Original photos: Joel Saget/AFP via Getty Images;  Eric Feferberg/AFP via Getty Images
Original photos: Joel Saget/AFP via Getty Images; Eric Feferberg/AFP via Getty Images
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Author Eric Zemmour, the French Jewish Trump, Storms to Top of Presidential Polls

With his ability to control his own narrative, the one-man show is a symptom of the Americanization of French politics

Mitchell Abidor
Miguel Lago
October 21, 2021
Original photos: Joel Saget/AFP via Getty Images;  Eric Feferberg/AFP via Getty Images
Original photos: Joel Saget/AFP via Getty Images; Eric Feferberg/AFP via Getty Images

In the space of only a few weeks, the bestselling, right-wing Jewish author Eric Zemmour has doubled his polling numbers for next year’s presidential elections in France, reaching an astonishing 17%. He is ahead of all other right-wing candidates, including Marine Le Pen, longtime standard bearer of the right, who has lost half of her support to Zemmour—himself now running second only to incumbent Emmanuel Macron. All this despite the fact that Zemmour does not lead or belong to a political party and has not even officially announced his candidacy. And yet the only topic of public debate six months before the election seems to be: Will he run? France’s right-wing and far-right parties are all looking over their shoulders, and even Macron is demonstrating concern, attacking Zemmour in public forums.

Zemmour is in some ways France’s Donald Trump or Jair Bolsonaro, an outsider who claims to say what everyone else merely thinks. He wants to ban all immigration; he claims Muslims have “colonized” entire swaths of French cities; he considers France to be in a state of civil war with its Muslim population. Islam, for Zemmour, is by its nature a religion of terror.

But in saying these things out loud, Zemmour maintains important differences from the Le Pen dynasty: He has long positioned himself as the thinker of the right, producing bestsellers that delve into French history with a classically far-right slant, presenting a France facing decline, degeneration, and even national suicide by way of leftist ideology and the presence of large immigrant communities. He is a firm believer in “The Great Replacement,” which sees les Français de France supplanted by a new, Muslim French population, following an Islam that he believes is incompatible with “French values.” French universalism for Zemmour is an outgrowth of Christian universalism; and it is Catholicism that is the founding doctrine of the French nation. Despite this focus on Christianity, Zemmour is himself a Jew of Algerian Berber ancestry, the son of observant Jews who fled Algeria in 1958 during that country’s war of independence.

How is it that Zemmour’s improbable rise has already come to seem inevitable? The explanation can be found in the role of French media in the country’s political life, in Zemmour’s own ideas, and in the interaction of all this with his personal history.

Eric Zemmour’s Jewishness is a weapon he uses in disconcerting ways. Though he doesn’t hide his ancestry, it is not something that he foregrounds. He has defined his vision of Jewishness as that expressed in 1789 in the Comte de Clermont-Tonerre’s speech on religious minorities (“Nothing for the Jews as a nation, everything for the Jews as individuals”) and by Napoleon: “Henceforth you should consider Paris to be your Jerusalem.” And yet Zemmour’s Jewishness is always at his disposal, granting him license to make statements it would not be possible for a non-Jew to make.

In his 2014 bestseller Le Suicide français, Zemmour made the claim that the Vichy government (1940-1944) actually protected French Jews. That this was simply false was amply demonstrated by historians; that it did nothing to change his mind was made abundantly clear when he repeated the claim as recently as September 2020. Nor did it end with Vichy. Zemmour has also lamented the focus on the Holocaust in French schools, claiming that it was not a “central” event of the war. That such a comment would be forbidden to a non-Jew is proved by the fate of Jean-Marie Le Pen who, in 1987, dismissed the Holocaust as a “point de detail” of the war. Le Pen (and, by extension, his party) was condemned as an antisemite, a label he has never been able to shake, and which played no small part in his replacement as party leader by his daughter Marine, culminating in the later rebranding of the Front National as the Rassemblement National.

But Zemmour goes further than Le Pen père. He is opposed to any memorialization of the murder of the Jews during the Second World War, and of laws protecting the memory of the Holocaust. He rejects the legitimacy of the apologies offered for France’s role in the massacre of its Jews, claiming this was part of an enterprise to make the French feel guilty for crimes perpetrated by Germans alone. In his latest book, which sold 200,000 before it was even published, Zemmour cited the work of “anthropologists” when he labeled the four Jews killed by a terrorist at a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012 as “above all foreigners,” because their bones were eventually buried not in French soil but in Israel. (According to Zemmour’s anthropologists, it is the final resting place of one’s remains that determines nationality.) Not even Captain Dreyfus escapes Zemmour’s scorn, as he insists that the French general staff had good reason to suspect him of espionage since he was “German.” Alfred Dreyfus was, in reality, Alsatian, and his family chose France after Germany conquered Alsace in the Franco-Prussian War. It is not surprising that the monarchist and antisemitic organization L’Action Française, which led the charge against Dreyfus in the 1890s, posts videos of Zemmour on its YouTube channel.

It is easy to condemn Zemmour’s statements as those of an antisemite, and there are some Jews, like political kingmaker Jacques Attali, who are comfortable defining him as a “Jewish antisemite.” But Zemmour’s inflammatory remarks are not the product of Jew-hatred; they are just one expression of what truly lies at the heart of his ideology, which also includes hatred of Muslims and immigrants. For Zemmour there is only one France and one French history, one of eternal grandeur and glory. He thus despises any form of ethnic particularism and any claims to victimhood at the hands of the French nation. He hates particularism because it denies the oneness of France; he detests claims to victimhood because they put into question the unerring nature of France, of the mythic France he wants to restore—one that is white, Christian, and free of dissent from the dominant discourse.

Because France’s actions are unimpeachable, demands for justice for Jews are an implicit criticism of all Zemmour considers essential. His Jewishness serves here as a vehicle for expressing a vision of France that was weakened by demographic and geopolitical changes and died at the hands of critical scholars, a vision that once led colonial Africans, like every schoolchild in France or living under French rule, to speak of “our ancestors the Gauls.” France did not mistreat its Jews because, in Zemmour’s eyes, it could not mistreat its Jews—France being the essential, almost angelic nation of history. To say otherwise is treasonous.

However extreme that word might seem, it is the one Zemmour used in a recent TV interview to describe the celebrity philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, citing his books and statements critical of French history and his supposed general unwillingness to defend France. During this same televised diatribe against Lévy, Zemmour again expressed his hatred of particularism, Jewish particularism above all. Citing a Lévy reference to “Jewish generosity,” for example, Zemmour denied that such a thing could exist, since generosity is a universal characteristic.

By condemning any reference to Jewish issues, to Jewish history, or to Jewish suffering, Zemmour is perhaps not being antisemitic. But in speaking as he does, he accomplishes something far more insidious: He provides aid and comfort to antisemites. When the Jew Zemmour denies anything especially notable about the murder of French Jews and denigrates their historical claims to justice, he grants absolution to the antisemites who say the same thing, even if not always for the same reasons.

France has a tradition of political debate on the public airwaves. Some of the most popular and entertaining shows of the last few decades involve such debates, which Zemmour has used to his advantage. Having established himself over the years for his distinctive and unabashedly far-right voice, he is now a constant presence on TV and radio. France also has a tradition of quality political journalism, with newspapers representing all points of view, from Le Figaro on the right, where Zemmour worked for decades, to the communist L’Humanité. Having been a reporter and columnist for over three decades, he is—despite his outsider image—an integral part of the journalistic sphere, and is in reality very much a political insider.

It isn’t rare for Zemmour to make two or three appearances a day on radio and TV; thanks to YouTube, these appearances—which once would have vanished into the ether—are now preserved forever and seen by tens and even hundreds of thousands of people who missed the original broadcasts.

France did not mistreat its Jews because, in Zemmour’s eyes, it could not—France being the angelic nation of history.

Zemmour is a master manipulator of the media, knowing just what to say in order to ensure the greatest amount of attention. This leads to more invitations to speak, which leads to more attention and to ever-larger audiences. In his ability to control his own narrative, he is a symptom of the continuing Americanization of French society and politics. Yes, Zemmour holds mass rallies, but they are of secondary importance to his TV appearances, which can draw in millions. Like Lonesome Rhodes, the hillbilly-turned-demagogue in Elia Kazan’s 1957 film A Face in the Crowd, he has made the cathode-ray tube (or at least the modern version of it) the center of his campaign.

It’s hard not to suspect that a recent miniscandal surrounding Zemmour is nothing but another act of media manipulation. On its cover and in its pages, Paris Match recently printed photos of Zemmour at a beach resort with an assistant—a woman 35 years his junior, and very much not his wife—that showed them in a compromising position. Given his visibility, it’s more than possible that in exposing himself to the prying camera of a paparazzo, Zemmour knew exactly what he was doing: demonstrating his virility and appealing to the machismo of a portion of the French public, one that would be predisposed to him in any case.

That Zemmour has no political party is, if not par for the course, not an anomaly either; it is not rare in France for a candidate to precede a party. Political parties have often been set up as vehicles of one politician, and on two occasions during the postwar years it has led to the candidate’s election: Charles de Gaulle (Rassemblement du peuple francais and later the Union pour la nouvelle république), and Emmanuel Macron (La République en marche). One-man parties would seem most likely in a parliamentary system, but the case of Bolsonaro in Brazil proves that even in presidential systems they can achieve success. And no country is comparable to France in its receptivity to the construction from scratch of a party built around one man.

France’s political life has furthermore always been dominated by members of the elite who graduated from France’s top schools, the École normale supérieure and the École nationale d’administration. No one better exemplifies this than Macron, the very apotheosis of the elite technocrat.

But the emergence of the gilets jaunes (Yellow Vests) has changed matters completely. This movement, which had elements of right- and left-wing ideology, is united around the hatred of politicians (they refuse the presence of any politicians at their roundabouts) and, above all, of technocrats. Zemmour, the supposed outsider, who did not in fact attend an elite school and who has held no public office, is perfectly placed to become the voice of the many hatreds and resentments of the Yellow Vests, the darkest side of La France profonde.

Zemmour’s message is one that is both simple and simplistic. His discourse of a Great French Nation is a flashback to the 19th-century hegemonic discourse of France’s “mission civilisatrice” that served as an excuse for French colonization in Africa and Asia. He is not shy about defending the French colonial system from the perspective of a now-assimilated member of a formerly colonized people, the Berber Jews of Algeria. Zemmour applauds France’s conquest of Algeria not just for having expanded the empire and spread its benefits in the form of roads, schools, and hospitals. He has also said that, as a Berber, he admires the French conquest for having liberated the Berbers from the Arab yoke. His hatred of Arabs is not simply a matter of despising those residing in the banlieues; it is the fruit of a hatred that goes far back in history. The Arab, for Zemmour, has always been the enemy of civilization.

The historical tendency of the French to defy those in power is now exemplified by a man who wants to turn back the clock. His rapid rise is cause for fear. Given Macron’s unpopularity and the collapse of the left, it could be that—unlike Brecht’s Arturo Ui—Zemmour’s rise is irresistible.

Mitchell Abidor is a writer and translator who has published over a dozen books on French radical history.

Miguel Lago is a political scientist and teacher at the École d’Affaires Publiques of Sciences Po in Paris and at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University in New York.