France’s presidential election will be held in April. Emmanuel Macron will seek re-election. Will he be able to overcome the failures of his two predecessors, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande, and restore the tradition of the long presidencies of François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac? His biggest rivals are on the right, the most unpredictable of whom is Éric Zemmour.
Éric Zemmour, the far-right candidate for the presidency of France, is a character so distinctive that he seems to be taken straight out of film or literature. For years he has been the enfant terrible of Paris and the defender of a peculiar idea of France that is in his opinion threatened by feminism, a crisis of masculinity, liberal ideology, globalization, and – above all else – Islam. Now this constant participant in television talk-shows, author of fiery ideological manifestos, and newspaper columnist enters a new arena – he fights for the Elysée Palace. He is challenging Marine Le Pen (another far-right politician), the center-right candidate Valerie Pécresse, and President Macron. It is in this quadrilateral that the upcoming elections will be decided. If you compare Zemmour to foreign political phenomena, he would probably be a combination of Donald Trump and Steve Bannon. He is, on the one hand, a politically incorrect ideologue, but on the other hand, a person who gained his position through so-called ‘infotainment’ – the ability to turn political communication into entertainment, which Donald Trump has efficiently mastered. Zemmour has so far failed in one key element of Trump’s politics – he has not consistently convinced the so-called blue-collar workers, remaining instead a middle-class candidate.
Let’s try to tell his story from three perspectives.
A Woody Allen tale
Scene one, or dinner with Mrs. von Ribbentrop. If Woody Allen wanted to return to Paris to deal once more – following Midnight in Paris – with the ghosts of the past, he might have been inspired by an encounter over which a ghostly story hovers: Éric Zemmour (a practicing Jew) is having dinner at Paris’s luxurious Hotel Bristol with the king of French anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers Jean-Marie Le Pen, his wife, and the daughter of Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim Ribbentrop, Ursula Painvin. Together they lament the decline of France.
It is a real paradox that the leader of the French far right Jean-Marie Le Pen, notorious for his anti-Semitism and undisguised nationalism, officially supports Éric Zemmour and not his own daughter Marine, whom he considers not radical enough. Le Pen said in an interview with Le Monde that the only difference between the two is that Zemmour is Jewish, making it hard to accuse him of being a Nazi or fascist.
Le Pen’s admiration is hardly surprising: Zemmour resurrects the cursed tradition of Marshal Petain’s France collaborating with the Third Reich, based on a strictly nationalist understanding of Catholicism as a political ideology, distanced from the idea of the Republic (which, at least in theory, makes anyone who accepts its ideals and culture French), and an opposition to everything foreign. Zemmour has taken over this story to such an extent that he returns to the Dreyfus affair, which was fundamental for French political history at the turn of the 20th century, in which an officer of Jewish origin was convicted for alleged collaboration with German intelligence, which later turned out to be without foundation. Zemmour, meanwhile, says today that it is unclear who was right in that dispute. According to him, the Vichy government protected Jews who were French citizens, while it handed over to the Nazis mainly Jews without citizenship. Historians agree that this is absolute nonsense.
Scene two, or the good soldier Zemmour. Woody Allen probably wouldn’t disapprove of this scene either: at the Milipol arms fair in Paris, Zemmour tests a sniper’s rifle in such a clumsy manner that it evokes associations with Louis de Funes. He also takes the opportunity to point the barrel in the direction of journalists.
The fascination with violence and armed struggle is one of the themes of Zemmour’s biography. He recalls the great victories of the French (or Frankish) chieftains, starting with the one over the Arabs at Poitiers in 732. Victories over the Arabs are, by the way, the leitmotif of his campaign – he called his party the Reconquista, which obviously brings to mind the centuries-long process of driving the Arabs out of the Iberian Peninsula. Zemmour, departing for a moment from his anti-revolutionary ideals, is also a follower of Napoleon, from whom he took his campaign slogan: Impossible n’est pas français (Impossible – it’s not French!).
Scene three, or Zemmour pretending to be General Charles de Gaulle. Zemmour announced his decision to run for office in an unusual way: by recording a 20-minute YouTube video in which he reads his efficiently written proclamation into a microphone. It is reminiscent – not without a certain dose of unintentional comedy – of de Gaulle’s London proclamation to the French on June 18, 1940, in which the general called on his countrymen to resist the Nazis, thus becoming the nemesis of Marshal Petain, who collaborated with Hitler. There is also a Polish flavor in this video (Poland is becoming a model for the European far-right): in the background of Zemmour’s recitation there is a picture of Our Lady of Czestochowa in addition to a large library, another nod to French Catholics.
De Gaulle is one of Zemmour’s misguided figures of comparison: they are essentially opposites. The general’s idea of France was to dissociate France completely from the extreme right after its collaboration with Hitler, to accept the republican heritage, and to try to combine great personal faith with the full secularism of the Republic. Finally, de Gaulle was a supporter of Konrad Adenauer’s Franco-German reconciliation, believing that only the burial of resentment between the countries would ensure a lasting peace for Europe.
In reality, on each of these points Zemmour has different views to de Gaulle. In fact, the only things they have in common are the microphones on their desks when making speeches and the Virgin Mary (in whose theological role de Gaulle believed, while Zemmour does not). Zemmour’s cultural Catholicism and his love of “Christian France” are, of course, not incompatible with his Jewish background, but both simply seem subordinate to the only religion he truly practices: his belief in a somewhat imaginary eternal French nation.
A Balzacian Tale of Lost Illusions
Scene four tells of lost illusions. The year is 1980. A young boy somewhat resembling Timothée Chalamet walks towards the historic building housing the headquarters of the École Nationale d’Administration, the forge of French political cadres founded by de Gaulle. He does not find his name on the admission list. The same happens a year later. According to his biographers, this failure contributed to his resentment towards the political elite, of which he very much wanted to be a part.
Zemmour’s favorite literary hero is Lucien de Rubempré (he even named his publishing house after him), the protagonist of Lost Illusions, and part of The Human Comedy, a cycle of novels by Balzac. Rubempré is provincial with literary and political ambitions, but makes his career as a journalist during the 19th century newspaper boom. Zemmour probably sees his soul-mate in Rubempré as a man of letters with analogous aspirations, for whom entering the Parisian salons is a major challenge. Just as Rubempré makes a political volte-face, moving from a liberal to a royalist newspaper, Zemmour goes from being a Mitterand voter and journalist for the center-right Le Figaro to becoming a positive hero for another paper, Les Valeurs Actuelles, which gathers conservative authors and politicians, does not shy away from rehabilitating the far-right, and for decades was almost absent from public discourse in France.
The journalistic element in Zemmour’s biography is very strong. He built his brand originally as a columnist for Le Figaro, but he became really well-known through his television programs, which in recent decades have taken the form of a clash between two often extreme ideas. As a result of his willingness to defend extreme views, Zemmour became a regular guest, and in time got his own show on the CNews station, which brought him mass popularity.
There is also a social aspect to the Balzac story:
Zemmour is actually the candidate of the Parisian conservative salon and bourgeoisie rather than the working class, from whom he wanted to break away rather than lead.
His frequent references to literature and philosophy (though often misguided) do not help him become the candidate of the French underclass, like Marine Le Pen. Rather, wealthy people, students opposed to the left-wing atmosphere of their universities, and not-very-numerous but influential circles of conservative Catholics want to vote for him. It is no secret that Zemmour’s meetings are organized by Isabel Mueller of Opus Dei. If Zemmour wants to win, he has no chance of victory without the so-called working classes – this will probably be a pillar of his campaign efforts.
A Houellebecqian Tale
Scene five, or Zemmour’s 50th anniversary in Napoleonic relay. It is a summer evening in 2008 and the scene is set in the small Malmaison, the residence of Empress Josephine, wife of Napoleon. The guests are served by waiters dressed as Napoleonic grenadiers. Among the guests, dressed in period costumes, is the Parisian elite from various backgrounds: the leader of the extreme left Jean-Luc Melanchon, singer Dick Rivers (mistaken in some reports for Ricky Martin), and many right-wing and far-right politicians. Michel Houellebecq would probably have ended the scene with an orgy; Zemmour, who is organizing the event, is more restrained in this regard than literature. Once again, however, nostalgia for France’s great past has spoken for him.
A constant element in Zemmour’s statements is decadence, a sense that things were better before. It was better in the times of Napoleon or de Gaulle and Petain; it was better in the 1950s, and now France is in decline. This narrative is strongly present in his most important book Le suicide français (The French Suicide). Zemmour identifies several reasons why France is collapsing: the admission of culturally alien Muslims to France, a crisis of masculinity, and feminism that are taking away the French people’s ability to fight for their homeland. Interestingly, there is even a perverse note of admiration for Muslims willing to die for their beliefs in Zemmour’s writings, particularly in a not-so-veiled response to Simone de Beauvoir entitled Le premier sexe(The First Sex) – something Zemmour suspects the French of lacking. This is another element, besides decadence, that links Zemmour to Hoeullebecq. Similarly, there is a critique of the legacy of 1968, involving the fetishization of emancipation as well as xenophilia.
What does the Zemmour phenomenon mean?
James McAuley, former Paris correspondent for The Washington Post, ends his text on Eric Zemmour in The New York Review of Books rather dramatically, writing that he is not a denial of France, but is France. This is a difficult thesis to defend, if only because
the far-right, nationalist, and xenophobic France exists alongside the conservative one of General de Gaulle, the socialist one of Jaurès and Mitterand, and the liberal one of de Tocqueville and Macron.
The latter is still the favorite for the presidential office, although he may be thwarted not only by the unpredictable Zemmour, but also and perhaps especially by women: Marine Le Pen and Valerie Pécresse, the center-right candidate (who has toned down on moral issues and is quite neoliberal on economic issues).
The last five years have been in some respects a contradiction of Zemmour’s program – if only in the case of linking France’s future to the European Union. Macron – perhaps a bit too optimistically – is trying to use the ongoing French presidency of the Council of the European Union as a way to show that France is leading Europe (the EU has been Macron’s leitmotif from the very beginning of his presidency – already on election night he entered the stage to the melody of Ode to Joy). Macron is a follower of liberal France – hence, for example, the decision to place the ashes of Simone Veil, who led the campaign to liberalize abortion, in the Parisian Pantheon.
However, as McAuley interestingly argues, Zemmour and Macron go hand-in-hand on Islam, although they would never admit it. The tightening of the law on so-called separatism (clearly referring to Islam) after teacher Samuel Paty was murdered in the fall of 2020 by an Islamist for showing a caricature of Mohammed in class was a somewhat Zemmourian reaction. It involved the closure of Muslim associations and an attempt to curb “Islamo-leftism” in universities. Macron’s minister of education has opened a think-tank to combat exaggerated sensitivity to racial issues (he uses the recently-fashionable in the US word of “wokeness”). Thus, Macron and his team seem to be turning to the right on this matter, probably in order to take this argument out of the hands of the extreme right.
However, there is a difference between a firm (even if unjustified) attitude to Islam and basing one’s whole ideology on Islamophobia, and this is the case with Zemmour and a considerable group of French intellectuals. The most spectacular of these is Renaud Camus, author of Grand Replacement published in 2010, who writes that French elites, for reasons of ideology and economic interest, are in the process of replacing the French and Europeans with people from sub-Saharan Africa and the Maghreb. The dramatic effects of this theory materialized far beyond France: the theory of Renaud Camus, targeting Muslims and supposedly defending the “white race,” inspired one of the attacks on a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, where 51 Muslims were killed in 2019.
An intellectually much more subtle version of the argument, but one that also bemoans social change in France, is presented by Alain Finkielkraut in his book L’identité malheureuse (The Unhappy Identity). He believes that the extent of immigration from culturally foreign lands, along with the liberal ideology of globalism that favors it, is a mortal threat to French culture, which for Finkielkraut is the embodiment of the sublime and the beautiful.
Undoubtedly, Zemmour expresses the most deeply rooted feeling of many French people – the aforementioned nostalgia for the lost past; a feeling that has even earned its own word: déclinisme. As many as 75% of the French believe that France is in decline.
This is a very high score, but curiously 10 points lower than in 2014 – Macron presidency could have played a role in this change.
If Zemmour captures so well the sentiment shared by so many French people, can he win this election? The latest polls don’t give him much chance of doing so, although they don’t deprive him of the chance altogether. His support oscillates around 13-14%, while Valerie Pécresse might get around 17%, thus entering the second round. Pécresse, as well as Le Pen, would also have a better chance of winning with Macron in the second round than Zemmour. However, developments could still surprise us. And – perhaps most importantly – the lasting outcome of the Zemmour phenomenon could be something groundbreaking: a broad rehabilitation of an extreme form of nationalism in French political life for the first time since 1945. The survival of a constitutional democracy embedded in the European Union in France is therefore by no means certain. It would be an illusion to think that this is a country free from the temptation of nationalism. However, despite the temptations of Zemmour’s narratives, it is unlikely to succumb to it in the upcoming elections
Michał Matlak is Managing Editor of the Review of Democracy, CEU Democracy Institute, Budapest, Hungary. (In collaboration with Oliver Garner and Hannah Vos).