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Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Copying Trump’s Playbook, Far-right Pundit Eric Zemmour Preaches Hate and Xenophobia in his Quest for the French Presidency

A media star with no political experience throws his hat into the ring and soars in the presidential polls. Hurling crude insults at his critics, bashing the elites, vilifying the press, and lavishing praise upon Russia, he rides a wave of populist anger, fear, and xenophobia as he promises to restore his demoralized country to its former glory. No wonder many pundits are calling Eric Zemmour the French Donald Trump. Zemmour, 63, who has just announced his official candidacy, freely acknowledges Trump’s rise to power as a blueprint for his own potential run. He even modeled the cover of his latest book, France Has Not Said Its Final Word, on Trump’s 2015 manifesto, Great Again. Both men pose like patriotic saviors in front of their national flag. Both men have been 
accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women. (Zemmour has declined to respond to the allegations.)

Beyond the obvious similarities, however, the differences between Trump and Zemmour are substantial. Trump is an uncultivated vulgarian. Zemmour, in contrast, is an articulate, well-read intellectual whose speeches are peppered with literary and historical references. Trump succeeded by taking over the Republican Party; Zemmour, who belongs to no party, is scrambling to improvise a movement of his own. With his height, girth, and outlandish coiffure, Trump is physically imposing; Zemmour is balding, of modest stature and slight build, with a reedy voice—the kind of guy Trump would make fun of if he were in the opposing camp.

Perhaps the main thing the two men share is their status as outsiders that no one took seriously until they began to get traction in national polls. In Zemmour’s case, the rise has been meteoric: Credited in June with a 5.5% share of the theoretical vote, he has more than tripled that margin and now has a serious chance of facing off against President Emmanuel Macron in therunoff of France’s two-round election next April. Until recently, conventional wisdom had pointed to a replay of the 2017 matchup between Macron and Marine Le Pen, of the far-right anti-immigrant National Rally (R.N.) party, who has been trying to moderate her image. But by outflanking her on the radical right—and relentlessly insisting that “Marine can’t win”—Zemmour could lure a substantial number of Le Pen’s 2017 voters to his camp.

Even before announcing his official candidacy on November 30—via a youtube video touting the past glories of France juxtaposed with sinister images of immigrants and terrorist attacks—Zemmour has been sucking up all the media oxygen. He is a constant feature in TV interviews and debates. His face is emblazoned on the covers of major magazines. Crisscrossing the country on a book tour-cum-campaign blitz, he has been drawing enthusiastic crowds at each stop—along with gaggles of sometimes violent demonstrators denouncing him as a fascist and racist. 

Zemmour would deny both accusations, of course, but his words speak for themselves. His pronouncements and writings paint a bleak picture of France in decline: threatened by hordes of Muslim immigrants he contends are bent on turning the country into an Islamic republic—a process he calls the “great replacement,” the supplanting of France’s white population and its Christian culture by what he characterizes, in effect, as Muslim invaders. Declaring Islam in any form to be incompatible with democracy, he proposes to close French borders to further immigration and expel 2 million foreigners over his five-year term. He also wants to outlaw the wearing in public of the Muslim veil and ban the use of Muslim first names such as Mohammed in favor of “proper” French monikers like Pierre and Jacques. Once he curbs the foreign invasion, Zemmour promises to restore France to its past grandeur, invoking the legends of Joan of Arc, Napoleon, and Charles de Gaulle—a pantheon of French heroes he apparently intends to occupy.

The French-born son of Jewish Berbers who immigrated from Algeria in 1952, Zemmour studied at Sciences Po and began his career as a journalist, radio commentator, and author of popular books expounding his acerbic views. For the past two years the fiery polemicist has been a star commentator on CNews, a right-wing TV network created about four years ago that is often compared to Murdoch’s Fox News. (Last September, he suspended his relationships with CNews and the conservative daily Figaro in order to comply with French watchdog rules concerning media access by political candidates.)

With immigration as his main bugaboo, Zemmour voices a litany of racist, sexist, and otherwise extreme views that place him at the outer edge of France’s far right. Virulently anti-feminist and homophobic, contemptuous of all forms of political correctness, Zemmour favors a restoration of the death penalty, the lifting of highway speed limits, and curbs on what he calls the “counter powers”—meaning “judges, the media, the minorities.” He warns darkly of a looming civil war and has been sanctioned multiple times by French courts for inciting racial hatred.

Zemmour also has a penchant for Trump-style provocations. In a shocking gesture that drew widespread criticism last month, he trained an unloaded sniper’s rifle on a group of journalists at a security event and jokingly ordered them to “get back.” When citizenship minister Marlène Schiappa called the act “horrifying,” Zemmour dismissed her as an “imbecile.” (A day later, the dangers of “unloaded” guns were tragically demonstrated by actor Alec Baldwin’s accidental killing of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on a New Mexico movie set.) At a tumultuous campaign stop in Marseilles on November 27, Zemmour was photographed shooting a finger at a female protester, a gesture widely denouced as “unpresidential.” 

In foreign policy, Zemmour is an ultranationalist who wants to pull France out of NATO’s integrated command and forge a cozy relationship with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Aides say he values Washington as an ally but insists on being treated as an equal partner and seeks an “equilibrium” between the U.S. and the Russian state. Yet his rhetoric is often tinged with undisguised anti-Americanism. Speaking at a rally in Rouen in October, for example, he called the D-Day invasion “an occupation and colonization by the Americans.” While he does not call for an outright Frexit from the European Union, he wants to curtail the E.U.’s powers and reaffirm French sovereignty—hence his chumming up to Hungary’s nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, with whom he met in September.

Though he is himself a practicing Jew, Zemmour has been accused of antisemitism by prominent members of France’s Jewish community based on a series of troubling remarks and writings. Recently, he suggested that the families of the Jewish children who were murdered by an Islamist terrorist in 2012 were not good French citizens because their families had chosen to inter their remains in Israel. He has cast doubt on the innocence of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army officer charged with pro-German espionage and ultimately acquitted in 1906. Most troubling is his revisionist claim that the Vichy government under Philippe Pétain actually protected French Jews during the Nazi occupation, whereas Vichy’s active role in rounding up and deporting Jews to Hitler’s death camps (on French trains) is well documented. Whatever his motivations, Zemmour’s dog whistles clearly appeal to those on the far right who are unhappy with Marine Le Pen’s rejection of the blatant antisemitism for which her father was notorious. Some have even seen Zemmour’s antisemitic pronoucements as a manifestation of the “self-hating Jew” syndrome famously analyzed by German philosopher Theodor Lessing in 1930.

The most remarkable thing about the Zemmour phenomenon is that no one saw it coming. “It’s a spectacular rise,” says Frédéric Dabi, head of the IFOP polling institute. “In the history of the Fifth Republic, we have never seen someone who was not part of the political establishment gain this kind of momentum.” One explanation, says Dabi, is that Zemmour benefits from a leadership vacuum on the right. Marine Le Pen, after two failed attempts at the presidency, has lost much of her credibility, while her strategy of softening her message—she calls it dédiabolisation, or un-demonizing—has left many followers hungry for the kind of red meat that Zemmour doles out.

As a result, Zemmour has been eating Le Pen’s lunch. Since his appearance in the political arena, the R.N. leader has seen her poll numbers drop sharply and the two are now running neck-and-neck. At this early stage of the campaign, of course, there is no telling whether Le Pen or Zemmour—or another candidate—will make it to the runoff round. But for now the fiercest infighting pits these two right-wing rivals against each other. One bad sign for Marine: Her own father, the sulfurous party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, 93, says he will support his friend Zemmour if he retains his command in the polls. “Marine has abandoned her strongest positions,” he has noted, “and Eric is occupying that terrain.”

Meanwhile, supporters of the right-center Republicans have still not recovered from the humiliating elimination of their champion, François Fillon, in the election five years ago. Divided by competing claimants, the Republicans will not settle on a candidate until their December 4 convention. 

As for the left, also divided by internecine squabbles, no candidate appears to have a realistic chance of reaching the runoff round. “Fewer and fewer French voters identify with the left,” says IFOP’s Dabi. “The country’s values lie very much on the right today.” Some analysts even speak of an “extreme right-ization” of French opinion. Indeed, the combined poll numbers of Zemmour and Le Pen comprise more than one third of the French electorate. (At the same time, Zemmour has the highest negatives of any potential candidate:70% believe he lacks presidential stature, 57% say he worries them, and 71% think he gives France a bad image internationally.)

If the political context gives Zemmour a tactical advantage, the main reason for his rise is that his message connects with a substantial segment of the population. “At a time when the French are fed up with the whole political class, Zemmour appears as a new man,” says Pascal Perrineau, a political analyst at Sciences Po. “He tells the French people a story, a national legend. It is outdated and reactionary, but he talks about the country and makes people dream.” He also stokes nationalist angst, far and wide—a key attribute he shares with Trump. “The French are worried. They are afraid of globalization. Zemmour tells them to refuse globalization and withdraw into their own national boundaries—cultural, economic, and political. He gives the French hope in an increasingly globalized world.”

In fact, the French have plenty of reasons for angst these days—including, most recently, the sharp rise of gasoline and energy prices as well as the cost of living in general. “The real problem of average French citizens is that they arrive at the end of the month with less and less money,” says Jean-Yves Camus, head of the Observatory of Radical Politics. “But Zemmour bases his campaign on a single theme: immigration and national identity. And that corresponds to something that speaks to the French. According to a recent poll, 61% believe in Zemmour’s great replacement theory.”

In a country with about a 10% foreign population and nearly 6 million Muslim residents, immigration is a concern across the political spectrum—especially in the wake of the multiple attacks by Islamist terrorists that France has suffered in recent years. “We mustn’t confuse Islam with Islamism,” says Camus. “Islamism is a reality in this country, a danger and a totalitarianism. Macron and the whole political class are right to fight against it. But Zemmour speaks of the cultural impossibility of assimilating Islam.” His plan for mass expulsions is unrealizable, Camus believes, since many Muslims have French or dual citizenship and cannot be legally deported. “We cannot return to the French social mix of 50 years ago. History is not a time machine.”

With no party structure behind them, Zemmour’s supporters have been scrambling to put together a their campaign organization. His key advisor and political guru is Sarah Knafo, a 28-year-old graduate of the elite Ecole Nationale d’Administration, who oversees his campaign strategy. (A Paris Match cover photo of the two of them embracing in the Mediterranean surf recently prompted speculation that she was perhaps more than a political adviser to Zemmour, who is married with three children. Zemmour filed charges against the magazine for invasion of privacy but has refused to comment publicly on the nature of the relationship.) Volunteers have set up numerous pro-Zemmour websites and plastered thousands of “Zemmour President” posters across the country—many of which have been defaced by his detractors.

“We are putting together a party,” says Antoine Diers, spokesman for the Association des Amis d’Eric Zemmour, which is spearheading the effort. “We have already attracted a lot of supporters and are beginning to collect funds. The material part of the campaign is on track.” Asked how a candidate with no political experience and no party affiliations could expect to govern, Diers assures me that he has “no worry about the fact that Eric Zemmour, once elected, can field parliamentary candidates, win a majority, and form a government with political figures from the Republicans, R.N., and new actors.” In the eyes of some analysts, though, the movement is thus far hampered by a lack of seasoned campaign professionals and A-list defectors from other parties.

Though Zemmour’s entourage insists he’s in it to win, some insiders believe his real goal is to shake up the political establishment and impose his ideas on the debate. “Zemmour seeks to destabilize rather than get elected,” says Science Po’s Perrineau. Others see a longer-range game plan. Says Jean-Yves Camus: “Eric Zemmour’s objective is not to be elected in 2022. It is simply to prepare the terrain for a great convergence of the center-right and far-right”—a convergence in which he could possibly play a leading role down the line.

Even if Zemmour does make it to a runoff round against Macron, few experts give him a realistic chance of winning. Though Macron is not wildly popular these days, he has the advantage of incumbency and currently leads the field. Six months ahead of the election, most polls show the French president winning handily against either far-right challenger. But much can change in the meantime, and polls, of late, have been known to get it way wrong. For now, Eric Zemmour is the hottest act on France’s political stage and anyone who saw Donald Trump march to victory in 2016 would be unwise to count him out.

This article originally appeared in slightly different form on the Vanity Fair website




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