Since French politics resumed after the summer break, far-right polemicist Éric Zemmour has electrified the country’s presidential campaign. Waging fratricidal warfare with Marine Le Pen, he has managed to thrust his racist ideas into the public debate.
Now, after months of purported suspense, Zemmour has officially confirmed his candidacy for the 2022 presidential election. In a ten-minute clip livestreamed on social media on November 30, the former columnist for the right-wing daily Le Figaro and pundit for the Fox-like CNEWS said he felt compelled to do so given the tragic situation facing the country. “It’s no longer about reforming France but saving it. That’s why I’ve decided to stand in the presidential election.”
In a grotesque imitation of General Charles de Gaulle in London during World War II, the far-right candidate portrayed himself as a bulwark against a tidal wave of immigration threatening to destroy the foundations of the country. “We won’t let ourselves be dominated, subjugated, conquered, colonized. . . . We won’t let ourselves be replaced,” he proclaims against a backdrop of footage of urban violence from the rolling news channels that makes France look like a hotbed of looting and bloodshed.
Since the start of autumn 2021, Éric Zemmour has monopolized the media space, confounding expectations that the presidential election would be a two-horse race between Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally party, and the incumbent Emmanuel Macron. A tour of French cities, ostensibly to promote his latest book, La France n’a pas dit son dernier mot (France hasn’t said its last word), has seen signing sessions morph into political rallies, full of fans who almost invariably start chanting “Zemmour for president” in front of a sea of microphones and cameras.
Who Is Éric Zemmour?
Author of several bestsellers over the past decade on the decline of France — a country supposedly swamped by immigration and undermined by feminism, LGBT rights, and anti-racism (his book Le Suicide français, published in 2014, has sold nearly half a million copies) — Éric Zemmour was until recently seen as just a media pundit on the reactionary right. No one dreamt he would enter politics at the age of sixty-three.
He started appearing on mainstream TV in the mid-2000s when he was invited onto talk shows as a reactionary columnist slamming “political correctness” and “spicing up” TV and radio programs with his increasingly transgressive outbursts. Public broadcaster France 2 then hired him in the wake of his 2006 anti-feminist diatribe Le Premier Sexe (The first sex), which he defined as “a treaty on masculine living for the feminized younger generation” and in which he asserts, among other things, that “man is a sexual predator, a conqueror.”
In recent years, his statements have regularly landed him in court. Appearing on a popular TV show in 2011, he had this to say about racial profiling in the French police’s use of stop and frisk: “Why do they get stopped seventeen times? Because most of the traffickers are blacks and Arabs. That’s just a fact.” This led to his first conviction for inciting racial discrimination, but it did nothing to halt his growing media popularity, nor the virulence of his discourse.
His identitarian obsessions center on Islam — fueled particularly by the wave of attacks that France has experienced since 2015. “There’s no such thing as moderate Muslims,” he often remarks. According to Zemmour, a good French Muslim is one who renounces his or her faith. “We have to give them the choice between Islam and France,” he said on TV show C à vous in September 2016. In his oft-repeated view, Islam is incompatible with France’s republican values.
Born into a family that moved to metropolitan France from Algeria, Zemmour has become a mouthpiece for all those who nostalgically yearn for the lost grandeur of imperial France, the colonial France that still, to this day, often unconsciously permeates the imagination of many French people. This France sees the rise of the Muslim faith in France as a “reverse colonization,” as Zemmour explicitly describes it — a notion that resonates with all those still haunted by the ghosts of the Algerian War.
A self-described history buff who loathes what he considers to be discourses of “repentance,” Zemmour has, in a series of books, reconstructed a dreamlike version of France’s past, from the “knights of old” and Joan of Arc through to Napoleon Bonaparte — the emperor he reveres and with whom he likes to compare himself. In his rewriting of history, both in his books and in television studios, one of his primary aims has been to erase the infamy of France’s wartime collaboration with Nazi Germany. To this end, he has made multiple attempts to rehabilitate Vichy leader Marshal Pétain, claiming, for example, that he helped to save French Jews, on the strength of revisionist theories that have been totally discredited by serious historians.
Unsurprisingly, Zemmour has also been a key figure in normalizing another discredited piece of racist propaganda: far-right essayist Renaud Camus’s “Great Replacement” theory, according to which Europe’s white Christian population is being “replaced” by a sub-Saharan and Muslim one.
Marine Le Pen, Flanked From the Right
Until recent months, there was nothing to suggest that this media troublemaker would one day enter the political arena. However, the reshaping of the French political landscape following the election of Emmanuel Macron and his bulldozing of the traditional party of the Right — and, more importantly, the changes undergone by France’s main far-right party — have offered Zemmour a political opportunity.
Under the leadership of Marine Le Pen since 2011, the party formerly known as the National Front (Front national, FN) and renamed National Rally (Rassemblement national, RN) has sought to reinvent itself as a “respectable” political outfit. Despite a sizable electoral base, Le Pen knows that her party — which in its early days included sympathizers of the Nazi regime — remains (at least for now) unacceptable to a majority of French people.
Over the past decade, RN has systematically removed the most radical members of the party from its “family photo album”: identitarians, neofascists, and traditionalist Catholics are urged to keep a low profile. In her drive to “detoxify” the brand, Marine Le Pen uses polished language and litters her speeches with consensual references to the Republic and secularism — all a world away from the FN founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. Economically, she steers a comparatively more socially minded course, advocating retirement at sixty and defending public services.
The final step in the normalization process came when Le Pen expelled her father from the party he founded after another antisemitic outburst in which he downplayed the significance of the Holocaust. She went on to rename the party in 2018, replacing the word front, which she deemed too belligerent, with rassemblement (literally, “gathering”).
In 2017, she won 33 percent of the vote in her runoff against Emmanuel Macron in the second round of the presidential election. Equivalent to almost 11 million votes, this was the best-ever result for the far-right party, which appeared closer to power than ever before. Even so, her abysmal performance in the second-round debate, which highlighted her total ignorance of many issues, sowed seeds of doubt among her voters and within her own party. RN has since been embroiled in various court cases, including one linked to parliamentary assistants and another to a Russian loan, which could pose a threat to Marine Le Pen’s future. Those she sidelined for being too radical believe that Le Pen will never make it into power and so are already planning what happens next.
Le Pen’s niece, Marion Maréchal, who represents the more identitarian and radical wing of the party and is very popular with its voters, is unwilling to stand against her aunt and is taking a longer-term view. Having removed herself from the political limelight, she has set up a political science school to wage what she calls the “cultural battle.” Her friends have also embarked on a media offensive, airing their views in right-wing newspapers and magazines such as Valeurs actuelles and setting up their own outlets, including the magazine L’Incorrect.
They are particularly keen to court the most conservative Catholics, those who protested en masse against same-sex marriage in 2013 and feel unrepresented by any of the presidential candidates. These voters feel abandoned by the right-wing parties, which they see as too liberal, including on social issues. Nor do they identify with Marine Le Pen, a divorced mother whose closest associates are openly gay and who, until recently, admitted that she was anything but close to the Church.
It was at a meeting organized by friends of Marion Maréchal in Paris in September 2019, dubbed the Convention of the Right, that Zemmour began to assume a politician’s garb. “That’s where his campaign really got started,” says Erik Tegnér, a co-organizer of the meeting and former RN activist who launched a YouTube channel in the spring in support of Zemmour’s candidacy. With him in the hall were a slew of far-right figures who had broken with Marine Le Pen. There were those she had systematically excluded — the most radical identitarians — and those who had distanced themselves from her, deeming the presidential contender too far to the left on economic issues.
Speaking to them, Zemmour gave a long, extremely virulent speech denouncing Islam and Muslims, which was broadcast live on the twenty-four-hour news channels. With Islam making a “move to colonize and occupy parts of France,” he said, the country would need to “fight” for its very survival. It was tantamount to a call for civil war.
Powerful Bourgeois Allies
Intoxicated by his publishing successes and encouraged by his young girlfriend, the brilliant senior civil servant Sarah Knafo, Zemmour gradually persuaded himself that he ought not keep waiting — and started making plans. He realized he would have the backing of the whole swathe of the far right that felt marginalized by Marine Le Pen.
As a Le Figaro journalist who’s been rubbing shoulders with politicians for decades — and who is on first-name terms with many of them — Zemmour also knows that he can count on the support of a group of bourgeois voters who have always held their noses around the Le Pens. Patrick Buisson, a close associate of Zemmour and former adviser to ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy, has long theorized that to get into power, the nationalist right needs to unite the working-class and middle-class vote. While Le Pen polls very well among both blue- and white-collar workers, she struggles — despite her best efforts — to win over managers and professionals.
Meanwhile, Zemmour has another important ally: billionaire Vincent Bolloré, who, after amassing a vast fortune in Africa through port operations and maritime freight, decided to start investing in the media with a clear political objective. Among his acquisitions was the TV channel iTélé, a subsidiary of Canal+, which he renamed CNEWS with the barely concealed intention of turning it into a French version of Fox News. Closely allied with traditionalist Catholics, this business magnate espouses staunchly right-wing views and aims to influence the upcoming presidential election.
The day after his speech at the Convention of the Right — which shocked many in the political establishment — Bolloré decided to offer Zemmour a one-hour daily slot on a tailor-made show. Viewing figures went through the roof, with sometimes almost a million people tuning in to watch the far-right pundit, lapping up his apocalyptic analyses and unabashed racism. For two years, Zemmour was able to focus fully on his hobbyhorses and, more significantly, to set the tone for all the other twenty-four-hour news channels, which started to go all out on immigration and identity issues — following the agenda set by the journalist and soon-to-be presidential contender.
A Media Campaign Hits Setbacks on the Ground
Meanwhile, an organizational structure was quietly put in place to prepare Zemmour’s candidacy. The main driving force was Sarah Knafo, but Zemmour also had the backing of a team of young activists close to Marion Maréchal, who pored over the details of Donald Trump’s campaign and started waging an all-out communications offensive on social media.
Already before summer, this team created a myriad of accounts on Twitter — “Young People with Zemmour,” “Women with Zemmour,” “Farmers with Zemmour,” and so on — flooding the social network with messages in support of the man who was not yet even a candidate. One of its leading lights is Samuel Lafont. Previously in charge of digital communications for the center-right party Les Républicains, he is familiar with all the techniques for expanding online impact, including astroturfing, in which a small number of accounts are used to create an impression of widespread grassroots support. The website of Génération Z, the youth movement backing Zemmour’s candidacy, advocates the “keyboard warriors” model that Trump gave a nod to when elected, and advises activists to take to all platforms and forums popular with young people to defend their candidate.
Despite this high-profile launch, with the support of a clearly fascinated press, Zemmour’s campaign has hit some setbacks in recent weeks. The transition from media and online campaigning to campaigning on the ground has been a painful one. To help them organize rallies and put up posters, Zemmour’s teams have drafted some very radical activists, including former members of Génération Identitaire, which was disbanded for its paramilitary activity, and hardline royalists from the far-right Action Française movement, fueling concerns about his candidacy.
Many mayors have refused to provide rooms for Zemmour’s meetings, condemning the violence of his rhetoric and the profile of his supporters. What’s more, he has so far failed to secure the backing of five hundred mayors that he needs to compete in the presidential election, and some are still wondering if he will be able to see this through.
The violence that marred his first election rally in Villepinte, in the northeastern suburbs of Paris on December 5, at which journalists and anti-racism activists were punched, shed a harsh light on the neofascist methods of his supporters. Accusations of sexual assault and inappropriate behavior made by several women will no doubt resurface during the campaign.
The War of Position
Whether or not he manages to make his way through the obstacle course that is the presidential election, Éric Zemmour has already pulled off a major feat by thrusting his half-baked racist views into the public debate and setting the agenda for everyone else. This is a real coup for his supporters, who constantly invoke Antonio Gramsci and see the cultural battle as a precursor to future electoral triumphs.
And even if he fails in 2022, Marine Le Pen’s niece Marion Maréchal knows that, next time around, she’ll be able to capitalize on the political and media ecosystem that he has built up already.