“Everyone hates the Quotidien,” the crowd roars in unison, a sea of French tricolores waving overhead. Amid the general excitement, a handful of burly security guards remove the camera crew of the popular talk show, running the gauntlet between the packed rows of chairs. Calls of “Quotidien collabo” — collaborator — alternate with the punches thrown in the journalists’ direction.
By late Sunday afternoon, some twelve thousand Éric Zemmour fans had gathered at the Villepinte convention center, north of Paris, buzzing with anticipation. Originally scheduled to be held at the more welcoming Zénith concert hall, the speech was moved to this isolated exhibition space to avoid clashes with planned protests in the capital, where several thousand anti-fascists gathered in the rain.
Last Tuesday, the TV pundit and best-selling author Zemmour had formally announced his presidential bid, in a burlesque video released on YouTube. Against a backdrop of leather-bound books on mahogany shelves, the sixty-three-year-old polemicist described a France on the cusp of civil war, speaking into a retro microphone harking back to Charles de Gaulle’s 1940 radio address from London. “We will not let ourselves be replaced,” Zemmour announced in the ten-minute film, again invoking the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory that has become common currency on the European right.
Pascale, who requested that Jacobin only cite her first name, had come all the way from Picardie to hear Zemmour. A lifelong conservative, she is a veteran of the 2013 protests against same-sex marriage that shook the early days of François Hollande’s soft-left presidency. “The Right hasn’t really stayed true to its principles,” Pascale said. “These advances that some like to call ‘progress’ destroy society little by little.”
The same diagnosis is on everyone’s lips at Villepinte. Zemmour’s supporters are electrified by his total rejection of the “progressivism” that supposedly holds sway over the French political class — including even more established conservative forces. In this regard, the December 5 event was aptly timed by the Zemmour campaign, coinciding with the second-round primary for the center-right Les Républicains.
Earning just over 60 percent of that intraparty vote, Valérie Pécresse — president of the Île-de-France region including Paris — outpaced the Zemmour-lite candidate Éric Ciotti. For Zemmour’s supporters, this only confirmed the entrenched power of Les Républicains’ “liberal” wing. But if his campaign gets its way, Pécresse’s candidacy will be remembered as little more than a sideshow amid a general reconfiguration of French conservatism in favor of the “right of the right.”
“I have been a Gaullist activist for as long as I can remember,” said Jean-Pierre Le Brun, a retired business owner from Normandy. “I have been following [Zemmour] closely for four or five months now. I’m a convert. Zemmour’s television appearances have pleased me very much. . . . He sees things clearly. We must not succumb to Islam, do you understand?”
The quintessence of the shabby country gentleman, wearing a three-piece plaid suit over a forest-green tie, Le Brun is prone to digressions. He was overwhelmed by emotion upon telling this Jacobin correspondent of his parents’ stories of American soldiers storming the D-Day beaches. “I belong to the race of Frenchmen that landed . . .” — a reflection cut off abruptly by a deluge of spontaneous tears. “Our nation cannot remain hostage to petty politicians and hacks. We are Westerners, with a deep affection, of course, for our African brothers. We will develop our African brothers, but in Africa. That’s possible. I don’t want mosques on my streets, just like they don’t want churches on theirs.”
“I’ve followed Zemmour since I was a teenager,” said Pierre-Henri, a twenty-six-year-old from Bordeaux who is active in Génération Z, the pre-campaign’s youth arm which has led postering and canvassing drives in recent months. “I was always on the right. I supported [Nicolas] Sarkozy and then [Marine] Le Pen but was disappointed by them both. They betrayed us.”
“I’m not French by blood,” he said, “I’m like Zemmour” — born outside Paris to Jewish parents who had come over from Algeria in the early 1950s. “My family is from Réunion and Spain. Well, Réunion has been part of France since the eighteenth century, so maybe that doesn’t count. But when my father’s family came to France, they gave their children French first names and spoke French at home. I believe that when a country welcomes you, you need to embrace its way of life, not import your own.”
After his decade-long surge to the center of national media, it’s difficult to imagine that any politically conscious French person will have not already made up their mind about Zemmour, one way or another. But there were indeed undecided voters at the Villepinte meeting, unsure where they stand in an election that, from the Right’s perspective, is as much about defining the future of French conservatism as it is about ousting Emmanuel Macron.
Marie, aged nineteen, from the well-off western suburbs of Paris, will be voting in her first presidential election in April — calling herself a “tourist” at the December 5 rally. “It’s not necessarily untrue, the things that [Zemmour] talks about,” she told Jacobin. “It’s true that he is quite polemical, but at least his ideas are conservative. I’ll need to hear what Marine Le Pen has to say, but I’m not entirely convinced [by her].”
Man of Providence
Others were rather surer of Zemmour’s credentials. “He must be nothing less than what France has been waiting on for half a century: the man of the nation. Zemmour must incarnate the timeless and immortal body of France,” waxed Paul-Marie Coûteaux, a former member of the European parliament and longtime advocate for a “union” of right-wing parties. “It is not enough to be president of the Republic. . . . He must be king of France. This transubstantiation that we used to call ‘the two bodies of the king’ is a moral necessity, my dear friends. And like any Christian morality, it’s an injunction of love: Zemmour is a matter of love, which must touch every Frenchman in in his heart, in his solitude.”
Warming up the crowd with two hours of fire and brimstone, the speakers that preceded Zemmour issued professions of faith supposed to express the implacable necessity and spontaneous force driving his “union of the forces of the Right.” “Reconquest!” is the name of Zemmour’s new conservative movement baptized on December 5 — and, as volunteers admit, its aesthetics are decidedly “Trumpian.” The red MAGA hat has its counterpart here in the white baseball cap reading “Ben! Voyons” — one of Zemmour’s favorite ironic rejoinders, which translates to “well, let’s see!” or “well, well, well!”
“You perhaps heard that I was a fascist!” Zemmour joked from the lectern. “Fascist! Me, a fascist?” And the twelve-thousand-person mob lapsed into a sabbath of applause and laughter, chanting, “Well, let’s see!”
“My family has long been engaged alongside the National Front and the National Rally,” confessed Agnès Marion, an erstwhile regional councilor, Le Pen surrogate, and National Rally central committee member. “Like [Zemmour], I never accepted the cordon sanitaire the moralizing left imposed on a credulous right, incapable of fighting the noble battle of ideas head-on. I have always fought for France, and the preservation of our civilization. These are the ideals that guide me, and which lead me to assure you on this platform today that we are a silent majority of elected officials, party workers, and activists of the patriotic cause that are unifying behind Éric Zemmour’s candidacy!”
The “great replacement” that all these speakers decry will only be fended off by what Zemmour coined on Sunday as the “great unification” of France’s conservative movement. The word from campaign officials is that the eventual parliamentary group for Reconquest! will be doled out by thirds among turncoats from Les Républicains, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, and to members of conservative “civil society,” the galaxy of extraparliamentary pressure groups and organizations that have emerged in the last decade.
Laurence Trochu is the archetypal Versailles conservative, a doyenne of the Catholic upper classes that live west of the capital. In 2013, she emerged as one of the frontwomen of Sens Commun (Common Sense), a key anti-gay-marriage group long affiliated with Les Républicains and recently re-baptized as the Conservative Movement, of which she is now president. Her speech was belabored by the steady drawl characteristic of a milieu that, short of being able to roll back Vatican II, at least still has the power to leave no inflection unpronounced.
“To Ayeurique Zaymoureux,” she rejoiced, “falls the honor, the responsibility, in fact, of conserving the identity of France. This identity won on the fields of glory. It is what connects us and links us to preceding generations. The transmission of received heritage. The knowledge of our history. Of our Greco-Latin and Judeo-Christian roots. Of our language. Of our traditions. And of our way of life.”
At around 6:00 p.m., Zemmour entered the convention center, preceded by a montage of images and scenes from the Old France that his campaign wants to resuscitate — portraits of Brigitte Bardot, Voltaire, clips of Gaullist supporters taking to the streets in 1968. Choreographed to a tee by Olivier Ubéda, a veteran of Nicolas Sarkozy’s victorious 2007 presidential campaign, the candidate was propelled to the stage amid a sea of sound booms and television cameras. Contemporary composer Thomas Bergersen’s campy 2011 score “Immortal” blaring over the speakers, Génération Z foot soldiers locking arms along the procession, frenzied fans jumping over to graze the sacred flesh — it was a postmodern coronation.
“You are nearly fifteen thousand Frenchmen who defied political correctness, the threats of the extreme left, and media hatred; fifteen thousand Frenchmen who don’t keep their heads down and who are determined to change the direction of history,” Zemmour congratulated his supporters. “Because, let’s not be unnecessarily modest — the stakes are immense. If I win this election, it won’t be a political transition like any other, but the beginning of the reconquest of the most beautiful country in the world.”
Interrupted by chants of “Zemmour, president,” and the old Le Pen slogan, “this is our home,” the vague outlines of the candidate’s “program” that did emerge were a classic nationalist hodgepodge. Forced “assimilation” of immigrants, the outlawing of non-French names, stripping of citizenship of dual nationals convicted of crimes, immediate deportation of all “clandestine” immigrants — Zemmour promises to put “civilizational” decisions such as these before the French population in a flurry of referendums, bypassing constitutional checks and balances.
With the country caught in a “spiral of decline,” the far-right pundit assures his base that France will leave NATO’s joint command and recover its status as global great power. Tax credits on earned income are supposed to buff up the campaign’s economic credentials, adding a “thirteenth month” of pay packets to workers on minimum wage. “I want to cancel taxes on inheritance and gifts for family-owned corporations,” the candidate announced to an uproar of joy and applause.
This was supposed to be the “presidential” Zemmour, a more fine-tuned and slick statesman to contrast with the bawdy and gaff-prone figure from the pre-campaign period. He was even sporting a new pair of thin-framed glasses. But beyond the same old rhetoric spewing from the loudspeakers, the excitement in the bleachers was testament to the violence that this campaign is unleashing. Donald Trump often interrupted his speeches to poke fun at protesters who managed to infiltrate his rallies and call out his neo-fascist antics. Zemmour, by contrast, wouldn’t flinch on his ninety-minute peroration on the fall and rebirth of French civilization. His supporters know what is to be done.
Activists from SOS Racisme, an anti-discrimination organization, braved the tight security at the event, the feverish trigger-happiness of the average Zemmour supporter, and the presence of more radical neo-Nazi groups such as the “Zouaves.” Midway through Zemmour’s speech, a handful of activists stood on their chairs and revealed T-shirts spelling out the phrase “NON AU RACISME.”
The scene, captured by the video journalist Clément Lanot, devolved into a far-right feeding frenzy, as the surrounding crowd threw itself at the protesters. Chairs flying through the air, one man launched punch after punch at a defenseless protester. In other eruptions of violence against intruders, Génération Z activists donned ski masks to hide their faces from the cameras. One man who managed to make it right up behind the VIP pen for Zemmour’s closest fellow travelers was hauled away, arms and legs bound by four guards. He was a “journalist,” supporters matter-of-factly concluded, as he was dragged to the closed-door staging area to be beaten up before the police could arrive.
On December 5, the Villepinte convention center was one of those places “the law no longer reaches,” to borrow from Laurence Trochu’s description of a country in thrall to Islamist-fed civil war. “Long live the Republic, but most of all, most of all, long live France,” Zemmour concluded at the end of his address — another wink to those who want to roll back the rule of law to wage the impending civilizational war. As former parliamentarian Coûteaux put it, for them, “Zemmour must be king.”