France is a foreign country; they do politics differently there. For all that he has been compared to Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, Eric Zemmour, the latest French presidential candidate to cause a stir, is in a category of his own.
What makes Zemmour – who has formally announced that he will be a candidate for the French presidential election in April – different from even Nigel Farage, though, is that he goes full “clash of civilisations”, endorsing the idea of inevitable conflict between Christian and Islamic cultures. He does not want merely to “control” immigration; he thinks the immigration of Muslims will lead to civil war and to the obliteration of the French nation.
He was explicit in an interview given on his visit to London last month, telling the British: “You are suffering the same demographic pressure from another civilisation that wants to replace the European white man of Christian religion and Greco-Roman culture, and you also have elites complicit in this invasion.”
This is more like the language of Enoch Powell, which has been excluded from the mainstream of British politics for decades. It is not respectable in France, either, where Zemmour has repeatedly been charged with inciting racial hatred.
He has overturned some convictions, with cases outstanding, including a new charge brought in October. This last was over a discussion on TV last year about unaccompanied children, who are given special consideration under French law when they appear at a border post and apply for asylum. “They don’t belong here,” Zemmour said. “They’re thieves, assassins, rapists, that’s all they are. We ought to send them home and they shouldn’t come back.” The TV company CNews was fined €200,000 by the regulator for broadcasting those comments.
And yet the French election system has an inbuilt incentive for Zemmour to take more and more extreme anti-immigration positions. Because of the collapse of the traditional socialist and conservative parties, the last presidential election four years ago ended in a run-off between Emmanuel Macron, whose improvised coalition named with his own initials, En Marche, united enough of the left and centre, and Marine Le Pen, whose Front National took the anti-immigration vote.
Since then, Le Pen has renamed her party National Rally (it makes more sense in French: Rassemblement National) as part of her campaign of dediabolisation (de-demonisation), which is aimed at broadening its voter base beyond the 34 per cent she won last time. But her attempt to gain respectability has left her vulnerable to a challenge from someone who is prepared to break the rules, and to say inflammatory things such as “Immigration is war”; “Young French people … need to fight for their liberation”; and “Contrary to the commission in Brussels, I think that walls should be built wherever possible.”
For a moment, in September, it seemed that Zemmour would emerge as the surprise challenger to Macron in next year’s election. He rose from nowhere in the opinion polls to third place, just behind Le Pen, who was in turn some way behind Macron.
Where did he come from?
He was born in Paris in 1958, the son of Algerian Jews who had moved to European France during the Algerian war, Algeria at the time being considered an indivisible part of the country. He tried and failed twice to get into the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, the graduate school that Macron, an “enarque” himself, promised to close because it was elitist. Zemmour became a reporter, and then joined Le Figaro, the conservative newspaper, as a columnist, which he combined with increasing success in writing popular history books.
According to Christopher Caldwell, the American commentator, “he became France’s great instructor in old-fashioned (and sometimes disreputable) patriotism”. His books became increasingly polemical, starting with The Judges’ Coup d’Etat in 1998, and 20 years ago he saw the opportunity presented by the new cable TV channels to become an anti-immigration talking head.
He published an anti-feminist book, Le Premier Sex, in 2006. His writing is peppered with the idea of virilite. “It is man’s nature to defend,” he said in one of his interviews this week.
His big pitch came in 2014 with the publication of the self-explanatory Le Suicide Francais. It was a call to arms from a popular historian turning into a proto-politician. Zemmour compares himself to Boris Johnson, saying in last week’s Times interview: “I have been compared for months to Donald Trump. In fact I am much more like Boris Johnson. Think about it. We’re both former journalists. We both wrote history books: for him Churchill; for me the history of France, Napoleon and de Gaulle. We do have a lot in common and above all he pulled off an electoral strategy that I propose to implement: an alliance of the working class and that part of the patriotic bourgeoisie who wish to restore French sovereignty and defend an identity tragically under threat.”
This parallel is forcefully rejected by the prime minister’s supporters. Paul Goodman, the editor of Conservative Home, wrote: “In Britain, the centre-right has drawn a distinction between Islam, a great religion, and Islamism, a political ideology. Zemmour thinks differently: his take is that ‘Islam is incompatible with the French republic’. He is thereby tapping into one of the country’s national myths, at least since its revolution: the separation of church and state.”
Zemmour succeeded, though, in provoking a response from his main target, President Macron himself, whom he often criticised on TV. When Zemmour was harassed in the street last year, the president himself phoned him to express sympathy, and to defend his right to free speech, but also to argue with him for 45 minutes in favour of a multi-ethnic France.
So what chance does Zemmour have of overtaking Le Pen to make it into the run-off vote, probably against Macron, next April? One advantage he might have had was his Jewish heritage. Antisemitism has been a problem for Le Pen ever since her father, Jean-Marie, who founded the Front National, described the Holocaust as a “detail” of the Second World War. As Caldwell put it, this “not only tainted him morally, it seemed to tie him to the side of collaboration and defeat”. Although Marine broke with her father, expelling him from the party in 2015, the shadow of antisemitism still haunts her movement.
However, Zemmour has given up that possible advantage by engaging in what can only be described as self-demonisation. In his 2014 book he offered a limited defence of the Vichy regime, suggesting that although it had handed over foreign Jews to the Nazis, it had protected French ones. Haim Korsia, the chief rabbi of France, condemned him last month as “certainly” an antisemite and “definitely” a racist.
It may be that Zemmour’s insurgency is already over. He has faded in the opinion polls since his peak a month ago, while Le Pen has recovered, still in second place to Macron in a nine-candidate field. When pollsters ask voters to make a straight choice between Macron and Zemmour, as if in a run-off, Macron is preferred by 60 per cent to 40 per cent. In a match-up against Le Pen, Macron prevails by the narrower margin of 54 per cent to 46 per cent.
Zemmour has few policies. He does not advocate France leaving the EU or the eurozone, although he is hostile to both. (He compares Brexit to the French referendum of 2005, when the people rejected the European Constitution, only for much of it to be reimposed without a referendum in the Lisbon treaty.)
His latest book, published in September, La France N’a Pas Dit son Dernier Mot (translation: Make France Great Again), is an autobiographical reflection on the past 15 years of French politics rather than a detailed manifesto for the future. He has no political machine or network of donors. That might not matter if he could inspire a movement to spring up spontaneously, as Macron did, benefiting from the weakness and the disarray of the established parties, but most of his territory is already occupied by Le Pen, who won’t give it up without a fight.
It may be that a special facility for saying outrageous things on TV while sounding like an intellectual will not, in the end, be enough to break through even the volatile French electoral system.