat to France. He judges them not by the content of their character but by the colour of their skin. There is a word for this. Neither Jean-Marie Le Pen nor Donald Trump, to cite two figures to whom Zemmour has been compared, has spoken in public about people of colour in the way Zemmour does regularly. Incitement to racial hatred is proscribed in France by the 1972 Pleven law (another law Zemmour wants to repeal), under which he has been prosecuted on numerous occasions and convicted three times so far.
He is also a xenophobe, a label one hesitates to affix even to Jean-Marie Le Pen, who has visited many countries and speaks English. By contrast, Zemmour, who does not speak English, rarely leaves the Paris area, where he has spent his whole life. Apart from summer holidays on the Riviera, winter holidays in the Dominican Republic (Club Med), and a few trips to New York in his early twenties to visit an American girlfriend he met at Sciences Po, there is little indication that he has travelled much even inside France, let alone abroad. Jean-Marie Le Pen was relegated to the political margins and excluded from polite company despite never speaking about Islam or Muslims (or even Islamism). And although he notoriously described the Holocaust as a ‘detail’ of the Second World War – Zemmour has defended him on this point – antisemitism wasn’t part of his or his party’s rhetoric. As for Marine Le Pen, Zemmour’s candidacy has achieved the remarkable feat of making her appear almost moderate. How did Zemmour succeed in maintaining respectability? His Jewishness has provided him with cover, but far more important is the fact that his obsessions are those of the French political class, as well as many public intellectuals and media pundits.
Zemmour is aware that he is offering a heightened version of what much of France privately thinks. The claim that he is being honest where others are defeated by cowardice, political correctness and ‘le wokeisme’ is central to his appeal. He names major political figures, including some on the left, who he claims privately share his views; some have asked him for policy advice, among them Macron, Chevènement, François Hollande and Xavier Bertrand (a prominent member of LR who sought the presidential nomination). Zemmour’s policy prescriptions on immigration would include an almost complete halt to the issuing of residence cards, and an end to family reunification (French citizens who marry non-citizens would not be able to live in France with their spouses), the principle of jus sanguinis in nationality acquisition (children born and raised in France to foreign parents would have to apply for citizenship when they reach adulthood), dual nationality for non-Europeans, social benefits for non-citizens (which they have paid taxes to receive), and almost all student visas and asylum requests. Dual nationals convicted even of minor crimes (presumably including drug offences) would be stripped of French citizenship, and ‘national preference’ in employment would be implemented. Many of these policies are backed by the hard right of LR, particularly by Éric Ciotti, who ran against Pécresse in the second round of the LR primary. The former Parti socialiste prime minister Manuel Valls has also called for the suspension of family reunification, among other restrictive measures. Zemmour has plenty of company.
In the introduction to Un quinquennat pour rien, Zemmour claims that France’s ‘civilisational war’ with Islam can only be won through a protracted ‘cultural revolution’, via a modern-day ‘Kulturkampf’. A ‘state of cultural emergency’ must be decreed, which would ‘render inoperative all jurisprudence enacted in the name of human rights, to stop the invasion and colonisation of our land, if there is still time’; the rule of law would be suspended ‘to protect the nation in peril’. Zemmour has, in true Bonapartist style, promised a referendum immediately after his election to rubberstamp his ability to stop the courts blocking his measures – in effect, to allow him to rule as a dictator. If he gets through to the second round of voting and turnout is high on 24 April, he will lose. But if there is a face-off between Macron and Zemmour and a sizeable percentage of Macron-loathing voters on the left – and there are many – choose not to vote, Macron’s victory will be narrower, particularly if Zemmour gets all Le Pen’s votes plus a majority of Pécresse’s. As in 2017, Macron will have won thanks to voters who wanted to block his opponent. A respectable loss will establish Zemmour as the hegemonic figure on the French far right – and possibly the dominant figure on the right more generally – during Macron’s second quinquennat. Given the fragmentation and weakness of the left, the failure of Macron to create a centrist party worthy of the name, and a Zemmourised LR, there is legitimate cause to worry for the future of France.