For several months, the presence of Éric Zemmour among the candidates for the 2022 presidential election has been a nauseating feature of French politics. His bombastic presence dictates the political and media agendas in the country, shaping the strategy of the other candidates; and, at times, he seems to be in the process of an irresistible ascent towards the second round.
Like Macron and Le Pen before him, Zemmour frames himself as an outsider. But, also like those candidates, he ticks all the boxes to be the preferred candidate of the ruling class. In fact, Zemmour has almost followed the cursus honorum of the Fifth Republic, passing through both the Sciences Po, and the École nationale d’administration (ENA). But as is the norm in contemporary politics, it is his media performances which really catapulted him to national attention. Zemmour made his name as a commentator and is well known to the French audiences for his appearances on the Saturday night show On n’est pas couché, a sort of French equivalent of Have I Got News for You. The difference between the shows is that France’s version was broadcast on CNews, a right-wing TV station funded by conservative billionaire Vincent Bolloré — making Zemmour’s rise a sort of bastard combination of the paths which produced Tony Blair and Boris Johnson.
Much like other populist right-wingers of recent years, Zemmour’s public image has been as the polemicist-candidate. He has built his brand around a mythology of truth-telling, which has actually involved a range of outrageous statements about sensitive issues, from the role of men in modern society to the independence of Algeria (a ‘guilty conscience’ or ‘badly-healed wound’) to the death penalty, the choice of children’s first names, and the alleged conflict between Islam and French values. His role is to shock, not to provoke any in-depth analysis and discussion.
For years, there was a debate about how to deal with Zemmour’s controversialising. Some commentators believed that he should simply be ignored, lest one risk making him even more visible than he already was. This strategy had an obvious flaw: Zemmour was almost omnipresent on the television. But those who feared his impact were certainly correct: the debates which he has forced onto the mainstream political agenda have scarred the public sphere, and had the effect of fomenting a discourse of hatred and division — perhaps even of civil war.
Born into an Arab-Jewish family, Éric Zemmour grew up in the Parisian suburb of Drancy and in the eighteenth arrondissement. He studied at Sciences Po and then worked in advertising prior to joining the press with the Quotidien de Paris. His written media career has mostly taken place at the right-wing newspaper Le Figaro, where he also encountered his first major national scandal after being moved from the broadsheet to the magazine in 2010 due to a conviction for inciting racial hatred. (It later transpired that the exorbitant cost of Zemmour’s columns had been the real reason for the shift.)
Zemmour moved back to the main Figaro in 2013 and has found it a welcoming home for his controversialism ever since. In September of this year, he took time off to promote his new book — France hasn’t said its last word — which sold over 200,000 copies in its first two months, making it the best-selling book in the country. In the book, Zemmour describes the topics he discussed during numerous meetings and dinners with French politicians over the past decade. He casts himself as the sage, recounting how he warned them against the so-called ‘great replacement’ (a far-right trope about non-white displacement of Europeans) and France’s ‘immigration issues’, only to find his wisdom ignored.
Far-right rhetoric is not new to French politics. In fact, before the emergence of Zemmour, the great fear was that another candidate with far-right views, Marine Le Pen, would win the presidential election. But Zemmour has clearly pushed the boundaries beyond even what she managed in her rise of recent years. Before Zemmour, far-right ideologues who proposed that ‘white European natives’ were being ‘replaced’ by African and Middle Eastern immigrants weren’t given much credibility. Le Pen was even forced to distance herself from these ideas on numerous occasions, dropping more overt racial politics for reactionary nationalist ones. But with Zemmour’s emergence as a serious presidential contender, this has changed. His strategy is to continue to reference the great replacement theory without giving direct credit to its fascist origins, simply proposing that it must be taken seriously and discussed.
To understand how Zemmour was empowered to hold such an influential role in French politics, you need to interrogate the role of Vincent Bolloré. France’s equivalent of Rupert Murdoch, Bolloré is a traditionalist Catholic industrialist and one of the country’s wealthiest men. His family’s fortune was made in maritime freight, particularly in trade with Africa, as well as in the paper business. Since the 2000s, he has been funnelling a significant portion of that fortune into the creation of a media empire, the most notorious arm of which is CNews, a right-wing populist television channel which helped to propel Zemmour to stardom.
From the beginning, Zemmour’s connection to Bolloré has been the source of scandal. Two weeks after his debut in the show Face à l’info, the union representatives of the staff of Canal+ Group (owned by Bolloré since 2015) unanimously passed a motion calling for Zemmour’s departure, citing ethical violations and damage to the reputation of the channel. This petition was met with a clear rejection by the company, which justified its rightward trajectory under the guise that it wanted to air ‘all views’.
Bolloré clearly sees Zemmour as a star. His high viewer numbers and bombastic style created a media product which the magnate was only too happy to sell. For some time, Bolloré’s decisions have been made with an eye to shaping the terrain of Zemmour’s analyses: from the appointment of sympathetic columnists to the refusal to criticise even his most outlandish statements. It would be impossible to conceive of Zemmour without this media production system: one which not only platforms him but then recycles his talking points through days of newspaper discussions, framing far-right opinions as common sense and taboo-busting, and even consciously endeavouring to make them more palatable to a sceptical public. With this system behind him, his proposals, however abject or out of touch they are, now define the agenda of this presidential election.
Since De Gaulle founded France’s quasi-presidential Fifth Republic in the 1950s, the mainstream of right-wing politics has largely emphasised its republican character and sought to quarantine the fascist fringe. This maintained a degree of anti-fascist consensus for most of the final decades of the twentieth century, and even provided a bulwark against Jean-Marie Le Pen in the 2002 presidential election. It is often forgotten now just how distant that breakthrough for the older Le Pen was from the more recent successes of his daughter, Marine. In 2002, Jean-Marie received just 17.8 per cent of the vote in the second round of the presidential election. In 2017, Marine received 33.9 per cent.
Marine Le Pen has sought to ‘detoxify’ the Le Pen brand by distancing her projects from her father’s openly fascist past. In 2018, she even went so far as to dump the ‘Front National’ name in favour of the broader ‘Rassemblement National’ or National Rally. Whereas her father was openly contemptuous of France’s republican tradition, Marine now uses a republican vocabulary and tries to hide the most radical and racist elements of her party. But if Marine Le Pen is attempting to find a place within the contours of the cordon sanitaire erected between mainstream politics and fascism in the post-war era, Zemmour is consciously trying to tear it down. One of these most appalling efforts at historical revisionism has been to claim that Pétain and the pro-Nazi Vichy régime actually attempted to save French Jews during the Holocaust, when in fact more than 70,000 were killed.
Ironically, Éric Zemmour claims to be the heir of the Rassemblement pour la République, a Gaullist right-wing party. In reality, he is attempting to bury the Gaullist tradition, which forged the Fifth Republic in an effort to escape the Algerian War, and replace it with something far more sinister. He shares an ideological lineage with the Organisation Armée Secrète (OAS), a far-right paramilitary organisation formed in Francoist Spain in 1961. This putschist organisation sought to prevent the secession of Algeria, supported by the French and Algerian people in a referendum brought forward by De Gaulle in 1961, through a campaign of terrorist attacks. In fact, in 2019, Zemmour had echoed the OAS by saying he was ‘on the side of General Bugeaud’, a brutal nineteenth century governor-general of Algeria who, he claimed, ‘massacre[d] Muslims, and even some Jews’ in defence of the nation.
By claiming the heritage of the RPR, Zemmour has created a fantasy party and tradition, one which allows him to place himself in the historic continuum of the French right while in practice making a significant break with its history. Thus far he has displayed a boldness in his historical ignorance and rewriting of history, and an ability to appear impervious to falsification. This might in fact be his greatest similarity with former US President Donald Trump. While he claims heritage from France’s liberation struggle through De Gaulle, Zemmour’s political thought has its roots in counter-revolutionary movements, as evidenced by the reference points he calls upon. Another recent example was Charles Maurras, a prominent far-right intellectual of the early twentieth century who Zemmour chose to praise. Maurras’ explicitly counter-revolutionary Action Française party had been the leading light of French fascism in the years before the Second World War, and Maurras himself was widely seen as an ideological inspiration for the Vichy regime, which he would go on to support. Zemmour, with typical sleight of hand, said he was merely ‘commemorating’ Maurras when challenged on this, ‘and commemorating is not the same as celebrating.’
You won’t often hear Zemmour praise France’s republican history. His sense of France’s national history extends back with a deeper nostalgia: Napoleon Bonaparte’s conquests, the royalist regimes, and the Second Empire. This has allowed him to outflank Marine Le Pen, gaining headlines for controversies she has more recently chosen to avoid. At the time of writing, Zemmour is polling between 15 and 16 per cent — more or less the same as Le Pen. The latest IPSOS data suggests that he has attracted a plurality of his support from Le Pen’s camp (around 34 per cent), while a quarter of it has come from the mainstream right of Les Républicains. But he is not just winning over a traditional conservative and xenophobic electorate, he is radicalising them.
A recent study by the Fondation Jean Jaurès demonstrates the social homogeneity of Eric Zemmour’s potential electoral base. It is comprised almost entirely of retirees and upper classes, including a quarter of the electorate of centre-right candidate François Fillon in 2017. It is also particularly male: there is a wider gender gap among Zemmour’s voters than any other candidate. While Le Pen could credibly claim to express some of the angst of lower-income voters in the wake of a deep financial crisis, Zemmour’s support is a much more distilled revolt of the privileged. For many in the ruling class, this makes him less frightening. They trust his ties with billionaire Vincent Bolloré and his liberal economic policies, like driving up the retirement age. And in truth, they even enjoy his more controversial positions. In Zemmour’s world, climate change isn’t the result of capitalism or the excessive consumption of the rich — it’s caused by the ‘demographic explosion of Asia and Africa’. ‘The green of the greens conveniently matches the green of Islam’, he said on another occasion. In an age when elites are facing growing criticism, Zemmour offers a useful deflection.
Zemmour’s example is a warning about the enormous influence exerted by media companies on contemporary politics and, in particular, the role that can be played by vertical integration. Vincent Bolloré’s Vivendi conglomerate doesn’t just own television stations, it is a vast operation which includes everything from audio-visual services to public relations, and book publishing to film. This means one right-wing billionaire can exert significant control over the production of ideas, their diffusion, and also their after-sales service. This is a powerful political machine and, with little regulation on the activities of the corporations which operate its cogs, it poses a major threat to democratic politics across the world.
With Zemmour, that ship has already sailed, and the presidential campaign is just beginning. But we shouldn’t be despondent: while his poll performances are impressive, they are not yet commanding. It is quite plausible that France’s latest far-right demagogue will drop away in the weeks and months to come, or that he will get 15 or 16 per cent in the final results but that this will not be enough. The question of whether Zemmour has a chance in this election depends on what the alternative to Macron’s authoritarian centrism looks like. To put it simply, will other candidates offer a greater expression to popular disillusionment with politics and the economy? Or will the presence of the far-right on the ballot force everyone else to fall in behind the bourgeois block?
On the Left, there are contrasting answers to these questions. The centre-left Socialist Party has tended to lean on the old cordon sanitaire, with its candidate Anne Hidalgo encouraging journalists to ‘wake up’ to the reality of Zemmour’s far-right politics and refusing to debate him on the basis that he is a ‘negationist and a racist clown’. The Communist Party, which has decided not to join a broader left front for this election, is attempting to position itself more favourably on ground which the far-right has previously found advantageous, most parti- cularly security issues. Its candidate Fabien Roussel recently joined a protest calling for tougher sentences for those convicted of attacking police officers. Both the Socialists and the Greens were also present at the rally alongside Zemmour, but Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leading left candidate in 2017 and current polling, was not.
This is not to say that Mélenchon has avoided Zemmour. In fact, quite the opposite. In September, Mélenchon debated Zemmour on national television. This move was criticised by much of the Left, but offered a rare opportunity to contrast the Left’s diagnosis of France’s ills with those put forward by the far-right. In the debate Mélenchon lauded the process of ‘créolisation,’ through which, he said, ‘human beings come together and create something in common’ by contrast to Zemmour’s ethno-national understanding of France. The left-wing MP also advocated increasing benefits and expanding the welfare state (including for foreign families) while Zemmour made clear that he would cut back on France’s famed social security system. The debate did not puncture Zemmour’s campaign, but it did clarify the terms of the coming campaign.
Mélenchon’s France Insoumise argues that the whole of the political spectrum is slowly feeding itself off of Zemmour’s and Le Pen’s ideas. Indeed, in the last few years, the Left in general and France Insoumise in particular has been the victim of relentless political attacks from the media and the government. This campaign of vitriol has combined traditional aspects of McCarthyism (and indeed Zemmour referenced Stalin and Mao in their debate) with newer Islamophobic and War on Terror themes. This has produced the epithet ‘Islamo-gauchist’ or Islamist-leftist, which finds currency not just among the far-right but also supporters of Macron and the political centre. This attempt to associate solidarity with Muslims with being ‘anti-national’ or ‘anti-republican’ is a cynical ploy, but one which any leftist will have to overcome to stand a chance in the presidential election.
Considering this, France Insoumise has been trying to break the media narrative which focuses on culture war controversies over Islam, security, the police, and banlieues. Mélenchon has begun his presidential campaign with a focus on social and ecological issues which, he hopes, can unite a broader coalition of voters. His strategy to defeat the far-right hasn’t changed since 1992, when he argued that the Left must:
Dry out the social conditions that feed the rise of the far-right, treat the National Front like a real party, not like a fantasy; outline their programme without getting stuck on the themes of immigration and the metaphysical trap of French identity. We regain our ground by being ideological. Any ‘republican front’ (a tactic of unity by all political forces against the far-right) is harmful scrambling: it takes us back to the fantastical universe demonised by Le Pen.
This universe is the one in which the far-right thrives; one where it can point a finger at the rest of the political class and say ‘they are all the same’. Too often, that caricature rings true to a population which is increasingly alienated from official politics and distant from mass organisations. Hollande, Sarkozy, Macron — what was the difference? And when the Left fails to distinguish itself forcefully from these politicians, who were responsible for more than a decade of declining living standards, we become part of their block in the popular imagination. And the only alternative is the one which blames society’s ills on minorities.
Across the West, that is increasingly the terrain of politics: the far-right against the establishment, with the Left absent from the struggle. These terms are favourable for Macron, who calculates that he can beat either Le Pen or Zemmour in the second round. And they are favourable for the far-right candidates, who calculate that they can grow in the shadow of an unpopular status quo. But with each passing year this dynamic drags politics deeper into this dark space — and the monsters which emerge from it pose even greater threats to our society.