The 2022 presidential campaign launch of polemicist Eric Zemmour on the 30th of November caused a stir in the national French commentariat. In a video as (politically) flamboyant as a San Francisco Pride Parade, Zemmour brought his considerable oratory skills to bear and marshalled his understanding of French history into a simmering cocktail of despair. France, he intoned to the somber toll of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony (ironically, he chose a German composer for his announcement), is in decline, beset on all sides by infidels and leeches, shepherded to its inevitable downfall by feckless, greedy elites. Only by returning to the tried-and-true, only by referring to its long and glorious history, can France turn back the tides of darkness and once again shine as the beacon of civilization she once was. According to Zemmour, one need only look upon those who would do her harm (“Les puissants, les élites, les bien-pensants, les journalistes, les politiciens, les universitaires, les sociologues, les syndicalistes, les autorités religieuses” … the list of France’s enemies is rather long) with a steely Gaullish glower, raise a finger in admonishment, and say to them: “et bien profond!”
In France and beyond, commentators have asked an important question of Zemmour’s place within the French political landscape: has the demagogic far-right wave sweeping Europe and the West finally crested in France? After years of trying to place that particular mantle on Marine Le Pen, Zemmour certainly seems to be a better fit. His campaign announcement brings to mind Donald Trump’s penchant for theatrics, and plays many of the same smash hits that rocketed Trump to power: the fear of immigration, the sense of national decline, the refuge in the glory of the past as source of future power. Zemmour, like Trump, highlights the importance of countering insidious and institutionalized domestic threats (the media and the elites).
Most importantly, Zemmour is reminiscent of Donald Trump in that his ideas are met with horror, disdain, or amusement by commentators of the political landscape, yet are taken quite seriously by the French: recent polling suggests that Zemmour would command 15% of the first tour electorate, were the election to be held tomorrow; this makes him the third most popular first round choice, trailing only President Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen. His ideas hold sway among not just his Cnews audience, but a large proportion of the French population. Why do they resonate so strongly? Simply put, because they tap into the general concerns of the French electorate and place them in the context of a primordial struggle against chaos and barbarism.
In many ways, the image of France presented by Zemmour is soothing: the video itself is highly stylized, eschewing crass electioneering in favor of a more old-school hommage to the idea of Empire. It comes across as both fresh and refreshing, both innovative and nostalgic, presenting Frenchness as a unified set of reference points and a historical grab bag of figures. In short, Zemmour promotes an internally anchored sense of unified identity and juxtaposes it against the creeping external chaos (of migrants, globalization, Islam). For those who would recoil from a racialist reading of this, there is the possibility of framing this reclamation of identity in purely cultural terms. The choice, Zemmour suggests, is merely cultural. This is a powerful argument, made all the more powerful because it was made to a French audience.
Like the United States, the tradition of Empire in the French context is based on the projection of universal values. Founded on the basis of 17th and 18th century rationalism, French nationalism has historically assumed that nation-building is inherently an intellectual exercise based on shared values. As a result, this has meant that Frenchness is accessible to anyone. This preference for culture as the determinant factor for integration (as opposed to blood, as was the case for the German nationalist tradition in the 19th and early 20th centuries) allowed for a number of high profile cultural conversions, not least among them Zemmour’s idol Napoleon. With figures such as Alexandre Dumas and his father, the revered cavalry commander and Revolutionary general Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, French national identity extended beyond ethnic barriers even at its inception. While racism certainly has been a part of French nationalism with concepts such as the Mission Civilisatrice, it was not the determinant factor in evaluating belonging in a French context. The recent induction of Josephin Baker into the Panthéon, one of the highest honors that could be bestowed upon a French citizen, shows a more modern culmination of these tenants of French identity.
Unlike the US, France rarely uses race as a lens through which to view itself. Identification with one’s racial heritage is in many ways discouraged. In theory, race makes no difference to the French (the government collects no data on ethnicity or race, for example). All that matters is this nebulous notion of cultural belonging, of understanding and respecting a set of cultural codes and references. This has led to some high-profile misunderstandings between the United States and France, including one memorable and representative incident in the wake of France’s World Cup victory.
More recently, this has bubbled to the surface as American-style identity politics have begun to emerge in the French political landscape, condemned by many on the French left and everyone to the right of (and including) Emmanuel Macron. The French electorate has so far rejected the insertion of what is broadly viewed as foreign takes on ethnic, racial, even sexual identity, and this broad rejection is one of the cornerstones of Zemmour’s nascent political base.
Through images of violence and chaos, Zemmour appeals to this strand of French thought and the profound disconnect between it and anglophone notions of politicized identity. In so doing, he creates a binary: one can either accept to construct a political future around individual identity and, by extension, accept the chaos, anomie and darkness that goes with it; or one can return to a solid notion of national, collective identity, anchored around shared cultural values, and in so doing reclaim the dignity and prestige of the halcyon days.
This is, of course, his trap. Zemmour presents France as a single unbroken line stretching from the Frankish empire to today, which builds on the view that has been presented in national history classes since the edification of France as a consolidated modern nation in the late 19th century. However, he skips over some of the most critical values of the Republic: Justice, for one, democracy for another, and most importantly laïcité. The idea of France that he espouses is deeply tied to religious themes and tropes: Jeanne d’Arc, Notre Dame de Paris, church bells. Zemmour’s sleight of hand on the subject of religion is elegant in that he rarely has to defend this association. Instead, he takes the offensive, once again presenting the choice as a binary between Christianity (or, if push comes to shove, Judeo-Christianity) and Islam. The complex domestic interplay between freedom of worship, laïcité and radicalization is simplified. Either one is for Islam, or one is against it; and with the examples of Samuel Paty and the Bataclan, he reasons, why would the French be for it?
Most significantly, Zemmour presents France as a resource, and a scarce one at that. Here, his explicit and implicit views come into conflict. On the one hand, he says that assimilation is the key to a more harmonious France. On the other, he seeks a substantial reduction of immigration. In one breath he speaks of the wealth and prosperity and social welfare of France; in the next, he bemoans the “tiers-mondialisation” of the nation and proclaims: “You will not replace us”. He links the reduction of the national debt, support of small businesses, and higher employment rates with lower immigration, mercantilist economic policies, and the end of “egalitarian experiments” in French schools.
This delicate balance of over-the-top conspiracy theories and clichés delivered by the self-proclaimed heir of Napoléon and Charles De Gaulle should sound familiar. Eric Zemmour is hardly the first politician to pit the civilization of the homeland against the depravity of the elites and the barbarism of foreigners; six years ago, Donald Trump built his campaign along almost identical lines. From the lack of concrete political experience to the incendiary invective, the media acumen and showmanship, it would be comparatively true to call Zemmour the Donald Trump of France.
But such a statement misses the point. In searching for homologues for Trump in Hungary, Brazil or France, we risk looking past the reasons for their emergence. Without the festering sense of aimlessness, precarity and detachment, the sentiments espoused by such demagogues would not have room to grow. These politics of resentment should not be viewed as a feature of the right, but one of the electorate on the whole, one that needs to be addressed. It is, in a very real sense, the same animus that drove the Gilets Jaune into the streets and strangled the nation for months on end in 2019. Precarity, financial instability, a sense of dispossession and the impression of an uncaring technocratic government are problems that are endemic to the entirety of the country. While this manifests in different ways, it certainly makes someone like Zemmour, who addresses the problem albeit with radical non-solutions, highly appealing. His vulgarity and aggression casts him as a brawler for the concerns of the heartland, enhancing his prestige rather than taking away from it. Like Trump, this potential immunity from the conventional rules of politics could prove very dangerous.
Until their concerns can be adequately answered by the political class, Zemmour’s popularity will continue to grow. Les puissants, les élites, les bien-pensants would do well to listen closely, something that they failed to do after 2016 in the United States. In the days and weeks after the elections, journalists ventured into Middle America in a manner reminiscent of British aristocrats visiting the African Savanna: an observational trip structured almost like an anthropological survey, or an exotic hunt. But upon their retreat to the East and West coasts, all the lessons they had gleaned from “Trump country” were forgotten.
It’s likely that Zemmour, if he remains a serious contender, will face the so-called Front Républicain that prevented Jean-Marie and Marine Le Pen from ever assuming power. But this structural coalition against a far-right presidency can only ever be weakened by ignoring the concerns of the rural French middle classes. Like the much-vaunted Blue Wall or the apparently invincible Obama Coalition, it’s liable to shatter at the worst possible moment. Zemmour himself may never take power. But allowing the fires he stokes to rage unchecked risks France and the broader European Union project going up in smoke.
Image credits: Shane McLorrain, 2021