Something Is Rotten in the State of France
Éric Zemmour, Candidate for President
***Version française ci-dessous***
Whether or not he wins France's April 2022 presidential election, Éric Zemmour can already claim a major victory in having thrusted his half-baked racist views to the centre of national public debate. For his supporters, who constantly invoke Antonio Gramsci, this victorious cultural battle is undoubtedly a precursor to future electoral triumphs.
Since French politics resumed after the summer break, far-right polemicist Éric Zemmour has electrified the country's presidential campaign. Waging fratricidal warfare with Marine Le Pen, he has managed to thrust his racist ideas into the public debate.
Now, after months of purported suspense, Zemmour has officially confirmed his candidacy for the 2022 presidential election. In a 10-minute clip live-streamed on social media on 30 November, the former Le Figaro columnist and CNews pundit said he felt compelled to do so given the tragic situation facing the country. "It's no longer about reforming France but saving it. That's why I've decided to stand in the presidential election."
In a grotesque imitation of the images of General Charles de Gaulle in London during the Second World War, the far-right candidate portrayed himself as a bulwark against a tidal wave of immigration threatening to destroy the foundations of the country. "We won't let ourselves be dominated, subjugated, conquered, colonised. […] We won't let ourselves be replaced", he proclaims in the video, against a backdrop of footage of urban violence from the rolling news channels that makes France look like a hotbed of looting and bloodshed.
Since the start of autumn 2021, Éric Zemmour has monopolised the media space, confounding expectations that the presidential election would be a two-horse race between Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally party, and the incumbent Emmanuel Macron. A tour of French cities, ostensibly to promote his latest book La France n'a pas dit son dernier mot (France Hasn't Said Its Last Word), has seen signing sessions morph into political rallies, full of fans who almost invariably start chanting "Zemmour for president" in front of a sea of microphones and cameras.
Who Is Éric Zemmour?
Author of several bestsellers over the past decade on the decline of France – a country supposedly swamped by immigration and undermined by feminism, LGBT rights and anti-racism (Le Suicide Français (The French Suicide), published in 2014, has sold nearly 500,000 copies) – Éric Zemmour was until recently seen as just a media pundit on the reactionary right. No one dreamt he would enter politics at the age of 63.
He started appearing on mainstream TV in the mid-2000s when he was invited onto talk shows as a reactionary columnist slamming "political correctness" and "spicing up" TV and radio programmes with his increasingly transgressive outbursts. Public broadcaster France 2 then hired him in the wake of his 2006 anti-feminist diatribe Le Premier Sexe (The First Sex), which he defined as "a treaty on masculine living for the feminised younger generation" and in which he asserts, among other things, that "man is a sexual predator, a conqueror".
In recent years, his statements have regularly landed him in court. Appearing on a popular TV show in 2011, he had this to say about racial profiling in the French police's use of stop and frisk: "Why do they get stopped 17 times? Because most of the traffickers are Blacks and Arabs. That's just a fact." This led to his first conviction for inciting racial discrimination, but it did nothing to halt his growing media popularity, nor the virulence of his discourse.
His identitarian obsessions centre on the issue of Islam, fuelled particularly by the wave of attacks that France has experienced since 2015. "In Islam, there's no such thing as moderate Muslims," he often remarks. According to him, a good French Muslim is one who renounces his or her faith. "We have to give them the choice between Islam and France", he said on TV show C à vous in September 2016. In Éric Zemmour's oft-repeated view, Islam is incompatible with France's republican values.
Born into a family that moved to metropolitan France from Algeria, Zemmour has become a mouthpiece for all those who nostalgically yearn for the lost grandeur of imperial France, the colonial France that still to this day, often unconsciously, permeates the imagination of many French people. This France sees the rise of the Muslim faith in France as a "reverse colonisation", as Zemmour explicitly describes it – a notion that resonates with all those still haunted by the ghosts of the Algerian war.
A self-described history buff who loathes what he considers to be discourses of "repentance", Zemmour has, in a series of books, reconstructed a dream version of France's past, from the "Knights of old" and Joan of Arc through to Napoleon Bonaparte, the emperor he reveres and with whom he likes to compare himself. In his rewriting of history, both in his books and in television studios, one of his primary aims has been to erase the infamy of France's wartime collaboration with Nazi Germany. To this end, he has made multiple attempts to rehabilitate Marshal Pétain, claiming, for example, that he helped to save French Jews, on the strength of revisionist theories that have been totally discredited by serious historians.
Unsurprisingly, Zemmour has also been a key figure in normalising another discredited piece of racist propaganda: far-right essayist Renaud Camus's "Great Replacement" theory, according to which Europe's white Christian population is being "replaced" by a sub-Saharan and Muslim population.
Marine Le Pen, Flanked from the Right
Until recent months, there was nothing to suggest that this media troublemaker would one day enter the political arena. However, the reshaping of the French political landscape following the election of Emmanuel Macron and his bulldozing of the traditional party of the right – and more importantly the changes undergone by France's main far-right party – have offered Zemmour a political opportunity.
Under the leadership of Marine Le Pen since 2011, the party formerly known as the National Front (Front National, FN) and now renamed National Rally (Rassemblement National, RN) has sought to reinvent itself as a "respectable" political outfit. Despite a sizeable electoral base, Le Pen knows that her party – which in its early days included sympathisers of the Nazi regime – remains (at least for now) unacceptable to a majority of French people.
Over the past decade, RN has systematically removed the most radical members of the party from its "family photos": identitarians, neo-fascists and traditionalist Catholics are urged to keep a low profile. In her drive to "detoxify" the brand, Marine Le Pen uses polished language and litters her speeches with consensual references to the "Republic" and "secularism" – all a world away from the FN founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. Economically, she steers a comparatively more socially minded course, advocating retirement at 60 and defending public services.
The final step in the normalisation process came when Le Pen expelled her father from the party he founded, after another anti-Semitic outburst in which he downplayed the significance of the Holocaust. She went on to rename the party in 2018, replacing the word Front, which she deemed too belligerent, with Rassemblement (literally "gathering").
In 2017, she won 33% of the vote in her run-off against Emmanuel Macron in the second round of the presidential election. Equivalent to almost 11 million votes, this was the best-ever result for the far-right party, which appeared closer to power than ever before. Even so, her abysmal performance in the second-round debate, which highlighted her total ignorance of many issues, sowed seeds of doubt among her voters and within her own party. RN has since been embroiled in various court cases, including one linked to parliamentary assistants and another to a Russian loan, which could pose a threat to Marine Le Pen's future. Those she sidelined for being too radical believe that Le Pen will never make it into power and so are already planning what happens next.
Le Pen's niece, Marion Maréchal, who represents the more identitarian and radical wing of the party and is very popular with its voters, is unwilling to stand against her aunt and is taking a longer-term view. Having removed herself from the political limelight, she has set up a school of political science to wage what she calls the "cultural battle". Her friends have also embarked on a media offensive, airing their views in right-wing newspapers and magazines such as Valeurs Actuelles and setting up their own outlets, including the magazine L'Incorrect.
They are particularly keen to court the most conservative Catholics, those who protested en masse against same-sex marriage in 2013 and feel unrepresented by any of the presidential candidates. These voters feel abandoned by the right-wing parties, which they see as too liberal, including on social issues. Nor do they identify with Marine Le Pen, a divorced mother whose closest associates are openly gay and who, until recently, admitted that she was anything but close to the Church.
It was at a meeting organised by friends of Marion Maréchal in Paris in September 2019, dubbed the "Convention of the Right", that Éric Zemmour began to assume the politician's garb. "That's where his campaign really got started", says Erik Tegner, a co-organiser of the meeting and former RN activist who launched a YouTube channel in the spring in support of Zemmour's candidacy. With him in the hall were a slew of far-right figures who had broken with Marine Le Pen. There were those she had systematically excluded – the most radical identitarians – and those who had distanced themselves from her, deeming the presidential contender too far "to the left" on economic issues.
Speaking to them, Zemmour gave a long, extremely virulent speech denouncing Islam and Muslims, which was broadcast live on the 24-hour news channels. With Islam making a "move to colonise and occupy parts of France", he said, the country would need to "fight" for its very survival. It was tantamount to a call for civil war.
Powerful Bourgeois Allies
Intoxicated by his publishing successes and encouraged by his young girlfriend Sarah Knafo, a brilliant senior civil servant, Zemmour gradually persuaded himself that he ought not to wait, and he started making plans. He realised he would have the backing of the entire swathe of the far right that felt marginalised by Marine Le Pen. As a journalist for Le Figaro who had been rubbing shoulders with politicians for decades and is on first-name terms with many of them, he also knows that he can count on the support of a group of bourgeois voters who have always held their noses around the Le Pen family. Patrick Buisson, a close associate of Zemmour and former adviser to ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy, has long theorised that to get into power, the nationalist right needs to unite the working-class and middle-class vote. While Le Pen polls very well among blue-collar and clerical workers, she struggles – despite her best efforts – to win over managers and professionals.
Meanwhile, Éric Zemmour has another important ally: billionaire Vincent Bolloré, who, after amassing a vast fortune in Africa through port operations and maritime freight, decided to start investing in the media, with a clear political objective. Among his acquisitions was the TV channel Itélé, a subsidiary of Canal Plus, which he renamed CNews with the barely concealed intention of turning it into a French version of Fox News. Closely allied with traditionalist Catholics, this business magnate espouses staunchly right-wing views and aims to influence the upcoming presidential election.
The day after his speech at the Convention of the Right – which shocked many in the political establishment – Bolloré decided to offer Zemmour a one-hour daily slot on a tailor-made show. Viewing figures went through the roof, with sometimes almost a million people tuning in to watch the far-right pundit, lapping up his apocalyptic analyses and unabashed racism. For two years, Zemmour was able to focus fully on his hobby horses and, more significantly, to set the tone for all the other 24-hour news channels, which started to go all out on immigration and identity issues – thus following the agenda set by this journalist and soon-to-be far-right presidential contender.
A Media Campaign Hits Setbacks on the Ground
Meanwhile, an organisational structure was quietly put in place to prepare Zemmour's candidacy. The main driving force was Sarah Knafo, but Zemmour also had the backing of a team of young activists close to Marion Maréchal, who pored over the details of Donald Trump's campaign and started waging an all-out communications offensive on social media.
Prior to the summer, this team created a myriad of accounts on Twitter – "Young People with Zemmour", "Women with Zemmour", "Farmers with Zemmour" and so on – which flooded the social network with messages in support of the man who was not yet even a candidate. One of its leading lights is Samuel Lafont. Previously in charge of digital communications for centre-right party The Republicans (Les Républicains), he is familiar with all the techniques for expanding online impact, including astroturfing, in which a small number of accounts are used to create an impression of widespread grassroots support. The website of Génération Z, the youth movement backing Zemmour's candidacy, advocates the "keyboard warriors" model that Trump gave a nod to when elected, and advises activists to take to all platforms and forums popular with young people to defend their candidate.
Despite this high-profile launch, with the support of a clearly fascinated press, Éric Zemmour's campaign has hit some initial setbacks in recent weeks. The transition from media and online campaigning to campaigning on the ground has been a painful one. To help them organise rallies and put up posters, Zemmour's teams have drafted some very radical activists, including former members of Génération Identitaire, which was disbanded for its paramilitary activity, and hard-line royalists from the far-right political movement Action Française, thereby fuelling concerns about his candidacy.
Many mayors have refused to provide rooms for Zemmour's meetings, condemning the violence of his rhetoric and the profile of his supporters. What's more, he has so far failed to secure the backing of 500 mayors that he needs to compete in the presidential election, and some are still wondering if he will be able to see this through.
The violence that marred his first election rally in Villepinte, in the north-eastern suburbs of Paris, on 5 December, at which journalists and anti-racism activists were punched, shed a harsh light on the neo-fascist methods of his supporters. Accusations of sexual assault and inappropriate behaviour made by several women will no doubt resurface during the campaign.
The War of Position
Whether or not he manages to make his way through the obstacle course that is the presidential election, Éric Zemmour has already pulled off a major feat by thrusting his half-baked racist views into the public debate and setting the agenda for everyone else. This is a real coup for his supporters, who constantly invoke Antonio Gramsci and for whom the cultural battle is undoubtedly a precursor to future electoral triumphs.
If he fails in 2022, Marine Le Pen's niece Marion Maréchal knows that she will be able to capitalise on the political and media ecosystem that he has built up during her own 2027 presidential election campaign.
About the author
Lucie Delaporte is a journalist who reports on the far right for the investigative website Mediapart. She has been tracking the changing face of France's right wing for Mediapart since 2016, before which she covered education.
- Version française Lucie Delaporte, Mediapart