Éric Zemmour, the French Establishment’s Far Right Candidate

Photograph Source: Cheep – CC BY-SA 4.0

Is Éric Zemmour, the television pundit turned presidential candidate, a fascist? His ideas on immigration, Islam and gender are no doubt extreme. To date, he has been twice convicted of incitement to racial or religious hatred.

Only this November, the 63-year-old went on trial again on similar charges, over a remark made on TV in September 2020 that unaccompanied foreign minors were “thieves and rapists” and that France “must send them back”. The court case is ongoing, with Zemmour’s lawyer claiming the charges are “unfounded”.

His first electoral rally, held in the Parisian suburb of Villepinte earlier this week, was marred by scenes of violence: Zemmour supporters, some of whom belong to far-Right and Neo-Nazi groups, beat up antiracist activists who peacefully demonstrated.

Yet to put the ‘fascist’ tag on Zemmour is lazy and unhelpful: it neither sheds light on the reasons for his meteoric political rise, nor does it explain what this current breakthrough represents for French politics.

Promoted by the media

Zemmour indeed sounds like a fascist and has the ideas of a fascist but unlike his electoral opponent Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Rally party, he has no direct link with the French fascist tradition. He comes from the mainstream of French politics, having spent the past 35 years in conservative journalism. In succession, he worked for newspapers and media such as Le Quotidien de Paris and Le Figaro, family-friendly radio stations such as RTL and had a popular talk-show on France 2, the main state television channel.

Between 2019 and 2021, he was the editor and diarist on a daily show broadcast on CNews, a free-to-air news channel that is under the control of Vincent Bolloré, a media proprietor and business magnate. Bolloré, a staunch traditionalist Catholic, fell out with Emmanuel Macron. The president criticised the businessman for using his media outlets to set a reactionary agenda. Now, hostile to Macron’s re-election, Bolloré is widely seen as promoting far-Right ideas and has established CNews as a kind of French counterpart to Fox News in the US. Bolloré has used Zemmour to push forward his ‘law and order’ and Islamophobic agenda.

Born in Algeria to Algerian Jewish parents and raised on the outskirts of Paris, Zemmour embodies the vacuity of the French media, which has undoubtedly made him a political star. Various mainstream television and radio stations as well as newspapers have given him a platform to exercise his vitriolic style and express his racist ideas. Zemmour has not faced a hostile environment. On the contrary, he is the creature of the French political, media and economic establishment, which has protected him and promoted him over the years.

Like those of Donald Trump, Zemmour’s views on race, gender and class are extremist and vulgar. There are distinctions between the two men though. The former US president does not pretend to be cultivated and happily goes along with pop culture. Zemmour, who graduated from the elite university Sciences Po, brags about (his) high culture and seems obsessed with French history, which he constantly distorts to suit his political agenda.

During last week’s announcement of his candidacy for the French presidency, Zemmour spent a great deal of time listing the names of French figures from the past. All were white and most were men. His France is stuck in the past: in the 19th century as far as literature is concerned, and in the 1960s-70s, when it comes to popular culture and politics.

Racism carved in republican universalism

How can one hold extreme right-wing, even fascistic viewpoints, and still not be – strictly speaking – a fascist? Zemmour likes to say that his two major political reference points are Napoléon Bonaparte and Charles de Gaulle. It is telling that both men, to various degrees, come from the authoritarian wing of French conservatism. What is more, this authoritarianism (more blatant in the case of Napoléon) is compatible with the traditional French republican discourse. This ideology today unites the Right and large chunks of the Left in a patriotic narrative that upholds ‘universalism’ as a supreme value.

Universal republicanism is a key element of Zemmour’s extreme ideas – which, paradoxically, are rooted in the mainstream of French politics. According to the universalistic conception of citizenship, the French nation is a political construct rather than a predetermined ethnic or cultural community. All French citizens are considered equal regardless of their race, culture, religion or gender. French republicanism is said to be ‘colour-blind’.

This philosophy is the heritage of the French revolution and is today robustly supported by large sections of the political spectrum, from Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s populist Left to Marine Le Pen’s far Right. Zemmour is also a strong partisan of an ideology whose ‘colour-blindness’ allows racists – such as himself – to also be blind to racism. If Zemmour’s racism (notably his obsessive Islamophobia) borrows from this universalistic conception of citizenship, it does so from a particular standpoint: his Jewishness.

In a speech before the French National Assembly in December 1789, Count Stanislas de Clermont-Tonnerre famously summed up the universal position vis-à-vis emancipated Jews: “We must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation and accord everything to Jews as individuals.” In other words, Jews are French, not because the state acknowledges that they are Jews, but because, as individuals and citizens, they are part of the national community. Such a conception of citizenship can be seen as highly assimilationist, and hostile to UK or US-style multicultural politics.

It is sometimes argued in France that Zemmour is oblivious of his own Jewish origins. He lambasted Jewish families for burying their loved ones in Israel after a terrorist attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse, and has wrongly argued that the Vichy regime protected French Jews. Some critics describe Zemmour as wanting to be the archetypal “Good Jew”: the one who wants to be “more goy than the goyim”. In fact, Zemmour acts like a typical ‘French Israelite’; an expression that encapsulates Jewishness as a religion, not as a broader cultural identity.

From the French revolution onward, many Jews wanted to be seen as irreproachable republicans. In the 19th and 20th centuries, they were devoted patriots, served their country as public servants and fought wars to defend the nation. To be a Jew – or an Israelite – was a purely private matter. To be a French citizen was essential. Zemmour may be a racist, but his racism stems from an uncompromising assimilationism. He acts like a zealous far-Right republican. This does not mean that all republicans in France are racist or reactionary. It simply shows that a racist like Zemmour can find in assimilationist republicanism a handy tool to exercise his hatred of Muslims and foreigners.

A presidential race to the far Right

Zemmour’s racism is well documented. He has recently declared that parents should be allowed to give their children only ‘traditional’ French names; he has argued that employers should have a right to turn down Arab and Black applicants; he has expressed his admiration for General Bugeaud, who slaughtered Muslims during the colonial war in Algeria; he supports the reintroduction of the death penalty; and he believes that men should exercise political power while women stay at home and raise children. Furthermore, he embraces the ‘great replacement’ conspiracy theory, a claim that white European populations are being deliberately replaced via non-white immigration, first articulated by the French far-Right writer Renaud Camus. (The same conspiracy theory motivated a white supremacist to commit the 2019 terrorist attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing 51 people.) The name of Zemmour’s new party, Reconquête, or ‘reconquest’, references the Reconquista that expelled Muslims – and Jews – from Spain.

Will Zemmour stay the course and prove a serious contender? As an absolute beginner in politics and with little support on the ground, he has a mammoth task on his hands. Whether he is electorally successful or not, he has already made an impact on this election and French politics at large. There has been a great shift to the Right in recent years. This started during the Sarkozy presidency (2007-12), but it has intensified during Macron’s term in office. The combined vote for all candidates of the Right (Macron and Valérie Pécresse, the recently nominated candidate for Les Républicains) and far Right (Zemmour and Le Pen) now stands at 70-75%, according to polls. The fragmented Left is historically weak and has no influence on the main political debates.

Indeed, French politicians spend little time discussing socio-economic issues. The most polarised debates revolve around culture wars. In France, they focus on immigration, Islam and its alleged threat to laïcité and French republican values, culture and education. There are constant attacks on ‘Islamo-Leftism’ and ‘woke culture’. These strengthen the hand of the far Right, which traditionally thrives on those issues.

In February 2021, Gérald Darmanin, the interior minister, while debating with Le Pen, claimed that she was “not tough enough on Islam”. Le Pen, in return, complimented Darmanin on his latest book, ‘Islamist Separatism’, saying that she could have written it. In the first round of their candidate selection, Les Républicains members put Éric Ciotti, who is on the far-Right wing of the party, ahead of everyone else. Ciotti, who is a carbon copy of Zemmour on immigration and Islam, has declared that he would be happy to support him, should Zemmour qualify for the second round and face Macron. Les Républicains’ radical shift to the Right may embolden conservative voters to support Zemmour and, ironically, make Le Pen look like a rather moderate figure – which, of course, she is not. Éric Zemmour may have a historic chance to rally large chunks of the conservative and far-Right electorates. Should he manage to do that, it would provoke a cataclysmic realignment of French politics, even more dramatic than Macron’s in 2017.

Philippe Marlière is a Professor of French and European Politics at University College London (UK). Twitter: @PhMarliere