In 2011 Éric Zemmour, the author, broadcaster and provocateur, was found guilty of inciting racial hatred, and in 2018 guilty of inciting hate against Muslims. Another court case is pending over his television statement in 2020 that young lone migrants had no right to be in France, that they were “robbers, murderers and rapists”.
Zemmour, 63, is notorious in France but undoubtedly popular. His books are best-sellers. The most well known, The French Suicide (2014), sold 5,000 copies a day in the two weeks after its publication and has since sold more than half a million copies. The book’s central argument is that France has been in decline since the 1970s. The primary cause of this, Zemmour believes, is the influence of the May 68 generation and their descendants, whose progressive ideas on morality, immigration and sexual freedom have destroyed traditional French values. This has led to the rise of identity politics, which Zemmour sees as a corrosive Anglo-American import into France.
The argument is similar to the one made by the geographer Christophe Guilluy. The difference is that Guilluy writes from the left on the negative impact identity politics is having on working-class communities. Zemmour, on the other hand, is a supporter of the far right, defining traditional French values as belonging to the “bourgeoisie” – the comfortable middle classes who are under threat from non-French cultures.
Zemmour claims that leftist politicians and journalists are now contaminated by the sanctimonious self-hatred of political correctness. The result has been a deference to Islam at the cost of French cultural integrity. Unsurprisingly, Zemmour’s heroes are the “great men” of history whose destiny was to save “the Great Nation”; above all, he reveres Napoleon Bonaparte and Charles de Gaulle.
Zemmour’s fame is a strange 21st-century phenomenon: he is a media figure rather than the product of the traditional political tribes that dominated French political life until Emmanuel Macron came to power in 2017. Although he is an author (his new book published this month is titled France Has Not Yet Said its Last Word) and was until recently a columnist (he left Le Figaro on 1 September), he is best known as a presenter on the commentary programme Facing the News on CNews, which is described as the Fox News of France.
Zemmour is noted for his sarcasm, unpredictability, finger-jabbing and apparent fearlessness in the face of “the woke left”. According to the journalist Daniel Schneidermann, writing in Libération, these qualities have made Zemmour France’s most “TV-friendly fascist”. A poll published in May 2021 reported that Zemmour had taken CNews to a peak of more than a million viewers, surpassing the more mainstream BFMTV channel.
Zemmour is a proficient user of social media, but it is from his TV appearances that he has attracted a cult following among a generation of young right-wingers known as “GZ” or “Génération Z” (the “Z” is for Zemmour). His fans have entertained themselves during pandemic lockdowns by meeting to watch Zemmour on CNews with an early evening apéritif (usually crisps and beer). Génération Z call this “Le ZApéro”, and a website provides a guide to Zemmour’s thoughts on immigration, politics, international affairs and education.
At the time of writing Zemmour has still not announced his bid for the presidency. Rumours that he might run began on 28 June, the day after the second round of the French regional elections. These were characterised by a historic abstention rate (66 per cent) and disappointing results for the leading contenders, Emmanuel Macron, leader of La République En Marche! (LREM), and Marine Le Pen, leader of the Rassemblement National (RN).
As the election results came in overnight, as many as 10,000 posters suddenly appeared across France on the hoardings reserved for political parties during elections, with the slogan “Zemmour Président”. The posters showed a photograph of Zemmour, soberly dressed in statesman-like fashion, and the address of a website calling for him to run for office. Responsibility for the posters was claimed by a group of his supporters, “The Friends of Éric Zemmour”, and celebrated by the militants of Génération Z. Momentum for Zemmour to enter politics has been growing: it now looks as if the well-organised (and mysteriously well-funded) publicity stunt may become a reality. The rumours intensified after Zemmour recently announced that he was leaving Le Figaro, as well as his show on CNews.
Zemmour was born in Paris in 1958 to a Jewish Algerian family who arrived in France at the height of the Algerian War of Independence (1954-62). He is married to a distinguished lawyer, Mylène Chichportich, who is 62 and was also born in Paris, to a family of Tunisian Jews. Both of them grew up in a France that was seen by North African Jews as a safe haven. This explains much of Zemmour’s love of the grandeur of the French past. Chichportich is deliberately discreet when it comes to her husband’s public activities and distances herself from his work so that she can maintain her own professional identity. They have three children who are also shielded from their father’s work.
Zemmour does not make much of his Jewishness. He has described himself as “a Frenchman of Berber extraction”, and is disliked by many in the French Jewish community. In 2019, in an interview with the writer and showman Bernard-Henri Lévy, Zemmour defended the collaborationist government of Marshal Pétain during the Second World War, claiming that the Pétain regime saved many French Jews. This was met with outrage by historians and Jewish organisations and ended in a court case. Zemmour was acquitted on account of the ambiguity and the context of his wording, fuelling further anger among Jews. Sabrina Goldman, a lawyer for the International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism, has alleged that Zemmour is “effectively a Holocaust denier”.
On 26 August Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator for Brexit, announced that he was running as a presidential candidate for the right-wing Les Républicains (LR). Barnier is perhaps less known in France than he is in Britain, and has haughtily dismissed Zemmour as a mere “journalist” and “a hypothetical candidate”. In a recent interview with the New Statesman, Barnier said that “I have nothing to do with Zemmour. We do not have the same feelings, convictions or history.” When asked if Zemmour should be permitted to run for the LR nomination, Barnier said: “No way.”
Zemmour’s publisher, Albin Michel, dropped him in June, stating that Zemmour was “changing status” to become a politician rather than a writer. Zemmour has gathered support from intellectuals, in particular the group close to the magazine Valeurs Actuelles. Zemmour’s most influential supporter is the novelist Michel Houellebecq, who has been photographed with Zemmour at events hosted by Valeurs Actuelles; in 2020 he praised Zemmour as the “most interesting avatar” (meaning a symbol of hope) for “Catholics and non-Christians alike”.
Zemmour has spoken out in defence of the theory of “le grand remplacement” (“the great replacement”), as popularised by the white supremacist author Renaud Camus. This is a widespread conspiracy theory on the far right that argues that, within a few generations, the white, Judeo-Christian civilisation of Europe will be replaced by “another civilisation”: that French universalism will be replaced by the universalism of Islam (this is the plot of Houellebecq’s 2015 novel Soumission). In the August edition of Paris Match, Zemmour predicted that by 2100, France “will be an Islamic Republic” if the influence of Islam in the country is not halted.
Although it has been the subject of renewed interest among the far right, the theory of “le grand remplacement” is one of the defining tenets in the history of French fascism. Its intellectual origins can be traced back to the Catholic journalist Édouard Drumont, who in 1886 wrote a bestseller called La France Juive (“Jewish France” – The French Suicide of its day), which predicted the destruction of the nation by Jewish people. The idea was also linked to the writings of Maurice Barrès, an extreme nationalist who, a few years after Drumont’s book, argued that France would be overwhelmed by the “barbarian” sons and daughters of immigrants.
Zemmour is a provocateur who delights in outrage, but he is not stupid. He understands history and how to disseminate these old ideas in a contemporary, less toxic way, exploiting the fears and fault lines in modern France over immigration, race and poverty. He has rich if mysterious financial backers (one of these, according to Libération, is Charles Gave, a businessman and a firm believer in “le grand remplacement”). According to recent polls, Zemmour’s standing as a politician is at 11 per cent, equal with the left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon. These numbers may change if Zemmour declares his candidacy for president.
The politician who has most to fear from Éric Zemmour is Marine Le Pen. Le Pen has made a strategic decision to “detoxify” the RN and rebrand the party to make it more palatable to centre-right, as well as working-class voters. This has led to the formation of breakaway groups from the RN, such as Les Patriotes (The Patriots), led by Florian Philippot, Le Pen’s former director of strategy. From the point of view of these hardliners, her strategy is failing.
Zemmour hopes to exploit this fracture in the RN. Perhaps seeking to make a political deal, Robert Ménard, the independent mayor of Béziers, in southern France, invited Le Pen and Zemmour to a dinner in the town on 3 September. Zemmour declined, calling instead for “a public debate”. If a deal between Le Pen and Zemmour can be struck, together they would be an electoral force.
In private, friends close to Éric Zemmour report that he is urbane and witty, with a deep knowledge of French history. His flaw is his craving for public attention. If Zemmour’s ego gets the better of him, and he decides to go it alone, he may well be seen as a wrecker rather than the saviour of the French far right.
This article appears in the 29 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spirit of the Age