The Ultra-Nationalist Éric Zemmour Makes a Bizarre Bid for the French Presidency

After some false signals and feints, the French populist, polemicist, and ultra-nationalist Éric Zemmour announced on Tuesday, in one of the most bizarre videos ever offered by a would-be leader to his nation, that he is running for President of France. In the video, which is ten minutes long, he reads a prepared statement, head…

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After some false signals and feints, the French populist, polemicist, and ultra-nationalist Éric Zemmour announced on Tuesday, in one of the most bizarre videos ever offered by a would-be leader to his nation, that he is running for President of France. In the video, which is ten minutes long, he reads a prepared statement, head down, as music by that echt-Gallic composer Beethoven plays solemnly—the slow movement of the Seventh Symphony, which, as Zemmour perhaps knew, perhaps did not, was broadcast on wartime German radio on Hitler’s birthday. As he continues to read, the video shows street violence and football players taking a knee, among other things, as well as Muslims praying, all apparently exemplifying the grand remplacement he warns against, along with a collage of images of the douce France that he thinks is being “replaced.” This last is represented by a strange mélange of characters, including the radical republican Victor Hugo and his oppressed Cosette, the sixties chanteuse Barbara (the Paris-born daughter of a Ukrainian-Alsatian Jewish family who spent her wartime childhood in hiding from the government of Marshal Pétain that Zemmour now defends), and Charles Aznavour (who was born in Paris to Armenian parents who named him Shahnour Vaghinag Aznavourian). Images illustrating the grandeur of French heritage include the Louvre pyramid, which was designed, of course, by I. M. Pei, an Asian American. It’s an odd roll call for a hyper-nationalist manifesto, made odder by the reality that Zemmour, for all that he casts himself as the last defender of the legacy of Jeanne d’Arc, the perpetual heroine of the far right, is the offspring of an immigrant Algerian Jewish family welcomed into France in the nineteen-fifties. This shouldn’t be any real surprise: leaders of extreme nationalist fervor always tend to rise from the extremities of a nation—Napoleon the Corsican, Stalin the Georgian, and even Hitler the Austrian.

Zemmour, whose high-pitched, sharp-chinned pugnacity seems distinctly anti-charismatic, is often called the French Trump, presumably because he became nationally famous as a television personality before turning to elective politics. He has also published a couple of best-selling books: “The French Suicide,” in 2014, and, in September, “France Has Not Said Its Final Word.” But the comparison is mostly misleading, not least because the only thing that Zemmour despises more than Islam is America. In fact, the ferocity of his anti-Americanism may be the most startling thing about him, given the generally pro-American tenor of French daily life, which still turns on American entertainments and figures—Josephine Baker was inducted into the Panthéon on the very day of Zemmour’s announcement. The United States, in Zemmour’s view, is a perpetual enemy of French greatness; even the débarquement in Normandy in June, 1944, was an invasion designed to impose U.S. hegemony on France. (Zemmour claims Charles de Gaulle as his predecessor in this interpretation, flattening out de Gaulle’s more complicated and often day-to-day-variable view.) No distinction between U.S. domination and the Soviet kind is possible. Discrimination positive, as the French call affirmative action—a version of which, favoring people from poor neighborhoods, has been used to help students get into élite French universities—is an American invention to deal with our history of slavery, with no relevance to France. And no enemy is higher on Zemmour’s long list than Robert Paxton, the great American historian, who, in his 1972 book, “Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, 1940-1944,” revealed the truth about the Pétain regime’s whole-hearted and sometimes even first-into-the-pool collaboration with the Nazis, offering anti-Jewish legislation even before it was demanded (a truth that has been confirmed by French historians many times since).

Yet there are some obvious similarities to Trump. Zemmour is unafraid of debate, and plunges into it provocatively. Like Trump’s, his most famous and controversial insistences tend to touch the edge of absurdity, as with his campaign promise to re-intensify long-lapsed laws that would prevent immigrants from giving their children “non-French” names. As an example of this kind of healthy assimilation, he cites the Platinis, a family of Italian ancestry, whose French-born son, named Michel, became the greatest footballer of his generation. But Zemmour omits to mention that the greatest French footballer of the next generation, Zinedine Zidane, had Algerian parents who had no hesitation in giving their son, born in Marseilles, a “non-French” name, with no complaints so far from his admiring countrymen.

At a deeper level, there are some other similarities. Trump impersonates an American icon: the decisively efficient New York businessman. (Most New Yorkers who never watched “The Apprentice” never understood how impressive this performance appeared outside the city.) Zemmour plays the role of a French intellectual, a social type that carries similar prestige in France. His discourse is dense with literary and historical references, though he has none of a genuine intellectual’s habit of mind—neither self-scrutiny nor skepticism of received ideas, or the ability to see past a simplicity. He reads a lot of books—whereas, as far as one can tell, Trump reads none, not even his own—but from them he has distilled a kind of adolescent epic of isolated historical references, in which various French heroes, Louis XIV and Napoleon and de Gaulle, incarnate French greatness, while various outsiders, usually Anglo-Saxons, seek to torpedo it. That each of these leaders had radically different ideas of what France was and ought to be—and in any case lost more big battles than they won—doesn’t alter Zemmour’s celebration of an idea of grandeur defined by military greatness.

Zemmour also has the great advantage, shared with Trump, of shamelessness and fearlessness, a potent combination: people are impressed by the fearlessness, which is unusual in timidly pious times, and this gives entrée to the shamelessness. And both Trump and Zemmour benefit from a kind of paralysis in the media, where an objection may be raised to an appalling remark, but the decorum of time and a habit of objectivity lets it slip by. Marine Le Pen, the alternate leader of the far right in France, having inherited her role from her father, Jean-Marie, once carried on a resentful, xenophobic kind of populism, though is now more guarded in making openly bigoted remarks. But Zemmour, though Jewish—or, perhaps, because he is, and imagines that as a kind of armor against accusation—is unafraid to revive some of the uglier legends of pre-war French anti-Semitism. He claims that the innocence of Alfred Dreyfus is not established—it is—and defends the Pétain regime for having shielded French Jews even as it transported foreign ones to Auschwitz.

The attempt to claim as his model de Gaulle, whose greatest virtue was that he refused to have anything to do with Vichy, is particularly rotten. (Three years ago, I wrote that de Gaulle had receded from French attention, but that idea has been roundly reversed; the anniversary of de Gaulle’s death, last month, became a touchpoint for Zemmour’s admirers and detractors.) The steps by which the argument making Vichy implicitly aligned with de Gaulle is accomplished, including by sliming Paxton, are nefarious, but the point is to acquit the French state—that is, the mystical essence of France itself—of any guilt in the deportation of thousands of Jews to their subsequent murder. By now, the truth is so long and well established, as a baffled historian noted recently on French television, that Zemmour’s claims can’t even be called historically based. Yet, when commentators read to him outrageous statements from his books, he responds with a Gallic shrug and an appeal that it is the job of an intellectual to ask questions. So, when he deplores the social “feminization” of France, that is not, he explains, an assault on French women; he is merely protecting them from their potential oppression by Islamic strictures, and from “woke ideology.” (The term has entered French, even on the lips of an ultra-nationalist.) A consequence of this unapologetic manner is that his competitors seem milquetoast; alongside Zemmour, Marine Le Pen can seem like Hillary Clinton—this in turn may, ironically, help normalize her.

Can he win? Recent days have seen his once ascendant poll numbers falling, perhaps owing in part to some misbehavior that was controversial even by his standards. He pointed an (unloaded) gun at journalists in an exhibition hall, and shot the bird in retaliation toward a woman in Marseilles who had, to be fair, shot it first at him. Then came the news that, although he has been long married to a lawyer named Mylène Chichportich, and has three children with her, he has allegedly now fathered a baby with a much younger aide. French laws against the invasion of privacy are admirably strong, but this news is still news. Zemmour responded, on Twitter, “Whatever happens, always and everywhere, I will jealously and fiercely defend my privacy and that of my loved ones. Public life, yes. Voyeurism, no. Sorry for the perverts.” French friends reassure Americans that Zemmour went up like a rocket and will come down like a rock, but Americans who recall how certainly Trump was set to fail in 2016, first after he insulted a Gold Star family and then after the “Access Hollywood” tape was released, may doubt the sapient reassurance of their friends.

Zemmour, of course, preys on the fears of ordinary people about social change, immigration, and crime—although all sides in France share the same indignation about Islamist terrorism, including the decapitation of the school teacher Samuel Paty and the deadly attack at the Bataclan. What distinguishes Zemmour is that his solutions are as unreal as Trump’s. (Even if he gained power, his promise to deport huge numbers of immigrants, would go the way of Trump’s wall.) And it was the conventional parties of the left and the right, in two consecutive failed Presidencies, which created the conditions that gave rise to a Zemmour, first with the disruptive conservative Nicolas Sarkozy and then with the conventional Socialist “éléphant” François Hollande, both of whom managed to nearly destroy their parties. Both seemed rois fainéants—to use the old French term for helpless monarchs, as the medieval scholar Einhard did, when there is “nothing left for the King to do but to be content with his name of King”—apparently more excited to be President than to do anything much as President.

Of course, the same failures that produced Zemmour as a plausible candidate also produced, in 2017, the independent candidacy of Emmanuel Macron, who is still a good bet for reëlection. For the moment, Zemmour’s rise is, at minimum, a reminder that every country finds its own style of fascism. As some of us have remarked before, the language and conduct of the totalitarian left is remarkably uniform country to country: the deadening vocabulary of pseudoscientific historical schemata, the cold-eyed justification of class warfare—read Stalin and Mao and Pol Pot, and you’re in the same hell. But each age and nation seeks its own style of right-wing authoritarianism. In Italy, it was operatic in spirit and neoclassical in form; in Spain, grimly Catholic; in Germany, violent and histrionically spectacular. It is no surprise that the American face of authoritarianism took on the forms of celebrity television, nor should it be any more of a surprise that the French face of it now, as in the nineteen-forties, should be that of apparent erudition loaned out to a vengeful, inward-turning hatred of the Other. One hopes that the French will see through their version faster than we did ours.


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