John Lichfield is a former foreign editor of the Independent and was the newspaper’s Paris correspondent for 20 years.
There is little new in Eric Zemmour’s new book — certainly no original proposals or workable ideas. End migration, he says. Force existing migrants to assimilate. Oblige Muslim parents to call their children Jacques or Emilie, not Mohamed or Farida. Hobble meddling judges. Leave the European Union.
What is new, however, is that Zemmour is considering running for president next year.
The French far-right essayist and television pundit has made a name for himself as a silver-tongued apostle of poetic defeatism and elegant racism. All is for the worst, he says, in the worst of all possible worlds. Why? Because of immigration, the excessive power of women, gays, Brussels and international finance and the betrayals of a corrupt, vain and stupid political elite.
France’s inescapable future — Zemmour concluded in his best-selling books thus far — is the triumph of Islam, the destruction of Western and French culture and the “great replacement” of the “white race” with fast-breeding migrants.
But wait. Could Zemmour have changed his mind? His new book, self-published, released today and already at the top of the French bestseller lists, is called: “La France n’a pas dit son dernier mot” (France hasn’t said its last word).
Could he believe that there is a faint hope, after all, for civilization, for the white race, for what he sees as France’s long lost Bonapartist destiny to be the cultural and intellectual leader of the world?
Not exactly. The hope implied in the title is the slogan for a presidential campaign that has not yet begun — and, truthfully, may never begin. But even the cover of the book — Zemmour against the background of the French tricolor flag — is a campaign poster in waiting.
Surprisingly, opinion polls this week give him eight to 10 percent of the first-round vote — doubling since last month but still far short of the 20-plus percent needed to make the two-candidate runoff.
Zemmour is seen as taking most of his votes from far-right leader Marine Le Pen, whom he despises as vulgar and weak, but also some from the traditional center-right, whom he despises as weak and treacherous. In other words, he is likely to strengthen the first-round position of President Emmanuel Macron, whom he despises as arrogant and pro-European.
He says he will decide whether he will run within a month.
In the meantime, Zemmour’s book is calculated to inflame hard-right opinion — not only of the poorer white voters already corralled by Le Pen but also a more prosperous, traditional but disaffected conservative electorate.
Mostly a self-regarding year-by-year journal of his televised debates and other battles, the book is littered with anecdotes about alleged, concealed pro-Zemmour opinions or the “anti-French” views of senior French figures.
In it, he suggests that Islam is incompatible with Frenchness and that all migrants should either embrace French culture or leave. Yet he also argues that culture and identity are the product of a “collective unconscious” and that ethnic and religious backgrounds determine the way people think. Begging the question, how then is assimilation even possible?
Zemmour, 63, was convicted of inciting racism in 2011 and 2018. He denies that he is racist, but his vision is fundamentally a racial one, despite his own North African and Jewish family background. In 2014, an Italian journalist asked Zemmour whether he thought it realistic that 5 million French Muslims could simply be removed from the country. He replied, “I know it’s unrealistic, but history is sometimes surprising.”
What is undeniable is Zemmour’s genius as a polemical writer and pundit. The new book, like its predecessors, is beautifully written. His rhythmic sentences dance elegantly over his misstatements and distortions. He’s also funny, in the bitchy French manner. “I long thought that Macron was a less vulgar version of (Nicolas) Sarkozy,” he writes. “I grasped that he was (François) Hollande, only better dressed.”
One of the book’s most revealing sections comes as Zemmour reports on a meeting with an unnamed, wealthy French-born Donald Trump supporter. Zemmour mocks the elderly woman’s American looks — he can’t help himself, mockery is the core of his writing — before quoting her as saying: “We’ve been studying the situation in France for several months … We understand the differences with America. But we’ve reached a conclusion. The French Trump is you.”
There is no hint in the book — or anywhere else in Zemmour’s voluminous writings or television punditry — that the U.S.’s Trump experiment was anything but a positive experience. Similarly, in one of his weekly essays in the center-right daily Le Figaro, Zemmour claimed that Brexit negotiations had been a hands-down victory for Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government and a total defeat for the EU. Not even Johnson would claim that.
So given all this, why is Zemmour thinking of running for president of the Republic next April? He is a pundit and rabble-rouser, not a politician. His constant negativity and disdain for facts may be successful as an essayist, but Zemmourism would surely fall apart if presented as a political campaign.
Zemmour is thinking ahead. I doubt that he really thinks he is the “French Trump.” I believe instead that his plan is more along the lines of acting as a kind of French Nigel Farage — a comparison that he would detest. However, like the former leader of the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), Zemmour hopes to change the terms of the national debate and permanently alter the political landscape.
His aim, I believe, is to destroy an already fading Le Pen to open a space for a new movement capable of winning in 2027, spanning the far right and the harder end of the traditional right.
Who would lead such a movement in five years’ time? It could be Zemmour, although he will be 68 by then. He is more overtly extreme than Le Pen, but his eloquence and pseudo-intellectualism appeal to the conservative voters who shun LePenism.
It would more likely be Le Pen’s niece, former far-right MP and political institute director Marion Maréchal — even though she has the handicap, in Zemmour’s worldview, of being a woman.
Zemmourism is intellectually dishonest in that way. It is also dangerous, and it looks like it is here to stay.