France is locked in a political stagnation. It appears condemned to a perpetual clash between the same forces: the right’s “National Rally” (formerly the “National Front”) accused of wanting “to destroy democracy” and the “Republican front” of establishment parties that align themselves to “stop fascism.” French society, however, sends signals that it wants to get out of this impasse. The Emmanuel Macron-Marine Le Pen duel in 2022—a repeat of the 2017 election—is seen as undesirable by as many as 70 percent of the French people.
The polls have identified a new potential candidate who could break this political deadlock. The latest surveys show that French columnist and journalist for Le Figaro, Éric Zemmour, has a chance to upset the next election. The road from the TV studio and writing study to the Elysée Palace may be shorter than it seems.
Many commentators stress that such a rapid rise in support has not been seen in the recent history of the French Republic. A sensational Harris Interactive poll for Challenges magazine shows that Zemmour can count on 17 percent of the vote in the first round. Support for the columnist continues to grow, although he still hasn’t officially announced his candidacy. He is currently on a tour promoting his latest book, La France n’a pas dit son dernier mot.
It is hard to deny that the promotion of the book resembles a pre-election tour of the country. In July, the journalist could count on only 5 percent of votes, but today he has reached double-digit figures. Just a couple of weeks ago, few points separated him from Marine Le Pen, the leader of National Rally (Rassemblement national). Now he’s ahead of her by 2 percent. If the election were held today, the run-off would include not Le Pen but Zemmour against Macron.
The columnist’s chances of entering the second round, if he chooses to enter the race at all, have become real. It’s a blow to Le Pen, whose campaign in this year’s regional elections proved a bitter disappointment. Her father, Jean-Marie, founder of the Front national, would also see the journalist in the second round. In an interview with Le Monde, he said that if Zemmour were to be the strongest candidate on the right, he would most certainly endorse him.
Another Institut français d’opinion publique study reveals the distinctiveness of Zemmour’s candidacy. His support is not confined to one group of the electorate. He is the only right-wing candidate to win the sympathies of two groups that have been split between Rassemblement national and the liberal-conservative Les Républicains so far, gathering support both among the popular classes—peripheral France voting for Le Pen—and the conservative bourgeoisie, which has until now voted for Les Républicains. This makes him in effect the first figure in French politics who would be able to realize the mythical Union des droites, the unification of the right. For years, columnists, thinkers and politicians have been talking about the idea of uniting the right, bringing together the nationalists and conservatives to defeat the left and the liberals. However, such a synthesis never came to fruition because no one was able to embody it.
With Zemmour, this has changed. The establishment fears his candidacy. First his publisher, Albin Michel, abandoned him, terminating his contract, despite many years of cooperation and excellent commercial results (his books sold hundreds of thousands of copies, with Le Suicide français being the biggest success—almost 500,000). His appearances on the evening political talk show on Canal+ were watched by an audience of almost a million people. The CSA, the state body that regulates television and radio, forced Zemmour off the show in September, maintaining that as a “potential candidate” he should not have so much time on air.
Zemmour’s position in the polls has caused anxiety on the right, too. Christian Jacob, president of Les Républicains, the mainstream center-right party, described the columnist as a “media candidate” with whom he wants nothing to do. Michel Barnier, who has ambitions to win the party’s primary, claimed he did not want to waste time talking about a journalist whose views he does not share. Xavier Bertrand, a favorite in the same primary declared that Zemmour’s ideas are “monstrous” (in the polls the columnist has a 4 point lead over him).
French politicians, especially on the right, are trying to discredit him. Yet, according to Zemmour himself, they are adopting his language. Valérie Pécresse, who is also running in the Les Républicains primary, speaks of a “clash of civilizations”—a favorite expression of the columnist, who is a keen reader of Huntington. And Barnier demands that France be freed from the oversight of the European Court of Human Rights—another staple of Zemmour’s writing, who speaks bluntly of a “government of judges” that strips European states of their sovereignty.
The columnist himself is still undecided as to whether he will run in 2022. However, his new book, La France n’a pas dit son dernier mot (“France has not said its last word”), offers a couple clues. First, the very title denies that France’s decline is unstoppable. Secondly, he recalls a conversation with his son: “One day, when I was sharing my joy with my son about the revival in the public debate of the assimilationist theses, which I had carried alone for a long time, he retorted: ‘You made the diagnosis a long time ago. Now it’s time to act.’”
It is difficult to guess what Zemmour will ultimately do. In a recent interview he said outright that he was still hesitating. What we do know, however, is his vision of France and the worldview that emerges from his books. It is those ideas and declarations, which already set the tone for the debate on the French right, that will frame his program if he joins the race for the presidency.
There is one politician whose ideas, and path to candidacy, resemble those of Zemmour. It is Pat Buchanan. A former advisor to Richard Nixon, he, like the Frenchman, rose to prominence through political talk shows. Both set themselves the goal of putting a stop to the revolution of the 1960s, or even of reversing it. For both, sovereignty is a non-negotiable value and they share a hostile attitude towards international institutions. Against free trade they both advocate protectionism. Buchanan wanted to defend the middle Americans, while the Frenchman stands up for France périphérique, people from small cities and towns. Buchanan did not become president, but he prepared the Trump phenomenon (another figure Zemmour has been compared to). Without Buchanan, there would have been no victory in 2016.
Many commentators on the right who are sympathetic to Zemmour point out his obvious weakness: He does not show his feelings; it is difficult to relate to him. True, the cold and brilliant logic of his arguments leaves little room for empathy or emotion. And yet at the source of his books lies a longing, an emotion that evokes images of a France that is disappearing.
Zemmour comes from a family of Algerian Jews. His father, born in Algeria, admired de Gaulle, and, even though the general had separated Algeria from France, he voted for him with conviction, “never ceasing to take delight in the General’s language, endlessly repeating his best phrases.” Zemmour confesses in his last book that he had always regarded the fact that Algeria had been conquered by France, in consequence of which he had been incorporated into the French nation, as “an enormous privilege.” That is why he watched with such dismay how the French suburbs, the banlieu, once full of those who understood the privilege of being French, were changing. Decades of immigration have transformed beyond recognition familiar places where Zemmour grew up. “They ceased to be France,” he says.
Zemmour’s books are mostly essays on French history. Recent events are reflected in the mirror of the past, showing the continuity of trends, threats, and opportunities. The author himself has expressed his belief that the only way to understand what is happening to France today is to write her history.
In the eyes of the columnist, over the past decades France has experienced three turning points. The first of them was the May revolt of 1968. This date marks the beginning of Le Suicide français, as the title of one of his books puts it. The student revolt of ’68 was for the Gaullist republic what 1789 meant for the Capetian monarchy, a rupture. The decomposition begins, which Zemmour has put in the formula of three Ds: Deconstruction, Derision, Destruction. This “trinity of ’68…will undermine all the foundations of traditional structures: family, nation, work, state and school.”
Another turning point was the adoption of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. In Zemmour’s view, it was then that France said goodbye to sovereignty and democracy became largely a façade. A new political divide was born: on the one side the left, the right, the centrists, the liberals, the media, artistic and financial elites, the winners of globalization, and on the other side its forgotten losers.
The 2005 referendum on the European Constitution sealed the fate of France. The people rejected the European Constitution, the “no” won. But they were not listened to. Nicolas Sarkozy would later adopt the Lisbon Treaty without asking the French for their opinion. It was the last nail driven into the coffin of French democracy, or so Zemmour thought at the time. And yet, as he writes in his latest book, he understood that France would face an even worse fate if it lost the will to fight and gave in.
In Zemmour’s diagnosis, May ’68 is a hydra that emerges in all areas of social, political, and cultural life. Contemporaries, such as the well-known sociologist Raymond Aron, thought that it was a revolution without substance that failed to achieve anything. Zemmour finds such an assessment misguided: “May ’68 did not overthrow a regime, but it conquered society by turning it against the nation.” It represented the exact reversal of 1789. The revolution was a popular upheaval against the aristocracy and feudal relations, and “a victory of Spartan virtue against the rule of women in the courts and salons.” May ’68 announced the revenge of the oligarchs, the victory of internationalism over the nation, the vengeance of the new feudal lords upon the state, the victory of feminism over masculinity.
The flagship slogan of the rebellious students, “Jouissons sans entrave,” quickly turned into an advertising slogan. It became the principle of the consumer society, to which one of the barriers had been the patriarchal family model, not geared towards boundless hedonistic consumption. “The glorification of homosexuality by the advertising system is one side of the coin, the other is the denigration and delegitimization of the traditional family model,” writes Zemmour.
The victory of feminism marked by May ’68 was, in the eyes of the essayist, Pyrrhic. It was not a triumph of liberated women, rather a victory of men who did not want to get tied down. But feminists celebrate the realization of the dream of rejecting all responsibility: no need to get married to have sex; abortion available on demand; divorce possible on the spot. These transformations have led to “the disintegration of the family on a scale the West has never seen before in its history.”
For the elites that have emerged from May ’68, explains Zemmour, “the cultural cohesion that we have managed to preserve in spite of 19th century immigration is something suspect; to demand assimilation amounts to xenophobia; attachment to history, to our heroes, is for them a testimony to our racist arrogance.”
Liberalism has a weak tradition in Latin countries, despite some well-known exponents such as Bastiat or Constant. In France, Spain, or Italy no strong schools of liberal thought emerged. Zemmour, as a declared enemy of liberalism, is therefore very Latin in this respect. For the French journalist, liberalism is first and foremost an ideology of elites indifferent to the interest of their own country, full of contempt for their own people.
Using economic arguments, liberalism opened the way to mass immigration. The same liberalism initiated the processes of deindustrialization and relocation that left masses of immigrants unemployed, worsening their situation and increasing the tensions between them and the society that received them. Liberal ideology, according to Zemmour, is one of the major causes of the anomie into which France is descending.
Liberalism, however, would not have had such an impact on the shape of French society and economy were it not for the European Union. It was the Single European Act that opened the way to the free movement of capital, goods, and people. It meant the end of sovereign, independent economic policy and, as Zemmour points out, the end of French industry.
French liberals, the columnist argues, are incomparably worse than their English or American counterparts. The reforms introduced by Thatcher and Reagan were accompanied by a revival of patriotism and national pride, while liberal policies in France were accompanied by bland slogans devoid of patriotism and a surrender of sovereignty.
It was the liberals who sacrificed French industry. Zemmour estimates that in 2014, 50 percent of the value of the companies on the CAC 40 was in foreign ownership. “National champions,” created with great effort under Presidents de Gaulle and Georges Pompidou, ceased to be national. Unequal competition with China reshaped the landscape of French industry even more profoundly. “In the field of industry,” the French essayist grimly observes, “France has actually gone back to the 19th century, when it was an agricultural country.”
For Zemmour, protectionism is the only healthy economic policy. Free trade, he argues, is not only about economic principles, it is also an entire vision of man and society, where the citizen “is seen more as a consumer than as a member of a national community, more as a citizen of the world than as a patriot.” He reminds us that the crisis of 1869-1873 was more severe than that of 1929 and recalls the figure of Jules Méline, who ended the reign of free trade in France. This reformer would introduce protectionism and tariffs that would lead to the revival of the French economy and industry.
Zemmour is an open enemy of the European Union. Not only does he believe, as de Gaulle did, that the European community is a cover for Pax Americana, but, what is more, he sees it as the ultimate expression of the oligarchic tendencies of an elite full of contempt for its own people. It is governed by dignitaries who have not been elected in any way, by officials who feel accountable to no one. In 2010, when the slogan “save the euro” was on the lips of all E.U. officials, the last scruples disappeared. Then, according to Zemmour, the European Commission stopped pretending to respect parliaments and started openly dictating its terms. When the Greek prime minister proposed a referendum on leaving the eurozone, Merkel and Sarkozy forced him to abandon the idea and then to resign. The notorious “couple franco-allemand” was at work.
In Zemmour’s eyes, the French-German couple is nothing but a myth. The term never appears in German public debate, it is only used in Paris. The French have long deluded themselves that a united Europe would be an enlarged France. It turns out that Europe did not become more French, but more German. German hegemony in Europe has become unquestionable. “From now on, no important decision can be taken without Berlin’s approval, and our presidents never forget to go to Berlin immediately after elections. As if it were there, like the kings of old in Reims, that they were ordained,” he writes.
The abdication of sovereignty in favor of the E.U. and its subordination to Berlin are, according to the French journalist, examples of the treason of the elites. Jean-Claude Trichet’s words when he became president of the European Central Bank perfectly encapsulates the shift. His first official statement was in English: “I’m not French.”
The historical image that Zemmour evokes to condemn this revolt of the elites is Madame de Staël and her salon at the Swiss castle Coppet. Her admiration for Germany and her joy at Napoleon’s defeats make her and her circle an archetype of the renegade elite. It is she who opens the genealogy of French liberals and progressives who, as the columnist writes, “incessantly seek a foreign master, whether English or German, Russian or American. And tomorrow perhaps a Chinese, Indian or Arab one.” What Germany was to de Staël and the elites around her, which they admired so much that they renounced their own homeland, Islam is to contemporary French elites. “Islam is the Germany of our generation,” Zemmour argues. “Actors, singers, writers and journalists speak with one voice, defending Islam as a religion of peace, love and tolerance.”
It is worth asking whether Zemmour should be called a conservative. It seems that he would most readily agree to be described as a “populist.” He is one of the few figures in European public life who gladly admits to this label. He once defined the phenomenon as “the cry of nations that do not want to die.” Elsewhere he explained that a populist is simply someone who sides with the people. All his speeches and books suggest that in his eyes the horizontal divide between left and right has lost its meaning. He thinks in terms of a different divide, a vertical one: the oligarchy, the winners of globalization, versus the ordinary people, the losers of globalization.
The French columnist could also be easily described as a “civilizationalist.” It is a term coined by Daniel Pipes, an American political scientist, to characterize those politicians for whom the priority is to fight to preserve the identity of the Western civilization, by opposing mass immigration and the growing influence of Islam. Zemmour often uses such civilizationalist rhetoric in his numerous television appearances and books. In his latest he writes: “one must choose the side on which one will fight in the clash of civilizations that is taking place on our soil.”
If the journalist does indeed decide to run, he will have to address the contradictions of his message. He wants France to regain sovereignty over immigration, tariffs, and industrial policy, but how can this be done without leaving the European Union or changing the treaties? This is a problem Zemmour is reluctant to raise because he risks losing support among the part of the electorate he so desperately needs: the patriotic bourgeoisie. The question of whether the French columnist will follow in Buchanan’s footsteps remains open. Will Zemmour win in 2022, or will he prepare the way for a future candidate—perhaps Marion Maréchal—who will lead the eventual triumph of his ideas?
Krzysztof Tyszka-Drozdowski is a writer and an analyst in one of the Polish governmental agencies overseeing industrial policy. He can be followed on Twitter at @ktdrozdowski.
October 13, 2021 4:01 am