In France, a Right-Wing Polemicist Tries Channeling De Gaulle to Win Votes
PARIS — The retro choreography was heavy-handed, its intent obvious: Éric Zemmour in a dark tie, eyes averted from the camera, reading into an old-fashioned microphone from sheets of paper, just like Charles de Gaulle in his famous speech from London on June 18, 1940, when he called for the liberation of a fallen France.
Mr. Zemmour is not a towering general, and France is not on its knees. But Mr. Zemmour, the far-right polemicist who this week announced his run for next year’s presidential election, understands the power of provocative imagery. Effrontery and scandal have propelled his outsider candidacy.
His campaign-launching video was a nationalistic call for reborn French glory. From Joan of Arc to the singer Johnny Hallyday, from Napoleon Bonaparte to Brigitte Bardot, from Voltaire to Versailles, from Notre Dame to village church bells, it took viewers on a tour of Mr. Zemmour’s imaginary France.
The France that — in the telling of this Jewish journalist of North African descent whose family arrived in France 70 years ago — existed before immigrants, Muslim veils, vandalism and mealy-mouthed elites led the country to its most recent strange defeat.
“His catastrophic vision speaks to a deep-rooted French pessimism,” said Pascal Perrineau, a social scientist. “We are one of the most pessimistic countries in the world. Combine that with alienation from the political class, inward-looking nationalism, and a defiant French inclination to overturn the table, and you have the Zemmour phenomenon.”
Whether or not Mr. Zemmour can build out from his current support — in the 12 to 15 percent range, according to polls — and qualify for the runoff round of voting in April is unclear. But one way or another, he will affect the outcome, splitting the far-right share of the vote and so opening up the field. Already this man without a party has illustrated just how far France has lurched to the right.
There would be no Zemmour phenomenon if France were not ripe for it, just as there would have been no President Donald J. Trump if the United States had not been ready for his nationalist message.
Mr. Zemmour explicitly models himself on Mr. Trump. He rose to notoriety through regular TV appearances, he laces his apocalyptic message with anti-immigrant slurs, he makes the unsayable sayable, he delights in a macho contempt for women, and his slogan might as well be “Make France Great Again.”
“We are a great nation, a great people. Our glorious past presages our future. Our soldiers conquered Europe and the world!” Mr. Zemmour declared this week, before insisting that “we will be worthy of our ancestors. We will not allow ourselves to be dominated, turned into vassals, conquered, colonized. We will not allow ourselves to be replaced.”
Mr. Zemmour, like Tucker Carlson of Fox News, is an ardent adherent to the theory of “the great replacement,” a phrase generally attributed to a xenophobic French writer, Renaud Camus, who said: “The great replacement is very simple. You have one people, and in the space of a generation, you have a different people.” The new France, according to Mr. Zemmour, would be the one that has been led to “decline and decadence” by Muslim immigration.
How did France arrive at this state, where polls suggest at least 35 percent of the population will vote for either Mr. Zemmour or the perennial candidate of the far right, Marine Le Pen, in the first round of voting?
Some factors are shared with the United States — cultural fracture between cities and the hinterland, deindustrialization, racial tensions, growing precariousness in the workplace — but others are unique to France.
Chief among them is the place of the second religion of France, Islam. Many of the millions of Muslims in France, as much as 10 percent of the population, according to estimates, are successfully integrated, but their story has tended to be overshadowed by numerous terrorist attacks by radical Islamists.
This has engendered fear, as has the perception that the teachings of Islam may be hard to reconcile with a Republic dedicated to the notion that education dissolves differences of faith in shared citizenship.
“Immigration equals Islam equals insecurity,” said Hakim El Karoui, a Muslim who is a senior fellow at the Institut Montaigne. “No politician praises diversity any longer.”
Mr. Zemmour’s emergence changes the presidential election, to be held a little over four months from now. Because Ms. Le Pen, the leader of the National Rally, who is making her third attempt to become president, and Mr. Zemmour, will divide the hard-right-right vote, it may open the way for a center-right candidate to reach the second round. The percentage of votes needed to qualify by being one of the top two candidates in the first round will be lower.
Valérie Pécresse, a moderate conservative who heads the Île-de-France regional council and is a former budget minister, looks almost certain to be picked this weekend as the candidate of the center-right Republicans. She has described herself as “one-third Thatcher, two-thirds Merkel” and is emerging as the potential dark horse of an election where the French left seems condemned to irrelevance.
For now, President Emmanuel Macron, occupying a vast vacated middle ground, looks like the favorite. But he would be less comfortable facing Ms. Pécresse in a runoff than an extreme right-wing ideologue.
Mr. Zemmour, unlike Ms. Le Pen, has appealed to some of the center-right through his erudition and culture, but his challenge is now twofold: to convince the French that he is not a one-trick pony and to overcome the impression that he is not “presidential.” In other words, he has to address issues beyond immigration, not least formulate something resembling an economic plan; and he probably needs to cut from his repertoire the kind of crude gesture he aimed at a protester in Marseille last month.
Still, until now, as with Mr. Trump, every outrage that might have derailed Mr. Zemmour has left him reinforced, or at least still standing, and often leading the news of the day. An editorial in the center-right daily Le Figaro noted this week that it was a French writer, Honoré de Balzac, who described scandal as “the pedestal of success.”
Mr. Zemmour has called child asylum seekers “thieves, killers and rapists.” He has said “most drug dealers are Black and Arab.” He has suggested France’s collaborationist wartime Vichy government saved French Jews. He has equated Jewish children murdered in 2012 with their jihadi terrorist killer because their parents chose to bury them outside France, in Jerusalem.
He has argued that “Islam is incompatible with the French republic” and suggested that mass deportation of immigrants might not be impossible. This despite the fact an entire section of the cemetery at Verdun, the World War I battlefield where about 300,000 people were killed, is given over to Muslims who gave their lives for France.
He would ban all “non-French names” like Muhammad. He would rescind the 1972 Pleven law that made incitement to racial hatred illegal and has earned him repeated charges and one conviction.
Mr. Zemmour’s 2006 book called “The First Sex,” published when he was a journalist at Le Figaro newspaper, was a best seller. It argued that France had declined because of the loss of male “virility” and the “feminization” of society. In a subsequent best seller, “The French Suicide,” published in 2014, he waxed lyrical about the world before feminism when a bus driver could “slide a concupiscent hand” over a woman’s backside without risking prosecution.
Married to a lawyer, he is openly involved in a relationship with his political adviser Sarah Knafo, 28. He has not denied a news report that she is pregnant, although he has sued the magazine that published the article for invasion of privacy, according to his lawyers. The revelations have not caused a stir in France.
“A lot of French people don’t care,” said Mr. Perrineau, the social scientist. “They think some level of scandal is the price to be paid for renewing French political life.”
De Gaulle said in his London speech that “the flame of the French resistance must not be extinguished and will not be extinguished.”
That, of course, was resistance to a France that had succumbed to the racist, antisemitic ideology of Vichy.