How right-wing thinker Eric Zemmour is fuelling France’s identity wars

The polemicist has attracted large TV audiences for his anti-Islam diatribes but critics accuse of him stoking racism. 

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On Monday afternoon, two men attending a mosque in Bayonne, south-western France, were shot and severely injured by a man who tried to set the door of the building on fire. The victims, aged 74 and 78, were Muslims. The attacker, Claude Sinké, 84, who admitted shooting them, is a white man who in 2015 ran as a candidate for Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in regional elections and was known in his village for his xenophobic and homophobic views, and for owning guns. 

The attack, condemned by all political parties — including Le Pen’s, which said in a statement that Sinké had been “moved aside” in 2015 after making inappropriate remarks — has raised alarm in France over growing Islamophobia. The Union of French Mosques (UMF) has warned of the “heavy consequences of hateful discourses on Muslims” and the “anxiety-inducing climate fed by conflation and anti-Muslim speech”. UMF director Mohammed Moussaoui said: “Those who contribute to the normalisation of hate and racism take responsibility for exposing fellow citizens who are Muslims to this type of criminal attack.”

Though the Bayonne attacker cited no direct influences, the French media were quick to note that he had posted messages on Facebook in support of Eric Zemmour, one of the country’s most vocal critics of Islam. “We are at war against Islamists,” Sinké wrote in 2014 on a Facebook page titled “the blog of Eric Zemmour fans”. 

Zemmour, 61, is a polemicist with close links to the traditional far right, who has written several pamphlets on Islam and the French republic and has been an incendiary TV commentator since 2003. He was convicted in 2011 of “provocation to racial discrimination” and in 2018 of “provocation to hate against Muslims”. In 2016, he was condemned after declaring that Muslims should “choose between France and Islam”. 

He lost his appeal against the 2018 conviction last September. Less than a month later, he launched a new daily live show, of which he is the star. The first episode, which featured topics such as “the place of Islam in the French republic” and “the Muslim headscarf”, tripled the channel’s audience ratings. In just over two weeks, Zemmour has stunned the public by claiming that homosexuality is a “choice” and by paying tribute to a French general who he said “massacred Muslims and even some Jews” in Algeria. 

Zemmour condemned the Bayonne terrorist attack and denied that he should be held accountable for inspiring the shooter, but his influence on the fierce French debate around Islam has been clear for some time. On 28 September, Zemmour was one of the featured speakers at the “Convention of the Right”, an event organised by Marion Maréchal, Le Pen’s niece and a rising star among French conservatives. Zemmour’s speech was so violently xenophobic — he referred to “colonising immigrants”, the “Islamisation” of French streets and warned that the country’s problems were “aggravated by immigration, itself aggravated by Islam” — that the TV channel that broadcast his full speech was “firmly warned” by the French media regulator, while the Paris prosecutor’s office opened an investigation into him for “public insults” and “public provocation to discrimination, to hate or to violence”. (Zemmour reaffirmed his remarks.)

The polemicist has also praised the “great replacement” theory, advanced by French author Renaud Camus, which states that white European populations are being progressively “replaced” by non-white, non-European immigrant populations. Camus claims inspiration from Enoch Powell and his racist theory has been cited as a motive in several terrorist attacks targeting Muslims, including the Christchurch shooting that killed 51 people in New Zealand in March, and the El Paso shooting that killed 22 in Texas this summer. Zemmour often cites Camus and shares his “identity-focused” view of French society — themes such as the decline of French colonial power feature heavily in his speeches.

Zemmour’s discourse has been criticised by many in France. Several political parties and civil society groups have announced that they won’t appear on any programme on the CNews channel, which broadcasts him. The Green Party has called for sanctions and for Zemmour’s daily show to end, as have CNews employees: they cited “security, ethics, and the channel’s public image” as reasons to call for his sacking. 

In September, the French historian Gérard Noiriel published The Venom in the Wound, a book comparing Zemmour’s rhetoric to that of Edouard Drumont, one of the leading French proponents of anti-Semitism in the 19th century. “Zemmour’s language is an implicit incitement to civil war,” Noiriel told Libération, explaining that in both cases, a “communications revolution” - the printing press in Drumont’s time and the internet in Zemmour’s — had enabled the polemicists to reach new audiences. 

As Noiriel wrote in Le Monde earlier this month: “Giving Zemmour a daily platform on a live news channel to gain a few audience rating points is playing with fire. If a fanatic of the ‘great replacement’ commits a massacre like the one that happened in the US a few months ago, these TV channels will bear a grave responsibility.”

The day after the Bayonne shooting, CNews announced that Zemmour’s show would no longer be broadcast live. Zemmour has claimed the programme was the subject of a bidding war between channels before it aired and, since its audience ratings remain high, it’s unlikely to be cancelled. His success raises questions, not only for the French media, but for France as a society — and where it is headed.

Pauline Bock is a New Statesman contributing writer based in Brussels. She writes about Brexit, the EU, France and the Macron presidency.