Some elections are determined by a kingmaker, others are defined by the appearance of a troublemaker. The 2022 presidential election in France falls into the second category. Its troublemaker, Éric Zemmour, was largely unknown abroad until he announced his presidential bid at the end of the fall of 2021.
In France, however, Zemmour has been a well-known figure in public debate for decades. Over the past fifteen years in particular, Zemmour, who began his career as a political journalist, has established himself as a television celebrity and reactionary essayist. Adored by some, he has become one of the most vocal figures of what the French call the “identitarian” far right. In his books as well as in his speeches, he uses historical falsifications to defend a vision of a traditional France while denouncing the supposed Islamization of the country by immigrants.
For a long time, one could legitimately wonder if there was any point in commenting on Zemmour’s absurd positions. Yet to ignore him risks missing significant developments on the anti-liberal right. Listening to Zemmour, one can detect a decisive evolution of the far right in France, now less concerned with restoring the nation to its past fantasized greatness than with rehashing the causes of an irremediable decline. The only thing that matters to it now is the preservation of a country that has never existed, except in the nostalgic imagination that Zemmour has of the 1960s, France’s last golden age, the era of his childhood and adolescence.
After a massive surge in the polls at the beginning of the campaign, Zemmour now scores between 11 and 13 percent, which puts him in third or fourth place. His popularity has been hurt by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—in 2018 he infamously said he hoped there would be a French Putin—but given the number of candidates he still has a fair chance of making it through to the second round alongside Emmanuel Macron. As an ex-pundit, Zemmour has a clear advantage relative to Marine Le Pen, the candidate of the National Front, and Valérie Pécresse, the candidate of the traditional right, when it comes to mastery of media trends, and this has allowed him to dictate many of the themes of the campaign. In an anxious country, where unemployment remains high and Macron’s presidency has been marked by considerable social turmoil, issues of national identity and immigration have been at the heart of the national conversation. But even if he does lose in the first round, as seems probable, Zemmour has opened up a political space that allows voters from the right and the far right to come together, a prospect that means the entire political spectrum in France is being subtly, but definitively, reorganized.
As I write this, we are less than two weeks away from the first round of voting in April. In a tense public-health context, there have been fewer of the traditional events characterizing modern electoral campaigns, such as debates between the major candidates. Most of the campaign has taken place on the various digital platforms that already structure French political life, each candidate addressing his own electorate. This transition has presented Zemmour—the candidate of a party he founded and dubbed “Reconquête,” in a macabre allusion to La Reconquista—with an opportunity. For Zemmour is not comfortable in a more traditional political role: he is a good debater, but his abilities as a public speaker have been questioned by many pundits, and he is not natural at plunging into crowds, even if he has gotten better during the campaign. By contrast, he has thoroughly mastered the new media that have redefined the French political scene over the past decade, having directly contributed to their transformation as a journalist and essayist.
In September 2006, France 2, the most important French public channel, launched a new form of infotainment program on Saturday evenings. Laurent Ruquier, a popular radio host, introduced celebrity guests: writers, directors, journalists and politicians were invited to discuss their latest projects and productions. The format was not entirely new. Ruquier was inspired by existing programs in the United States and the United Kingdom, and by one of the star producers and hosts of French television since the late 1980s: Thierry Ardisson. Known for his impertinence and deliberately shocking questions—in 2001, he notoriously asked former Prime Minister Michel Rocard if “blow jobs were cheating”—he had altered the shape of entertainment TV in France, blending politics, culture and show business.
To differentiate himself from Ardisson, who had just left public television, Ruquier had to spice things up. His guests had to answer questions from two columnists, whose task it was to offer raw, and sometimes brutal, takes on their work or their career. Behind a proclaimed intention to show the impartiality and the determination of the show’s producers, the goal was very obviously to create controversy and to amuse the viewer with sometimes violent exchanges.
For five years, one man excelled at this game: Zemmour. In the role of the reactionary columnist, he tore apart the political and cultural guests, accusing most of the former of incompetence and lack of culture while denouncing the latter for enabling the disintegration of contemporary France. It is in this role that I, like many other French people, first encountered him, when I was still a teenager. His aggressiveness, and the drama that his appearances unleashed, was oddly enjoyable. There is always something appealing about a devil’s advocate.
Until that point, Zemmour had been a political journalist, who usually reported on right-wing parties for conservative newspapers. Everything changed when, in early 2006, he published an essay entitled Le Premier Sexe, an unequivocal reference to Simone de Beauvoir’s famous feminist book, Le Deuxième Sexe, in which he denounced the feminization of men and the collapse of traditional codes of virility thanks to the supposed cultural and media hegemony of the left. His attacks on feminists and his reactionary sophisms were an instant success. To date, this book has sold one hundred thousand copies.
It also caught the eye of TV producers, intent on finding their pet reactionary. But like Dr. Frankenstein, they were overpowered by their creation. During his weekly appearances, he carefully honed his rhetoric, slowly crafting a character intent on scorning elites for their bien-pensance, or self-righteous right-mindedness.
Bien-pensance has a long history as a (far) right-wing concept. In the 1920s, Georges Bernanos, a Catholic novelist and pamphleteer with an incandescent pen, used it to deride the conservative bourgeoisie and Catholic hierarchy that had gradually accepted the existence of the secular Third Republic. In the early 2000s, the neologism began to reemerge in reactionary discourse and eventually made its way into French society at large as reactionary pundits started to target political elites’ alleged inability to name France’s most pressing problem: immigration. In a context marked by unrest and unemployment in suburban zones, bien-pensance was now the alleged ideology of the progressive bourgeoisie, whose humanitarian pretensions were mocked as hypocritical. Zemmour ceaselessly used the term to develop a form of anti-elitist populism: whether they were journalists, artists or academics, the new bien-pensants were mostly Parisian and disconnected from the rest of the country. Worse, they imposed an intellectual terror that prevented any and all dissenters, not to mention “real people,” from expressing their opinions.
By denouncing bien-pensance, Zemmour adopted a tactic common to right-wing media celebrities in many countries: to pose as a victim of elites who are determined to silence him. Though ridiculous given his massive media exposure on TV, in the press and on one of France’s major radio stations, this lament has proven effective. In his narrative, Zemmour and his supporters are victims of a new brand of contemporary totalitarianism, with roots in American political correctness. Through a mixture of irony, aggressiveness and bad faith, he has also developed a debating style that contributes to his popularity. Some of his rhetorical quirks have even become slogans: ben voyons, an untranslatable expression meant to convey his ironic contempt for the ideas of his opponents, has become a rallying cry for his supporters, often emblazoned on caps and t-shirts.
Through his mockery Zemmour had found a way of continually exposing what had become a festering wound in the French body politic: the inability of mainstream conservatives and socialists, who have governed the country continuously between 1981 and 2017, to deal with the social integration of the North African and African colonial minorities that the French state had voluntarily imported with the blessing of the business class as a source of cheap labor. The French integration model, based on strict assimilation, has failed for at least three reasons: France’s macroeconomic difficulties since the mid-Seventies have resulted in forty years of high unemployment; the country is still struggling to come to terms with its colonial past, which prevents it from recognizing racism in the present; and finally, the concentration of immigrant populations in impoverished suburban areas has facilitated their social exclusion and racial stigmatization.
Zemmour, of course, has never bothered with complex explanations. Since the beginning of his career as a television pamphleteer, he has suggested that integration, which he habitually reduces to a problem of Islamic immigration, is simply impossible. Both on television, and in his books and articles, he has portrayed a France in decline since the end of the Sixties, in which corrupt cosmopolitan elites have allowed the country to be submerged under a wave of hostile immigrants. In the early 2010s, he began to champion the theory of the Great Replacement, coined by Renaud Camus, a far-right writer, who was himself inspired by Jean Raspail, a far-right novelist who in 1973 wrote a novel, Le Camp des Saints, which portrays the arrival of millions of Indian refugees in Europe, triggering a sequence of events that ultimately leads to the worldwide destruction of Western civilization. The novel gained cult status among the nativist far right, and Camus basically adapted its core ideas: he sees Muslim immigration to France as a project deliberately devised by liberal elites to destroy the traditional order of European societies by organizing the replacement of the “native French.” Long confined to militant circles at the fringe of the far right, Zemmour has brought this idea to a national audience in viral performances on TV as well as YouTube and Dailymotion. The same theory has recently been echoed abroad as well, such as by the fascists who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 chanting “Jews will not replace us,” and by Brenton Tarrant, the white supremacist who perpetrated the Christchurch attacks in 2019.
The combination of witty put-downs and rabid conspiracy theories led Zemmour to become a media phenomenon well before he made his presidential bid: in addition to the five hundred thousand copies sold in print of Le Suicide français, published in 2014, he has been a continuous television presence for the past fifteen years; on the internet, he is a permanent trending topic. The paradox that constitutes the Zemmour phenomenon is that this self-proclaimed reactionary, nostalgic for a mythical past, is perfectly at ease with the modern world, or at least with its media. Zemmour, in short, is perfectly in line with a decade-long trend that has deeply transformed the Western far right. A staunch defender of Bolsonaro, Salvini and Trump, he knows how to use traditional and social media alike to serve his agenda by stirring outrage and support in equal measure.
The video that launched his presidential campaign was a fascinating dramatization of this paradox. In just under ten minutes, he described a France in steep decline, vowing to restore its past greatness, which he conveyed through a nostalgic montage of images—obtained without the consent of their authors—that sketch out his ideal France. In the background, the second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 provided a nod to the final scene of The King’s Speech, in which George VI, played by Colin Firth, announced Britain’s entry into the war. The video was a bizarre political object whose kitsch was both contemporary and retro. Viewed by millions and discussed in most media, it was acclaimed by its supporters and mocked by opponents. The desired effect, however, was achieved: his candidacy, although foretold for weeks, was discussed everywhere.
Let us dwell a little longer on this video. The setup was peculiar, to say the least. Sitting alone behind a huge microphone, Zemmour read his text in front of a library filled with austere leather-bound books. For French viewers, this setup clearly evoked the photographs of General Charles de Gaulle in front of a BBC microphone that usually accompany accounts of his so-called “Appeal of 18 June,” in which he called on continuing resistance to Germany after the fall of France in 1940 (in fact, the photo was taken later in the war).
This reference has been widely commented upon in France, much more so than the one to George VI. While references to de Gaulle are an obligatory part of political campaigns in France, on the left as well as the right, Zemmour clearly wants to position himself as de Gaulle’s successor in a deeper sense—as a strongman whose mission is to rescue the distressed French nation. Given that Zemmour sees himself as resisting a new form of foreign conquest of France, his allusion to the leader of Free France allows him to hijack the memory of France’s resistance against the Nazis in favor of his xenophobic obsessions.
There is, however, another detail worth commenting on: the books in the background. In the famous photo of de Gaulle, the background is almost bare except for some panels that seem to indicate that he is in a recording studio. Quite the opposite of Zemmour, who proudly displays a library as impressive as it is old-fashioned.
This is significant. For several years, Zemmour has had intellectual pretensions. In a way, he is a TV personality who dreams of being a man of letters. Since the Dreyfus Affair, the term “intellectual” has been invested with a particular charge in France. Initially used by the nationalist camp to deride writers who sided with the unjustly convicted Jewish army captain (whose innocence Zemmour has recently questioned), the term gradually lost its pejorative connotation and came to describe all producers of culture engaged in public debate. The Oxford historian Sudhir Hazareesingh has shown how intellectual prestige became a cardinal virtue for French elites since the Enlightenment. But he focused mostly on the left. Even though the far right long distrusted the term “intellectual”—to which they opposed the figure of the “man of letters”—there is a tradition of far-right intellectualism in France as well. Although critical of academic scholarship, many writers, social thinkers and historians have engaged in public debate to defend the different traditions of the far right. Significantly, many of these activists criticize Le Pen, the leader of the National Front who made it into the second round of the 2017 election against Macron, for being uneducated, lazy and completely ignorant of French culture. These criticisms gained strength in the 2017 presidential election, when her intellectual limits were starkly on display in a key debate with Macron. Since then, much of the far right has been looking for a new leader.
Thus, what one hears most often in listening to the supporters of Zemmour is that he, unlike Le Pen, is an intellectual. And some political pundits say the same thing. In a sycophantic article for Le Figaro, France’s principal conservative newspaper, which compared and contrasted the candidacies of Zemmour and Donald Trump, a journalist wrote: “No one is more French than Éric Zemmour and no one more American than Donald Trump. The former is an intellectual who has read all the books. … On the contrary, it is said of Donald Trump that he has read more or less only one book—…his own!”
There is, of course, an element of arrogance in Zemmour’s constant claim to intellectual status: he never ceases to portray his literary culture as a sign of his superior intelligence. But this claim is also eminently political. In 1992, when the National Front was led by Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father, the political scientist Guy Birenbaum described how his use of numerous literary references and sophisticated language had a strong symbolic purpose: displaying his mastery of “legitimate” culture was a way of asserting the superiority of his ideas over those of his opponents. Zemmour adopts the same tactic when he displays his leather-bound library. He seeks to distinguish himself from a political establishment that he never ceases to deride for its ignorance. For him, a class of technocrats has replaced an earlier class of cultivated politicians, who had been fine connoisseurs of their language and literature: earlier presidents of the Fifth Republic, through François Mitterrand (who left office in 1995), wrote books and displayed their mastery of French literature and history, but their successors, up to and including Macron, have been mere political hacks. Thus Zemmour seeks not only to distinguish himself from Marine Le Pen, but also to imply that he wants to restore the grand literary tradition of earlier presidents. This strikes a nerve in French politics. In 2017, Macron was framed by his supporters as an intellectual: his days as a literary student (in one of France’s prestigious classes préparatoires) and his stint as an assistant to philosopher Paul Ricœur were widely publicized. During his campaign and since he has been in office, he has often demonstrated his love of French literature and, generally, his culture. However, to most of his opponents this seems inauthentic, a mere communication stunt. Worse, it is sometimes used as a proof of his lack of genuine political conviction. The usual contrast is with Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of the far left who used to be a teacher and whose classical rhetoric is full of panache, and… Zemmour.
If studied carefully, however, the literary references deployed by Zemmour actually tell a more complicated story than he admits. Pell-mell, we find authors with ideas as different as they are contradictory: Victor Hugo, who has long been a tutelary figure of French progressivism; Hippolyte Taine, a conservative with Burkean accents; Charles Maurras and Jacques Bainville, royalists, anti-Semites and defenders of the doctrine of “integral nationalism” forged by the former; Maurice Barrès, champion of republican nationalism; and de Gaulle, whose ideological plasticity has been clearly demonstrated by his latest biographer, Julian Jackson. All these authors have one thing in common: they expressed a passionate love for France. But is that enough when they often fought on opposite sides?
Far from being ideologically coherent, Zemmour has been deploying a far-right version of Macron’s 2017 “en même temps” catchphrase, which meant “simultaneously this and that” and so came to embody his centrist platform. This allows Zemmour to merrily mix ideological ideas and memories with a single objective: imposing himself as the only possible candidate for those who consider that the prerequisite for any new French administration is to restore the nation to its original purity, situated in an ill-defined and mythological past. Historical, literary and political references are all empty signifiers that Zemmour deploys to gain the support of different audiences by pointing out that in each case he loves France just like they do.
It seems unlikely that Zemmour will win the election. While Macron is virtually assured of qualifying for the second round, the second spot could go to any one of three candidates: Le Pen, Zemmour or, from the center-right, Pécresse. At present, the polls put Zemmour in third place among these three, in what amounts to a primary of sorts between the right and far right. If by chance he were to make it to the second round, he would likely lose decisively to Macron.
But in a confusing election that is taking on the appearance of a bad political soap opera, it would be a mistake to consider Zemmour’s campaign as a mere epiphenomenon. In a recent article for the New York Review of Books, James McAuley suggested that Zemmour’s harsh nationalism, his overt xenophobia and his rampant anti-Semitism were a “natural extension of the French elite and its xenophobic provincialism.” If this is right, then his campaign’s main function would be to allow the French elite to come to terms with their true ideological self. But this portrays the French elite as a monolithic entity and thereby covers over the appeal of Zemmour to the French right in particular.
Let me make a wager: the main legacy of the Zemmour candidacy will be the “union of the right.” This expression is an old obsession of the far right and signifies the union of right-wing and far-right parties and their coming to power. It calls into question a constant of French political life under the Fifth Republic: the refusal of the center-right to broker an alliance with the far right. This situation is not specific to France, of course. Since 1945, most of Western Europe has rejected the far right, placing it outside the limits of what is deemed politically acceptable. This is largely explained by the trauma of the 1930s and the Second World War, when far-right governments came to power in so many European countries, sometimes with the help of the German army. In the years following the conflict, several democratic governments passed laws prohibiting the display of symbols or expressions of nostalgia for Nazism or fascism. This legislation has had a very limited effect, as shown by the continued existence in Germany since 1964 of the neo-Nazi Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands (NPD), despite several attempts to ban it. But while the law has been insufficient, the far right still remains largely beyond the pale in most Western European countries.
In France, the exclusion of the far right was powerfully reinforced by de Gaulle. Generally hailed as the “founder” of the Fifth Republic, he created an almost unbridgeable separation between the right and the far right. When returning to office in 1958, he enabled the refoundation of a right that could not be suspected of sympathy for Vichy—the regime that collaborated with Germany during World War II and that de Gaulle fought—or even with the most radical supporters of French Algeria, who never forgave him for in the end backing Algerian independence. Thus, under the Fifth Republic, the far right always had Gaullism as an enemy: throughout his career Jean-Marie Le Pen, the longtime leader of the National Front, never ceased to display his sympathy for Vichy and for the “lost cause” of French Algeria. In the 1980s, when far-right deputies entered Parliament for the first time, this separation was formalized by Jacques Chirac, who forbade alliances in local elections, promising to exclude any offender from his party. Despite some rare exceptions, the wall held until the 2010s. As the National Front grew stronger, this cordon sanitaire became a survival measure for the leadership of the traditional right, which feared that alliances with the far right would ultimately lead to their own disappearance.
On the other side of that political wall, however, the union of the right is an old project. Refusing to be named l’extrême droite, the far right usually brands itself as the national or patriotic right, the only one that has not betrayed its ideological heritage. Conscious of their political isolation, however, its leaders and ideologues have long defended an alliance between the right and the far right, arguing that they had been foolishly separated by the Second World War and the Algerian War.
This explains a steady motif that runs through Zemmour’s last three books: the rehabilitation of Marshal Philippe Pétain, the chief of Vichy France. This is odd for a politician who wants to claim the mantle of de Gaulle, but consistent with Zemmour’s desire to bring together the programs and historical narratives of the two separate rights. Indeed, in the past ten years, his position has hardened. Initially, Zemmour said that Vichy was a lesser evil; today he argues that Pétain conducted the best possible policy by choosing to collaborate with Nazi Germany. He also claims that Vichy protected French Jews from the Holocaust by choosing to deport foreign Jews first (although in actual fact many of them were French Jews that Vichy had stripped of citizenship). Worse, he rebuffs any suggestion of French responsibility for the extermination of European Jews as an insult to the nation. The fact that Zemmour is Jewish himself allows his supporters to claim that these revisionist positions cannot be anti-Semitic.
These appalling positions completely contradict historical scholarship since the war. But this does not bother Zemmour. On the one hand, he never ceases to attack academic historians, whom he accuses of being motivated by the sole purpose of deconstructing—and thus destroying—France. On the other hand, his (mis)use of the past is eminently political: since France’s identity is supposedly threatened by “migratory subversion,” which brings in hordes of foreigners who never stop committing “rape, theft and murder,” uniting the right is imperative. This requires the reconciliation of the Gaullist and Pétainist narratives. This is how Zemmour tried to revive the old Pétainist theory of the “shield and sword” that argues against all evidence that Pétain and de Gaulle worked together, the former protecting the French from the German occupiers and the latter organizing the resistance abroad, preparing France’s ultimate victory. In the span of a decade, this self-proclaimed Gaullist thus became one of the most vocal advocates of Pétain’s rehabilitation.
Marine Le Pen has also been trying to appropriate the figure of de Gaulle. But this operation is complicated by her own family heritage: it is difficult to present oneself as a Gaullist when one is the daughter of a rabid anti-Gaullist like her father. Zemmour’s narrative graft, on the other hand, seems to have succeeded: his political entourage consists of people from both traditions. These people are oddly obsessed, as is Zemmour, with the Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci, the theoretician of cultural hegemony as a prerequisite to the conquest of power. They are convinced that the massive audience of the presidential campaign can boost the reconciliation of the right. As such, Zemmour’s campaign is a major step in the process of seeing a regenerated right into power.
It remains overwhelmingly likely that Macron will be reelected. Although his tenure has been marked by intense social turmoil and he is hated by many, he benefits from being the safest choice in a time of geopolitical crisis and increasing polarization. On the left, the populist Jean-Luc Mélenchon is the only candidate to retain a (slim) hope of going on to the second round. On the right, the vote is split between Le Pen, Pécresse and Zemmour. Regardless of who wins, though, Zemmour has made sure that his is the worldview every candidate has had to discuss, narrow and warped as it is. Unknown abroad until recently, he takes little interest in global or even European issues, notwithstanding a preference for strongmen that has come back to bite him in recent weeks. By sucking in media attention he has succeeded in giving a strange coloration to the campaign: it has seemed as if France exists alone, detached from the rest of the world. This may be the post-imperial fantasy of a former world power that still does not want to understand its changed status, but it has structured political discussion from right to left. Whatever the outcome of the presidential election, then, one clear result has already been achieved: in just a few years, the pet reactionary of French television has transformed French politics. In that sense, he has already won.