Of all the issues that will be fought over in the forthcoming election, immigration and the broader question of French national identity are likely to be the most bitter.
By Ben Cohen, JNS
After months of speculation, the far-right columnist and TV pundit Éric Zemmour finally announced his candidacy in next year’s presidential election in France. Of the many voices that raced to express their disapproval of Zemmour, perhaps the most distinctive belonged to the one other candidate whose positions are closest to his—Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Rally (RN).
Le Pen was soundly defeated by Emmanuel Macron in the second round of the 2017 election, but she has remained at the helm of the party founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, previously known as the National Front (FN). The elder Le Pen is an unapologetic racist and anti-Semite whose nostalgia for the Vichy collaborationist regime during World War II convinced his daughter that he was an irredeemable liability. In near patricidal fashion, she expelled him in 2015 from the party that was once his fiefdom.
Since then, Marine Le Pen has periodically confronted pretenders to her jealously guarded throne, and Zemmour is the latest. Indeed, she said as much in a series of media interviews the day after Zemmour threw his hat into the ring. “We have always had competitors; today, it’s Éric Zemmour,” she remarked dismissively.
Zemmour’s entry into the race, she continued, was a gift to the incumbent President Emmanuel Macron. He would steal votes from the RN in the first round of the election to the benefit of the center and left parties, she complained. “Why is he even a candidate?” she asked. Commenting on the video released by Zemmour as a companion to his announcement, she was scornful. “He is a chronicler of the present day, but politics is about designing the world of tomorrow,” said Le Pen.
The video laying out Zemmour’s vision for France is a none too sophisticated exercise in nostalgia. Grainy, pixelated digital images of France’s present—cops battling rioters, drug dealers in the streets, churches being demolished, immigrants everywhere— are contrasted with newsreel footage of a romantic, airbrushed past. In a week when the legendary performer and French resistance fighter Josephine Baker, an African-American woman born in St. Louis, received the ultimate honor of a burial in the Pantheon in Paris, Zemmour’s video featured a much more predictable cast of French heroes. Among them were Joan of Arc, Louis XIV, Napoleon and Charles de Gaulle. Louis Pasteur, Victor Hugo and René Descartes all put in an appearance. Brigitte Bardot, Charles Aznavour and Gallic rock-n-roller Johnny Hallyday were about as contemporary as the list got. Rather strangely, this rush of images, accompanied by Zemmour’s solemnly patriotic narrative promising a restoration of France’s past glories, unfolded to the strains of the 7th Symphony by a German composer named Beethoven.
The video’s overarching message is a simple one. Zemmour’s self-portrait has him wielding his pen as a sword of truth, as he invites French voters to cast off the complacent establishment politicians currently ruling them and preserve their culture and identity before it is too late. This is more or less an endorsement of the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory concocted by the French writer Renaud Camus, which posits that immigrants of color are steadily displacing native Europeans from their own countries.
Of all the issues that will be fought over in the forthcoming election, immigration and the broader question of French national identity are likely to be the most bitter, certainly now that Zemmour is a candidate. And it raises an interesting question about how Jews should view his candidacy. When you examine the depressing chronology of anti-Semitic attacks in France over the last 20 years, you note pretty quickly that many of the offenders were Muslims who were influenced in some way by radical Islam. For example, the killers of Sarah Halimi and Mireille Knoll—elderly Jewish women murdered in their own homes by anti-Semitic assailants—both imbibed radical Islamic ideas at mosques, on websites and in prison, even if their respective penchants for drugs and alcohol didn’t quite live up to the exacting standards demanded by the Muslim faith.
Some Jews, inside and outside France, believe that Zemmour will deal with the problem of domestic Muslim radicalism and that alone would justify voting for him. They will then point to his Jewish origins and his habit of occasionally attending synagogue for additional support. Still, to reach that conclusion requires you to ignore other pertinent considerations, such as Zemmour’s nauseating Holocaust revisionism, which falsely depicts the Vichy regime as the savior of French Jews at the expense of the foreign-born, and his crackpot belief that Capt. Alfred Dreyfus—falsely convicted of espionage amid a surge of violent anti-Semitism in France at the end of the 19th century—might have been guilty after all. You would have to forget that Zemmour described the victims of the 2012 Islamist massacre at a Jewish school in Toulouse as not truly French because they were laid to rest in the State of Israel. And you would have to overlook the fact that Zemmour has no experience of government, a past conviction for racist utterances and a boorish side to his personality, as evidenced last week in Marseille when he responded to a female protester who proffered her middle finger in his direction with the same gesture. It’s hard to imagine Emmanuel Macron doing the same.
Marine Le Pen may well be right that Zemmour will split the far-right vote in France, but he may also attract anxious voters from the center who are reluctant to cast their ballots for the RN. By most calculations, it is highly unlikely that he will win, or even make the second round, yet his supporters can always cite 2016’s UK Brexit referendum and the U.S. presidential election as recent examples of populists overcoming low expectations at the polls.
For now, Zemmour finds himself the subject of international as well as national attention for the very first time. Those in France who oppose him should avoid the fatal mistake of assuming that he cannot win under any circumstances.
Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.