This morning, Éric Zemmour officially declared his candidacy in the April 2022 French presidential elections. The announcement was made in a ten-minute video broadcast on YouTube. Even if you don’t understand a word of French, the racism and xenophobia come through loud and clear in the images and clips that are juxtaposed with Zemmour’s words. Watch it and see.
You will also notice the setting in which Zemmour speaks, with books behind him and an old-style microphone. It is clearly meant to evoke the broadcast from London by Charles de Gaulle, a towering figure in French politics, calling on the French people to resist the Nazi occupiers during World War II. De Gaulle aimed to “save France,” as Zemmour does today.
Who Is Éric Zemmour?
Zemmour is an extreme right-wing media pundit who got his start as a journalist in the 1980s for Le Quotidien de Paris, and eventually wrote for Le Figaro as a columnist. Over time, he largely shifted his work to commentary and analysis on television, and recently quit his prime-time TV show in preparation for his presidential run. He identifies himself as a “truth-teller” countering political correctness and a French media that is dominated by “the Left.” Notably, he has been convicted under French law for inciting hatred through his speeches and on-air rants.
If that all sounds familiar — except the convictions part — it should. In a recent Newsweek profile, he was described as “France’s answer to Tucker Carlson” of Fox News. He likes to compare himself in some ways to Donald Trump, claiming to speak for an alienated “middle class” in France that has grown weary of migration that is eroding “French identity.”
That’s the message of his latest book, La France n’a pas dit son dernier mot (France Has Not Yet Said Its Final Word). And as Zemmour says in his campaign announcement, “It is no longer time to reform France, but to save it.”
Like Trump in his 2016 presidential campaign, Zemmour speaks in his campaign announcement of the need to “reindustrialize France … rebalance our trade balance, reduce our growing debt [and] bring back our companies that have moved away.” He insists that the French must “preserve our architectural, cultural, and natural heritage.” He rails against the French schools and their “egalitarian experiments of the pedagogists and the Doctor Strangeloves of gender theories and islamo-leftism.”
Provocative comments are a Zemmour specialty. Born to a Jewish family from Algeria, he now claims to be one of France’s main defender of its “Christian civilization” against the Muslim immigrant hordes. He has repeatedly sought to rehabilitate Marshal Philippe Pétain, who led the French government that collaborated with the Nazis during World War II — even declaring that government had protected Jews.
As has become an increasingly common phenomenon in the United States on the Right, Zemmour never shies away from “saying the quiet part out loud.” Nor does he speak in euphemisms, which makes him stand out to voters in a way unlike Marine Le Pen of the National Rally, who has long been the main figure on the Right in French politics. Some polls have suggested that Zemmour could poll higher than Le Pen and make it to the second round of the elections, but with several months to go, nothing is clear.
Dripping with Racist and Xenophobic “Frenchification”
Zemmour’s racism is on full display in his announcement video. “You feel like you are no longer in the country you once knew,” he tells French voters over scenes of women wearing Islamic headscarves and Black men riding the Metro. “You are foreigners in your own country.”
He adds, “We must give back the power to the people, take it back from the minorities that never cease to tyrannize the majority.”
Zemmour is an inveterate Islamophobe. He has promised to prohibit families from giving children non-French first names, using Mohammed as his example. He calls for the “re-Frenchification” of the country, and would ban outright the wearing of Islamic headscarves.
“We have to tell French people of migrant origin to make a choice on who they are,” he has said. “The problem, quite simply, is that the French state, its leaders, have out of cowardliness refused to insist this choice be made.”
To understand this concept of “Frenchification” requires some background about France. Two things stand out in particular. One is that unlike in the United States, a country that celebrates being a “melting pot” of immigrants, and where what sociologists call “hyphenated identities” and “dual belonging” are commonplace (e.g., African American, Italian American, and so on), France never really embraced multiculturalism. France has always expected migrants to its shores to abandon any commitment to a minority culture or a foreign country, because to do otherwise detracts from the quality of one’s commitment to French identity. In many respects, it is a reflection of France’s decaying imperialism. What was once one of the most important countries in the world now plays second- or third-fiddle to the United States, Germany, China, and other countries, and holds on with ferocious tenacity to anything from its past days of glory (consider, for instance, the role it plays in its former African colonies).
The other has to do with how the separation of church and state — something in the “Establishment” and “Free Exercise” clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution — differs in France from the United States. Here, that separation prohibits the government from interfering with religions; it most certainly does not keep religions from intervening in the functioning of the state, as evidenced by all the evangelical Christians who openly run as such for public office. In France, though, simply put, it is about religions being banned from the “public square.” That is why French leaders think they can openly attack the wearing of headscarves by Muslim girls in French schools — something that would likely provoke a suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in this country.
Both of these factors are wrapped up in what the Migration Policy Institute, in a detailed report about the challenges of migrants to France, calls the issue “‘being’ French or ‘looking’ French,” and explains some — but not all — of the racism against Muslims and Black people descended from families in France’s former colonies in north and central Africa.
In his announcement, Zemmour spewed this blatantly racist drivel, saying he was running for president “so that our children and our grandchildren do not know barbarism, so that our daughters are not veiled and our sons are not subjugated, so that we can pass on to them a France as we have known it and received it from our ancestors.”
“We French are a great nation, a great people,” Zemmour declared in his announcement speech. He spelled out a litany of examples from France’s “glorious past [that] pleads for our future” — military conquests, literature and art, scientific discoveries, and so on. “For a thousand years, we have been one of the powers that have written the history of the world. We will be worthy of our ancestors. We will not let ourselves be dominated, vassalized, conquered, colonized. We will not let ourselves be replaced.”
Yes, Zemmour is also an open proponent of “replacement theory,” the same idea that motivates white supremacists throughout the United States. What the French call Le Grand Remplacement (The Great Replacement) posits that the white European population is under a cultural and demographic assault by non-Europeans, especially North Africans, Turkish, and sub-Saharan peoples, in the form of mass migration. It is a term actually popularized by French author Renaud Camus in a 2011 book, who calls it “genocide by substitution.”
In his most recent book, Zemmour writes, “The great replacement is neither a myth, nor a conspiracy, but a relentless process.” And earlier, he referred to the migrants who are deliberately coming to France to exact this replacement on the French people as “colonizers.”
“For decades, our leaders … have lied to you,” he says in his announcement speech, “they have concealed from you the seriousness of our decline, they have hidden from you the reality of our replacement.”
A Revolutionary Alternative
Only time will tell how Zemmour will fare in the campaign. But like Trump, he is tapping into a strong inclination among many white people in France, especially white men, to blame the deep economic and social problems that have wracked the country on immigrants rather than on their true source — the capitalist system of exploitation and oppression that puts profits before human needs.
The most striking alternative to the Zemmour candidacy comes from Anasse Kazib, the revolutionary rail worker who is running for president as the candidate of Left Voice’s co-thinkers in France. It is no accident that calling out Zemmour and what he stands for has been a feature of Kasib’s speeches on the campaign trail. In his launch rally, he notably declared, “Our France is not the France of kings and great men, idealized by Zemmour, but the France of the sans-culottes, the Communards, the insurgent slaves of Haiti, the great strikes of 1936, and the general strike of 1968” — struggles that Kazib said Zemmour wants to “erase from history.”
In response, Zemmour has made attacking Kazib part of his daily discourse. It was Zemmour’s supporters who began a racist campaign on Twitter calling for Kazib’s “remigration” (though he was born in France) just after the rail worker’s big campaign rally. And in July, Zemmour celebrated the death threats that were issued against Kazib by another figure of France’s extreme Right, Thierry Veyrier.
In the aftermath of Zemmour’s campaign announcement, bourgeois politicians in France from across the spectrum lined up to denounce his rhetoric. But they are the ones who have promoted the policies that have created the conditions for the rise of a proto-fascist like Zemmour. Just as Zemmour’s rhetoric drips with racism and xenophobia, their pronouncements of opposition drip with hypocrisy.
The next five months promise to sharpen the differences between Zemmour’s vision of France’s future and the revolutionary vision that is the only path that can truly “save” France.