France’s New Far-Right Firebrand

Éric Zemmour launched his candidacy to become the 26th president of France with a mix of nostalgia and searing provocation. The notoriously combative broadcaster appeared in an online video on Nov. 30, replicating Gen. Charles de Gaulle’s June 1940 call to arms.

De Gaulle was appealing for resistance against Nazi occupiers during World War II, while Zemmour said he wanted to “save” France from decades of immigration and liberalism. Like de Gaulle, he hunched over a microphone and tried to appear statesmanlike as images of a mythical France—clean, beautiful, and full of Gallic icons from Joan of Arc to Édith Piaf—were juxtaposed with those of a decaying republic plagued by violent disorder. Pop polemicists thrive on such absurdly simplistic contradictions, and none more so than 63-year-old Éric Justin Léon Zemmour.

There was no mention of the broadcaster’s own alleged threat to public order—the fact that in November he went on trial for inciting racial hatred after saying of unaccompanied immigrant children that they are “thieves, they’re murderers, they’re rapists, that’s all they are. We must send them back.” The verdict is expected in January.

Zemmour made those comments on the CNews television channel, where he has appeared as a full-time commentator on current affairs each weekday evening. He has already been convicted twice for inciting racial and religious hatred. Indeed, spreading the idea of collective guilt is a cornerstone of Zemmour’s venomous discourse.

Zemmour identifies as Jewish, yet arguably his most despicable deceit is his false theory that the World War II-era French Vichy regime did not collaborate with the Nazis to perpetrate the Holocaust.

He claims France is being “submerged” by dark-skinned immigrants from Muslim countries, yet he traces his own heritage to a Berber family in what is now the Muslim-majority country of Algeria. Zemmour identifies as Jewish, yet arguably his most despicable deceit is his false theory that the World War II-era French Vichy regime did not collaborate with the Nazis to perpetrate the Holocaust. Instead, he has portrayed the Vichy government’s head, Marshal Philippe Pétain, as someone who had “protected the French Jews.”

These monstrous historical lies—which belie the fact that 75,000 Jews were rounded up by French officials and sent to Nazi concentration camps—saw Zemmour taken to court in 2020 on charges of disputing a crime against humanity in this context. However, he used weasel words—“it’s not my subject, I haven’t studied it”—to avoid conviction. He was acquitted in that case this February.

Clément Beaune, France’s Europe minister, nonetheless rounded on Zemmour, saying that his claims “do not stand up to historical analysis for a second” and were “vomit-inducing.” Beaune emphasized that “Éric Zemmour is one of the faces of what has a long tradition in our country—the hateful antisemitic French far-right.”

Despite his professed hate for the mainstream media—Zemmour has described it as a “propaganda machine that hates France” and “spits on the French people, whom they want to see disappear”—he owes his entire career to appearances on popular radio and television programs.

His best-known book, The French Suicide, is a study in cataclysmic negativity that frequently drifts into nihilism and alleges that France has been in terminal decline since the 1960s, as it has failed to cope with waves of immigrants who could not be integrated. It also states that the country was catastrophically damaged by student protests and contemporary social movements, including those for sexual liberation, feminism, and gay rights. Yet regardless of this purported national demise, Zemmour is determined to run the country.

Zemmour has been campaigning vigorously across France, and on Dec. 5 held his first major rally at the Zenith arena in northern Paris. A slight man of approximately 5-foot-6, he was physically attacked on arrival—a member of the crowd briefly held him in a headlock before being pulled off by security guards. Zemmour suffered a badly injured wrist—a doctor advised him to take nine days off work—while the assailant was arrested and faces assault charges.

Horrific scenes of violence then broke out in the Zenith after anti-racism activists entered the venue. Videos showed members of the SOS Racisme association, including a young woman, being repeatedly punched by Zemmour supporters after displaying “No To Racism” T-shirts. Five members of the group were injured, two seriously.

Zemmour oozed defiance, despite the fact that the onslaught on his character has been unrelenting in the months leading up to the announcement of his candidacy. The Paris news outlet Mediapart had presented detailed evidence from eight women who have accused him of sexual assault.

Among them were Aurore Van Opstal, 31, a Belgian writer who alleges that Zemmour assaulted her in 2019; Gaëlle Lenfant, a 55-year-old local government official from Aix-en-Provence, has accused Zemmour of sexually abusing her at a summer camp run by the French Socialist Party in 2004. Zemmour refused to discuss the accusations with Foreign Policy, and he has not been arrested or charged.

Meanwhile, the married father of three has failed in a legal bid to prevent disclosure of his secret affair with his campaign manager, Sarah Knafo, 28. The pair are reportedly expecting a baby in April, just when Zemmour hopes he will be going head to head with Emmanuel Macron to become France’s new head of state.

Hate sells in France, and an exploitative media is happy to champion rabble-rousers like Zemmour.

How Zemmour got into such an extraordinary position is a source of endless debate, but there is no doubting his maverick credentials. France today is massively divided, with public faith in its increasingly corrupt politicians and fragmented party system at rock bottom. Former conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy was handed two criminal convictions earlier this year, and he has only managed to stay out of prison thanks to a notoriously slow appeals system. François Fillon, Sarkozy’s prime minister and an early front-runner in France’s 2017 presidential race, is also contesting a jail sentence following a scandal in which he robbed taxpayers by pretending that his wife was his parliamentary assistant.

As an author, Zemmour is well known for rehearsing the details of the culture wars that are a constant source of division in French society. Whether he is debating laïcité—the French brand of secularism—race, identity, or related issues, he does so with a poisonous intensity in front of an audience of millions on primetime TV. Hate sells in France, and an exploitative media is happy to champion rabble-rousers like Zemmour.

Macron, a fresh-faced independent and political newcomer, overcame such extremism in 2017 to win that year’s presidential election—positioning himself as a moderate centrist with more interest in fiscal policy than hate and division. But since then, Macron has also tried to appease the right through anti-Muslim policies and clampdowns on immigration. Overall, however, he still tries to come across as a pragmatist who wants to reconcile opposing factions.

Zemmour, by contrast, is an anti-establishment disrupter in the Donald Trump mold. He has encouraged this comparison to the former U.S. president by designing the cover of his new book to be a near direct copy of the cover of Great Again, Trump’s 2015 manifesto. Zemmour poses in front of his national flag and claims that, despite decades of despondency, he can make his country great again. His rallies also have a glitzy, Trump-style feel to them. And like Trump, he has also faced allegations of sexually assaulting women but has declined to respond.

Eric Zemmour on the television show “L’heure de vérité” (The Hour of Truth) in 1995.

Zemmour’s background is in extreme right-wing opinion journalism. He got his start at Le Quotidien de Paris and later moved to magazines and newspapers including Le Figaro and Valeurs Actuelles. Then he mostly featured on the small screen, primarily on the Fox-like CNews channel, where he played the part of a professional depressive agonizing over the trajectory of the modern world.

Through his media work and publications, Zemmour taps into the traditional French psychological condition of l’ennui—which can be simply translated as “boredom” but in fact extends to a near-suicidal disdain for life. He has also come to represent the very distinct and powerful French constituency known as pieds-noirs, or “black feet”—a nickname for the 1 million-plus mainly European settlers who reveled in relatively privileged lives in Algeria when it was France’s largest colony and began to depart for France in waves, primarily after 1945, as pro-independence fighting intensified.

Among those who left during the 1950s were Zemmour’s parents, Roger, an ambulance driver, and Lucette, a housewife. Zemmour claims that they were not technically pieds-noirs themselves, instead tracing their Berber heritage back before the French Occupation that started in 1830. But he has conceded that they embraced the invader and wanted to stay under French rule.

When 132 years of imperial rule came to a close in 1962, following Algerian nationalists’ victory in a brutal eight-year war against France, the remaining pieds-noirs were forced to evacuate en masse—and blamed politicians back in Paris for the disaster.

The pied-noir mindset was based on unquestioning reverence toward the colonial overlord. For Zemmour’s parents and others, integration into the French mainstream meant survival: Getting an education and then earning a living required conforming. Despite this reality—and its legacy today—Zemmour is reticent about issues related to Algeria, because he does not want to acknowledge his roots in an “Islamic land.” Zemmour believes Islam is incompatible with modern France, and he has called on Muslims to renounce their faith. He has also made it clear that people named Mohammed or Ali are not welcome; indeed, Zemmour has proposed banning Arabic-sounding names in France.

In 1952, the Zemmours swapped the heat of Imperial France for the dreary Paris suburb of Montreuil, where Éric Zemmour was born in 1958. That year, the Algeria crisis was threatening civil war in mainland France as Algerian nationalists living there fought their French counterparts.

The World War II hero de Gaulle emerged as the “man of destiny” to guide both countries away from the abyss. De Gaulle did this by rewriting France’s constitution, leading to its modern version, known as the Fifth Republic, and taking office as president in January 1959. The new constitution guaranteed a hyper-powerful leader who is still referred to as an elected monarch—it replaced a predominantly parliamentary system with a nominally dual one that splits power between the head of state (the president) and their appointed head of government (the prime minister).

After years of bloodshed, de Gaulle infamously presided over France’s defeat in Algeria in 1962, earning the eternal bitterness and hatred of the pieds-noirs. Many of them—including former soldiers—helped create the National Front party in 1972, together with Third Reich nostalgists who include the now-convicted racist and antisemite Jean-Marie Le Pen. Some of Le Pen’s cofounders had even fought in Nazi Germany’s Waffen SS. The party is now called the National Rally and is led by his daughter, Marine Le Pen.

Zemmour was educated at a private Jewish school in Drancy—another Paris suburb and the former site of a Nazi internment camp for Jews, most of whom were put on trains to Auschwitz. The remains of the Drancy camp are still there, making Zemmour’s Vichy denialism even more shocking. He then attended Sciences Po for his university studies, but he later failed to get into the elite École Nationale d’Administration, which is generally regarded as the finishing school for future French leaders like Macron. Instead, Zemmour hacked away for multiple right-wing outlets.

Demonstrators hold a placard reading ‘Stop to fake news, stop to the chronicles on CNEWS’ in Bordeaux, southern France, on November 12 in opposition of a meeting of Eric Zemmour.

Zemmour’s popularity has skyrocketed over the past two years during weeknight appearances on CNews, the Paris-based outlet. He was often one of a few guests on the early evening show Face à l’Info—best translated as Face the Press—where he was allowed to talk about whatever was on his mind. While complaints about Zemmour’s extremism poured in, they did not damage the show’s ratings. When he said the unsayable—a frequent occurrence—he was taken off air for days at a time as alleged offenses were ostensibly investigated, but he always returned. Zemmour was officially forced to step down from the show by the TV regulator last September, as it monitors airtime for prospective candidates.

Bêtes noires discussed on CNews included so-called woke culture, Marxists, the #MeToo movement, and LGBT rights. Zemmour also bemoaned the demise of a strong and sure Christian France, while constantly berating Islam. Zemmour has seized every opportunity to ascribe collective guilt to France’s Muslim population of nearly 6 million for the crimes of radicalized criminals or overseas terrorist organizations. He was found guilty of “targeting Muslims as a whole” after stating that “all Muslims, whether they say it or not” consider jihadi terrorists to be “good Muslims.”

Among Zemmour’s pseudo-intellectual theories is the Great Replacement—the claim that immigrants to Europe from African and Arab countries have far more children far more quickly than native whites and will thus eventually replace them and dominate society.

The Great Replacement idea was initially introduced in a 2011 book of the same name by Renaud Camus, another French ultranationalist, and has since been linked with numerous murderous white supremacist gunmen. Among them is Brenton Tarrant, the 28-year-old who carried out two consecutive mass shootings at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2019, and quoted the theory in his online manifesto.

Left: Torn Zemmour posters in Paris on Oct. 20. JOEL SAGET/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES Right: Protesters, surrounded by tear gas, face riot police outside of the Zenith Metropole arena in Saint-Herblain, France, on Oct. 30, during a rally against Zemmour. SEBASTIEN SALOM-GOMIS/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

In 2018, when Marine Le Pen changed the name of the party founded by her father, she was hoping to detoxify its image. This was primarily for electoral reasons: Le Pen realized that attracting a moderate centrist vote was needed to attain real power. But that apparent moderation, alongside the candidacy of the uncensored Zemmour, is not helping her at the polls.

France has a two-round presidential election in which the top two finishers proceed to a runoff two weeks later, if no one wins an absolute majority in the first round. An Ifop-Fiducial poll conducted in October by Le Figaro and the TV station LCI suggested Zemmour would win 17 percent of the first-round vote, just ahead of Le Pen at 16 percent. This would allow Zemmour to go head to head with Macron, who would earn 25 percent in the first round according to the poll.

Sex abuse allegations are, however, among the factors that have threatened Zemmour’s early success. Opinion polls published in early December have Zemmour’s first-round vote down as low as 13 percent, compared to 20 percent for Le Pen and 24 percent for Macron.

For the past year, Le Pen looked to have an easy path to the second round. Now it seems that a vocal section of France’s increasingly right-wing electorate is more interested in a Jean-Marie Le Pen-style candidate like Zemmour than in Marine Le Pen herself. Significantly, Jean-Marie Le Pen has already said he would vote for Zemmour if he thinks he has a better chance of winning the presidency than his daughter.

Zemmour is not a strongman. He is little more than a propaganda creation.

Beyond the National Rally, Zemmour will likely draw support from the Republicans, the current name for the Gaullist conservatives, and the party of the disgraced Sarkozy and Fillon—which, for the first time, has just selected a woman, Valérie Pécresse, as its 2022 presidential candidate. Those parties’ voters are just the types who—like Zemmour—long for the kind of lost France that allegedly existed when it was a great colonial power and that appeared in his campaign video.

Maleness is another virtue of many French reactionaries. Zemmour despises feminism and aspires to be another autocrat-like figure in the manner of de Gaulle or Napoleon Bonaparte. “I revere Napoleon and de Gaulle, and what they did for France,” Zemmour said before a rally in Lyon last month. “Macron represents a very different type of leader, but he will be the last in a long line who have failed France.”

But the simple fact is that Zemmour is not a strongman. He is little more than a propaganda creation: someone with a talent for cobbling together offensive scripts and essay-style books, but little else.

The question now is whether Zemmour can attain political power. With increased division on the right—between Zemmour, Le Pen, and the Republicans—a second term for Macron is a near-certain bet, at least at present, according to all the polls. Like the Le Pens, both of whom have entered presidential runoffs against moderates, Zemmour is a useful lightning rod for malice. His profile suits France’s two-round voting system, wherein many voters use the first round to cast an anti-establishment protest vote before pragmatism kicks in during the second round, usually as a bulwark against extremists.

But whatever happens next April, Zemmour will retain a significant constituency in a country where the far-right is indisputably on the rise. His televised tirades will also continue to inflame debate and polarize the electorate. Even if Macron manages another likely victory, Zemmour’s dangerous ideology will still define the political discourse in France.

Nabila Ramdani is a French Algerian journalist, columnist, and broadcaster who specializes in French politics, Islamic affairs, and the Arab world. Twitter: @NabilaRamdani

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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