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On 17 November, the far-right journalist and polemicist Éric Zemmour went on trial in Paris on charges of incitement to racial hatred. In September 2020, he had said on the French news broadcaster CNews that unaccompanied foreign minors were “thieves, they’re murderers, they’re rapists, that’s all they are. We must send them back”. He did not appear at the trial and was represented by his lawyers, who said the charges were unfounded. The verdict is expected to be delivered next year.
Zemmour has previously been convicted of incitement to racial hatred and religious hatred and been tried and acquitted in several other cases. But the stakes are different this time: the defendant is now a candidate for president of the French republic. In early November, polls indicated that up to 17% of the electorate would choose him for next president. This placed him behind only Emmanuel Macron, suggesting that the second round of the election could be between the two men. On 30 November, he officially announced his candidacy.
The rise of Zemmour, 63, born to Algerian Jewish parents and raised in the banlieues of Paris, is a media phenomenon in two ways. First, he has spent most of his professional life working for newspapers and television, where he has been able to exercise his vitriolic style and make reactionary arguments. Second, he has benefited from extraordinary media coverage of his scandalous statements. Not only was he on the cover of the conservative magazine Valeurs Actuelles five times in the first nine months of 2021, but, according to the media observatory Acrimed, he was mentioned 4,167 times in all French outlets in the month of September alone: 139 times per day.
The parallels with Donald Trump are clear, but there are important distinctions. While Trump traded on vulgarity and was unconvincing when bragging about his IQ, Zemmour is an intellectual who has studied at the elite university Sciences Po, even if he failed the entrance exam to the National School of Administration twice, and has authored several books, even if they comprise somewhat repetitive essays. Zemmour’s rhetoric also seems to go beyond that of Trump, although it is not known how far he would go in practice.
Indeed, he has said that parents should only be allowed to give their children “traditional” French names, approvingly referred to people comparing Nazism with Islam, propagated the so-called “great replacement” theory and argued that employers have a right to turn down black or Arab candidates. He believes that political power should belong to men and that women’s role should be to have and raise children. He has claimed to be on the side of General Bugeaud, who massacred Muslims during the colonisation of Algeria, has contended that Marshal Pétain saved Jews during the second world war, and would like the death penalty to be reinstated. His overarching narrative is reversing France’s supposed national decline, which featured again in the video announcing his candidacy.
To understand the rise of someone with such extremist views, it is important to recognise the changing dynamics within the French right, as well as the way the centre of political gravity in the country has moved rightwards. Zemmour’s rise has coincided with a drop in support for Marine Le Pen of the Rassemblement National – even if the sociological makeup of the two candidates’ supporters differs, as women, young people and blue-collar workers are inclined toward Le Pen, while men, older people and the upper middle class tend to favour Zemmour.
The failure of Le Pen’s party at regional elections earlier this year seems to have marked the beginning of its fall. “Everyone knows that she cannot win,” Zemmour said in the following days, adding: “Even herself”. Paradoxically, through his radically rightwing positions, Zemmour has helped to detoxify the Rassemblement National, a goal Le Pen had set out to achieve ever since she became its leader. Long considered beyond the pale in the political arena, she has now gained respectability. Commenting on the low turnout in her own constituency at the regional elections, Zemmour said that people no longer see much difference between Le Pen and the president. “Marine Le Pen speaks like Emmanuel Macron, Emmanuel Macron speaks like Marine Le Pen”, he said on CNews.
This analysis may look biased, yet it holds a grain of truth: Macron’s interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, in a debate with Le Pen in February 2021, argued that she was “not tough enough” on Islam, adding that his government was more consistent in the fight against immigration and defending secularism. In response, Le Pen confirmed their ideological affinities, going as far as admitting that she could have written much of his recent book, Le Séparatisme Islamiste. Confused, the anchor who was conducting the discussion could only say: “We have the impression that what you both say and think is the same.”
This mutual understanding between someone whose surname is synonymous with the far right and the most prominent figure of Macron’s “centrist” government is revealing. On one hand, as she realised that her desire to leave the eurozone and appeal to the left had destabilised her voting coalition, Le Pen has returned to traditional conservative values. On the other, recognising that the left will not get to the second round of the coming presidential elections and would always prefer him to an explicitly rightwing candidate, Macron has increasingly sought to please French conservatives. The brutal repression of the gilets jaunes (yellow vests); the hardening of borders with Italy and Spain; and the targeting of Muslims via an intolerant version of secularism were signs of this evolution. So too a series of typically neoliberal measures abolishing the solidarity tax on wealth, increasing the equivalent of national insurance, liberalising the labour market and reducing unemployment benefits.
A great shift to the right is currently under way in France. Together, the voting intentions for Zemmour, Le Pen, Macron and whoever is the candidate for Les Républicains equate to between 70% and 75% of the electorate. French public discourse is increasingly characterised by Islamophobia, xenophobia and racist and sexist ideas – what some call the “Zemmourisation of minds”. Arnaud Montebourg, a former Socialist who is now a presidential candidate, even proposed to block Western Union transfers to countries that “do not help” with deportations – a policy that brought him sarcastic congratulations from Zemmour, who observed that he must have been inspired by his YouTube channel.
Whether the polemicist will become a serious contender is not yet known. Various signs suggest that he may be at a turning point, with the simultaneous withdrawals from his campaign of his main political champion, the former minister Philippe de Villiers, and of his principal financial supporter, Charles Gave. But what is certain is that his political rise has revealed the deeply worrying attraction, for a significant number of voters, of an ideology whose sheer violence has no equivalent in the past half-century.
Didier Fassin is a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, and director of studies at the École des Hautes Études, Paris