Until recently, France appeared to be on the way out, the Australian-American betrayal on the submarine deal the coup de grace, the ultimate humiliation for what once was known as the grande nation. Grand no longer, a nation at risk, collective psyche in the dumpster: autumn in France. Things could hardly get any worse.
As it turns out, they can. Last week, a new survey came out that had Eric Zemmour surpassing Marine Le Pen in next year’s presidential election. As things stand now, Zemmour, not Le Pen, would advance to the second and decisive round of the election, facing the incumbent, Emmanuel Macron.
Machine à Polémiques
The results sent shockwaves across the French political landscape and put Zemmour onto the front pages of the country’s major news outlets. Zemmour ante portas, quelle horreur! The whole thing is quite remarkable. After all, as of yet, Zemmour has not declared his candidacy for the election. But it appears to be a foregone conclusion. The media certainly act as if it were, and Zemmour would be a fool to contradict them. Fool he is not — quite the contrary.
The whole thing is even more remarkable, and not devoid of irony, given the fact that Eric Zemmour happens to be Jewish (and practicing, at least until his father passed away in 2013) and originates from a French-Algerian family that left Algeria during the country’s struggle for independence. Zemmour himself defines his ethnic background as Berber. A curious case, indeed. A Jew, a “métèque” (a pejorative term for alien residents) — the nightmare of every traditional extreme-right French nationalist, as the left-leaning magazine Marianne recently pointed out.
Eric Zemmour is France’s response to Donald Trump, if not his French avatar. Like Trump, he has no filters, but unlike Trump, he is highly intelligent, erudite, refined, articulate and sharp-witted. A prolific author of editorials, commentary and bestselling books, a prominent TV personality and celebrity, Zemmour figures among France’s most notorious provocateurs, a “machine à polémiques,” as Politico recently called him, who riles, aggravates, irritates and polarizes.
For years now, Zemmour has been content to play the role of the public intellectual on the right, a modern-day male Cassandra, indefatigably lamenting the seemingly inexorable decline of France and fustigating the whole of the French political establishment for failing to halt and reverse it. The title of his bestseller from 2014, “Le suicide français,” said it all. It was an analysis of how France’s elites — political, economic, administrative and particularly intellectual, the “heirs of May ’68” — have systematically “undone France.”
The result is a line of argumentation reminiscent of the Kulturpessimismus that pervaded late 19th and early 20th-century Germany, most notably Oswald Spengler’s “Decline of the West.” In the past, Zemmour noted, France had “imposed” its ideas, its vision of the world, “even its caprices” on “a universe carried away by all these wonders.” Today, by contrast, France was “forced to swallow values and mores that are the total opposite to what it had built up for centuries.”
At the same time, he charged, the French political and economic elite had to a large extent renounced and abandoned the country’s sovereignty and national independence in the name of the European project and of globalization, all under the approving eyes of the media that enthusiastically praised “this great renouncement.”
At first sight, it might appear that this is nothing more than the typical Euroskepticism so dear to the contemporary radical right. In reality, Zemmour’s diagnosis of the spiritual situation of the current age goes a bit deeper. It is informed by a strong sense — Kulturpessimismus oblige — that not just the French, but Western civilization in general has run its course, fallen victim to fatigue and exhaustion.
Dechristianization and widespread suspicion with respect to the notion of progress have hollowed out the foundations on which it has rested. In the process, it has lost its spiritual shield and made itself vulnerable to the influx of alien ideas and values.
Like so many other right-wing populists in Europe these days, Zemmour is obsessed with Islam, and for more than a single reason. For one, there is the acknowledgment that Muslims have retained what the West has largely abandoned — a sense of spirituality and anti-materialism, an ethical and moral compass and, above all, a sense of honor.
At the same time, Zemmour regurgitates ad nauseam all the familiar anti-Islamic tropes that have made the political fortunes of radical right-wing entrepreneurs in recent memory, from the late Pim Fortuyn to Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, from Pia Kjærsgard in Denmark to Paulin Hanson in Australia. These tropes posit that Islam is not only a religion, but also a political ideology, and as such totalitarian; that the basic principles of Western culture and civilization, such as democracy, freedom of religion and opinion, the equality of men and women, or the separation of church and state, are fundamentally at odds with Islam; and that Islam is all about submission and therefore incompatible with liberal democracy.
Zemmour’s other great obsession is closely tied in with his anti-Islamic position — the specter of the “grand replacement.” This is a conspiracy theory that has been around for quite some time. It gained new traction with Renaud Camus’ eponymous book from 2011 (now in its third edition). But it has been Zemmour who has popularized it in France, with great success.
In 2018, one out of four respondents in a representative survey subscribed to the “theory” of the great replacement. The idea here is, in a nutshell, that the combination of mass immigration and high birth rates of non-Europeans is going to overwhelm the “original” European population and replace it as well as its culture, values and traditions, and all this with the full knowledge, complicity and support of Europe’s cosmopolitan elites who have nothing but contempt for national identity and their own culture.
A few weeks ago, Zemmour’s new book came out. The title is meant as a warning, “La France n’a pas dit son dernier mot” — “France Hasn’t Yet Said Its Last Word.” As expected, it is a bestseller — in first and second place on amazon.fr at the time of writing — and, as expected, it is largely seen as a manifesto designed to launch his campaign. The message is clear. It is not yet too late to act. But act we must, and fast. For we are faced with a situation of life and death: either remain France or disappear.
To win, Zemmour insists, “we have to fight on all fronts.” To keep “the invaders” away from us and “to save our identity and regain our sovereignty.” That’s the only way to put a stop to the “migration waves” that “for decades overwhelm our territory and our people.” Otherwise, France is lost, fallen prey to reverse colonization and the great replacement. For, as Zemmour asserts, “demography is destiny.”
This is where Zemmour comes in, a reluctant savior, who steps in because, as he charges, there is no one, no political party — and that includes Marine Le Pen’s National Rally — capable of “expressing the just wrath and anxiety of the French people.” Zemmour sees himself as the heir to a long tradition of national-populism, and particularly to one of its most prominent exponents, Maurice Barres, famous for his definition of identity and belonging as “la terre et les morts” — the soil and the dead. At one point in the book, Zemmour characterizes himself as a “Français de la terre et des morts” who passed from Emile Zola to Barres.
On a certain level, this makes sense. After all, Barres was,at the end of the 19th century, among the first to obsess about France being inundated and submerged by migrant workers — first inklings of the great replacement. Ironically enough, Barres also happened to be a notorious anti-Semite, who played a prominent role during the Dreyfus affair, a defining moment in modern French history that left a permanent mark on the republic.
Another prominent notorious heir to this tradition is, of course, Jean-Marie Le Pen. Recently, Le Pen père was asked his opinion on Eric Zemmour. Le Pen’s response was as revealing as it was disconcerting: “The only difference between him and me is that he is Jewish.” Honi soit qui mal y pense — evil to him who evil thinks, as the saying goes. One thing is sure, the next months are going to be turbulent in France, and perhaps amusing — as long as you happen not to be French.
Professor Hans-Georg Betz is a Senior Fellow at CARR and an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Zurich. See full profile here.
© Hans-Georg Betz. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).