France’s Xenophobes Are Claiming Charles de Gaulle for the Far Right

France’s center-right has long used its Gaullist origins to distinguish it from the heirs to Vichy. But today, xenophobes like Marine Le Pen are claiming de Gaulle’s legacy as they seek to overcome the historic split on the Right.

Official posters of the French far-right party National Rally presidential candidate Marine Le Pen and French far-right party Reconquête presidential candidate Eric Zemmour in Montaigu, western France, on April 2, 2022. (Loic Venance / AFP via Getty Images)

“I need Gaullists. . . . I need sovereignists. . . . I need all the family of the right!” Éric Zemmour called on the crowd at the Place du Trocadéro in Paris on March 27. With the vast square overflowing, this was Zemmour’s biggest rally of the election.

It was the last gasp — a bellow — of a remarkable, transformative campaign. A month ago, Zemmour was riding high enough in polls to put himself in contention for the runoff against Emmanuel Macron. Yet since then, his campaign has stalled. With the war in Ukraine, Zemmour’s past calls for a “French [Vladimir] Putin” came back to haunt him — sending him tumbling to fourth or fifth place.

Still, Zemmour’s rise, on a platform of carrying out a “remigration” of millions of “undesirable foreigners” (a million in his first five-year term alone, he promised) to prevent what he terms a “great replacement” of the native French, has accelerated an increasingly sinister turn in French political life. The new party he launched in December, Reconquête – a transparent allusion to the Spanish Reconquista, when Muslim forces began being driven out of Iberia in 722 AD — claims over 100,000 dues-paying members just four months later.

In comparison to Zemmour, Marine Le Pen, the longtime standard-bearer of the French far right, has positioned herself as a moderate. Even as Zemmour threatens to be a spoiler — eating into her score while left-winger Jean-Luc Mélenchon challenges her for second place — polls pitting Le Pen against Macron in the runoff have tightened to as close as 53-47 percent, putting her within striking distance of the presidency if she can make the runoff. In February, Le Pen warned against Zemmour, saying that his team was filled with “traditionalist Catholics, pagans, and several Nazis.” He had in October told one broadcaster that people comparing him to Nazis “hate France” and that calling him a Nazi is a “Soviet, communist technique.”

Gilbert Collard is a longtime member of the European Parliament for Le Pen’s party (today called National Rally) and at one time Le Pen’s lawyer, who joined Zemmour’s campaign in January. He shot back glibly, “She’ll end up president of SOS Racisme,” referring to an anti-racist group historically close to the Socialist Party. A tongue-in-cheek cartoon in the satirical fortnightly Le Canard enchaîné last fall even showed a poster calling for a Le Pen vote to guard against the far right.

Patriotic Right

Zemmour, though, sees himself as firmly within the mainstream-right tradition. He scoffs at the idea of a “far right” in his latest book, La France n’a pas dit son dernier mot (France Hasn’t Said Its Last Word), mocking this “imaginary extreme right which, in reality, is nothing more than a patriotic right in search of order and a legitimate conservatism, and which I feel a part of.”

This “patriotic right” is the Gaullist mantle Zemmour claims. On the television program Punchline in October last year, he talked about the union of the “patriotic bourgeoisie” with the popular classes. This alliance, he said, is Gaullism: “Me, I’m Gaullism.”

Zemmour, a hyperreactionary former journalist for the mainstream French right-wing daily Le Figaro turned pugnacious cable news pundit, sees himself as the authentic manifestation of Gaullism today.

This provokes consternation and incredulity from the mainstream. But what would the old general think?

What Would de Gaulle Do?

De Gaulle is a giant who stands astride the entire French political landscape, exercising an irresistible influence across almost all political personnel.

De Gaulle’s legitimacy was rooted in his choice in favor of resistance during World War II, opting to defy the French government hierarchy and its armistice with Nazi Germany. This choice made him part of the pantheon of liberation, and he also helmed France’s first postwar government. The romance quickly soured, in a France where the workers’ movement was on an upsurge. (The French Communist Party, also key to the Resistance, became the single most popular party, winning 28.6 percent in the fall 1946 parliamentary elections.) But de Gaulle was again the man of the hour in 1958 when France faced a fresh “crisis”: the Algerian struggle for independence.

“Weak in metropolitan opinion, inexistent in political circles, Gaullism could not have been reborn in France without the events in Algiers,” wrote Jacques Fauvet in his 1959 book, La IVe république. De Gaulle, from the moment he became the icon of the Free French, existed as a figure greater than himself. But his political sway would have never reached the heights it did if he hadn’t been perceived useful to the French ruling class.

The problem of Algeria was that its people no longer wanted to be ruled by France, but those who wanted to keep l’Algérie française insisted that it was France — having been part of the state since 1830, longer than the city of Nice. For them, Algerian “secession” meant the division of the country: French Algeria’s supporters compared the Mediterranean to the Seine river running through Paris; just hop across the water, and you’re in the same place. With the war and diplomatic pressure turning against the French occupation, de Gaulle’s return to power in 1958 was aided by the support of a group of generals and officers in the French Algerian military who thought he was the only one who could keep Algeria French.

But to the dismay of his supporters, de Gaulle eventually recognized that Algerian independence was inevitable. It wasn’t for lack of trying. For years, de Gaulle refused to negotiate with the Algerian National Liberation Front (NLF). A prerequisite to any talks was the defeat of the NLF on the battlefield. In October 1961, the NLF’s political arm in France organized a peaceful protest against the French role in the war in Paris. The prefect of Paris, Maurice Papon — only four decades later convicted for deporting 1,600 Jews to the death camps — ordered the protest be repressed. On one bridge over the river Seine, police shot dozens of Algerians and pushed them into the river. By the end of the night, they may have killed up to two hundred people. (Official reports acknowledged thirty-eight to forty-eight victims.) In July 1961, De Gaulle bestowed the Légion d’honneur, the state’s highest honor, on Papon with his own hands. In 1962, the French Communist Party organized a protest at eastern Paris’s Charonne metro station against the Organisation Armée Secrète, a hyperreactionary movement that carried out a series of terrorist attacks in opposition to De Gaulle’s decision to hold a referendum on Algerian independence in 1961. The protest was banned by the Paris police. When it went forward anyway, it too was brutally repressed; eight people were killed.

But despite all de Gaulle’s efforts — and the blow to the empire he knew Algeria’s departure would represent — he decided it wasn’t worth the trouble to keep. For one, de Gaulle’s focus for France’s military had shifted to developing a nuclear program. Besides, the only possible way France could have held onto Algeria would have been full integration of Algerians into the country — the previous status quo had kept them as second-class citizens living under apartheid-like conditions.

Integration was unacceptable to de Gaulle. He wanted to keep Algeria for the grandeur it added to France (and, of course its mineral wealth); but what grandeur could nine million Muslims add, De Gaulle warned, or the eighty deputies they would send to the National Assembly?

“Have you seen the Muslims with their turbans and their djellabas?” De Gaulle once asked his trusted adviser Alain Peyrefitte:

You can see that they are not French. Try and integrate oil and vinegar. Shake the bottle. After a moment they separate again. The Arabs are Arabs, the French are French. Do you think that the French can absorb ten million Muslims who will tomorrow be twenty million and after tomorrow forty? If we carry out integration, if all the Berbers and Arabs of Algeria were regarded as French, how would one stop them coming to settle on the mainland where the standard of living is so much higher? My village would no longer be called Colombey-les-deux-Eglises [the two Churches], but Colombey-the-two-Mosques.

Zemmour quotes de Gaulle like this gleefully in France Hasn’t Said Its Last Word, chiding those who call themselves Gaullists but think that immigrants from “another civilization” can be integrated into France. That “other civilization,” says Zemmour, are the hordes of Africans and Arabs who’ve streamed into the country for the past forty years – against the will of the true French people.

De Gaulle thought the same. “I would like there to be more French babies and fewer immigrants,” he told Peyefritte.

The Algerian crisis was a war that France “won,” Zemmour wrote in Le Figaro on March 19, “but which it no longer wanted to wage.”

Algerian Privilege?

In that article, titled “60 years later, I’m ending Algeria’s migratory privileges,” Zemmour promises to end the accords finalized between France and Algeria at the end of the war for independence that gave Algerians special rights to emigrate to France. Zemmour’s own family, Algerian Jews from the northeast of Algeria, had arrived in France in 1952. After the war, a wave of immigration from Algeria came into France. On one side were the pied-noirs, as the descendants of the French settlers in Algeria were known. They came fleeing the fear of exactions against them by forces unleashed by the new government. There were also the harkis, the name for the Algerian militiamen who fought on the French side in the war. (Gérald Darmanin, Emmanuel Macron’s very reactionary interior minister, is the grandson of a harki.) Then there were the Algerian workers who came to fill jobs in French industry.

Jean-Marie Le Pen was an MP at the time and one of few who voted against full powers for de Gaulle in 1958. Throughout 1958–1962, he was a frequent and vocal opponent of de Gaulle’s Algerian policy. He was then Jean-Louis Tixier-Vignancour’s campaign manager for the 1965 election. Tixier-Vignancour, a far-right lawyer who defended many OAS members in court, won nearly 1.3 million votes. He got his highest scores in Southern France, by appealing to the grievances of the pieds-noirs and condemning the influx of Algerian workers. He called himself a supporter of “French Algeria,” not “Algerian France,” and demanded quotas “to avoid the invasion of France by a multitude of starving mouths.”

When Le Pen founded the National Front in 1972, it was in no small part in opposition to de Gaulle.  In 2018, Le Pen wrote in his memoirs that de Gaulle “remains a horrible source of suffering for France.”

His daughter, however, has adopted the mantle of de Gaulle. In 2020, Marine Le Pen wrote that “only the National Rally defends [his] line today.” This was a necessary move to position the party within the mainstream of French conservatism, which has long claimed de Gaulle’s heritage. Les Républicains – the mainstream conservative party who often position themselves as the “center-right” option  –  draws a genealogical link to de Gaulle’s Rally of the French People (RPF), founded in 1947, through various name changes and mergers.

Algeria looms large in Zemmour’s own story. “My parents . . . were assimilated, they cherished this France which had given them everything, and today I perpetuate what they taught me,” he concluded in his Le Figaro essay. “With me, the door of assimilation will always be open, but those who wish to stay in our home while continuing on the path of resentment and the rejection of France will no longer be welcome.”

“I benefited from French colonization,” he said during a television appearance in March 2022, three weeks before the first round of the presidential election:

I don’t consider colonization to be a crime against humanity. I am not Emmanuel Macron. All people were colonizers and were colonized. The Algerians themselves were colonizers. I’m of Berber origin, I was colonized by the Algerian Arabs who govern the country today. I was then colonized by France. I’ll repeat it: I benefited from French colonization. It allowed me to come to Paris, to have access to great French literature, to discover Chateaubriand, Pascal, Victor Hugo. . . . I benefited from French colonization.

A central plank of Zemmour’s platform is “zero immigration,” an ironic riff on the “zero-COVID” ambitions Macron’s government once paid lip service to. Not only must illegal immigration be stopped, he says, but legal immigration too. Birthright citizenship, a legacy of France’s defeat by Germany in 1870, must be abolished too, he says. Unless France plans to invade Germany sometime soon, he says, they don’t need the extra soldiers.

“Was there an Algerian nation before the colonization?” Zemmour asked a television host in October. No, there wasn’t, Zemmour answered; it was built by France.

De Gaulle thought the same. While meeting with Dwight Eisenhower early in the Algerian conflict, he complained about a situation he found ridiculous. Imagine, he asked Eisenhower, if “ten million red Indians revolted in California” and demanded independence?

In Zemmour’s fidelity to de Gaulle, he sees something revolutionary. Only a return to his tradition, says Zemmour, can a France in danger of disappearing be revitalized. “For me today,” he writes in France Hasn’t Said Its Last Word, “only conservatism, even reaction, are revolutionary.”

Politics, Zemmour says, “is de Gaulle exasperatedly telling an American ambassador who doesn’t understand his position ‘. . . it’s been a thousand years I’ve been telling you!’” Zemmour sees himself as part of an unbroken line with that “thousand years of French history.”

“I fight,” Zemmour finishes, “only so we’ll still be able to say that in [another] thousand years.”