Zemmour’s France – Has the Author Unleashed a Monster or a New Movement?
The grassroots can’t get enough of him. Leftwing intellectuals despise him. But the polemical writer and broadcaster Éric Zemmour has been on a non-stop speaking tour of a “France-in-torment” for the past eight months, rallying co-religionists to a kind of modern day Noah’s Ark.
Ever since his book, Le Suicide français (French Suicide Albin Michel, 534 pages, 22.90 euros) became an overnight best-seller, the diminutive but pugnacious 56-year-old conservative journalist and author has been rivalling Front National leader Marine le Pen, as the idol of the discontented masses.
So loudly do the main themes of his book appear to chime with the ordinary man and woman in the street that a poll by Valeurs Actuelles late last year found that 76% of those questioned agreed with the author’s contention that “no longer can we say anything without being called a racist”. Furthermore 67% of those asked and declaring themselves to be supporters of Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP coalition, agreed with the author’s belief that “Islam is not compatible with the French Republic”.
In the style of a modern day saviour of the nation, this son of Algerian immigrant Sephardic Jews of humble origins, has donned his ‘Zemmourienne’ cloak and drawn capacity crowds wherever he has spoken around the country … and continues to do so even after eight months of touring.
According to Tugdual Denis writing in the latest issue of L’Express magazine the hero worship began on 16 October 2014 in the south-eastern city of Béziers, a stronghold of the Front National and fiefdom of Robert Ménard, an old friend who is now local mayor. Ménard and Zemmour were surprised when they learnt of the size of the disappointed crowd which had been turned away from the packed 1200-seat hall where the author had expounded the main themes of a book scathingly dismissed by intellectual critics on the left.
Indeed these critics have coined the phrase “zemmourisation of the mind” to describe the increased venting of ideas the Left regards as “too preposterous to be discussed”.
l’Express editor Christophe Barbier, a former Zemmour sparring partner on national TV channel iTélé says disdainfully: “Among his supporters, there are some with an academic education, but many of his fans are just rednecks and not at all the sort of people with whom he would dine”. Zemmour’s response to this extraordinarily crude attack was typical: “Barbier is wrong, I have eminent respect for those I serve. It is Barbier and his ilk who despise French people and cast them aside into the cesspits of history.”
The book — which hit the top of the best seller list with hours of publication selling 250, 000 copies in two weeks — has now sold half a million on the back of its main argument that France is being destroyed by immigrants who refuse to assimilate; by political correctness stifling debate and by continued membership of the EU which is undermining the economy and France as a nation state.
The crowds that gathered to hear his message in Beziers were followed by similar enthusiastic responses elsewhere. First came a gathering in a western Paris suburb of 150 students and handpicked young, reactionary, conservatives and liberals (21 October); then came Toulouse, (November 18), where 700 people crowded into a 500-seat venue; followed by Rennes and Nantes in December; Rouen on March 12 and Le Chesnay (outside Paris) on April 15 . At the latter the author explained his motivations to a rapt audience: “Why am I here tonight? Cold logic and reason tell me we are finished (as a nation), but I also think that it is possible to save our way of life and our civilization.”
His audiences appear unfazed by the sight of a speaker with tie awry holding an often acoustically fuzzy microphone. Their ears are attuned only to his attacks on “the ugliness of contemporary art”, “the fury of the elites who now realise that people are no longer listening to them”, the “great cultural and demographic replacement — a theme repeated regularly on the right and a reference to a supposed complot to replace the host nation by a tsunami of third world immigrants)” or “Canal + (a TV channel) that has become the weapon of the ‘May 68isation’ of the country”. The latter phrase refers to the current generation of Socialist leaders which emerged from the extreme left student revolution of May 1968 .
Zemmour tells L’Express that he has learnt to like his new speaking role and has mastered the working-the-crowd-techniques that go with these occasions, with “obvious pleasure”.
In fact it seems he may have unleashed concerns, emotions, feelings — a monster is how l’Express describes it — that surprise even him. One of his dining companions told the magazine: “Éric is afraid of the media monster he created. He does not know what to do …”
The fervour of those who listen to him on his speaking tours is recognised as being a very rare phenomenon. “There is something going on in this country, and at the moment Zemmour is that something,” notes Alexis Brézet, managing editor of Le Figaro, and a friend of its star columnist for the past 25 years.
The 500,000 copies of French Suicide now sold make the book one “that will remain a mark of the awakening of the French consciousness,” according to Renaud Camus, an ostracised standard bearer of nationalism on the right and a writer virulently opposed to any more immigration into France.
So sustained has been the Zemmour phenomenon that some political figures and analysts suggest he is now “more influential than Marine Le Pen herself”. But attempts to persuade him to join the Front National or other political groups have failed. Zemmour says he has neither the patience nor the team spirit to be a politician. Zemmour “never yields to any temptation to play nice,” notes Guillaume Tabard, a political columnist with Figaro. This has earned him the status of a quasi-public enemy. Since the release of his book, the administrations of left-leaning universities like Paris Dauphine and Sciences Po in Paris have declined to allow him to address audiences on campus, a decision the author calls pure “political censorship!”
Zemmour manages to address such a wide and even eclectic audience beyond university campuses, because he does not commit the usual mistakes of right-wing extremists, says Philippe Martel, Marine Le Pen’s chief of staff and old friend of the journalist. “His background makes him difficult to attack. He comes from a modest family, his parents fled their native country in the 1950s during the Algerian War of Independence and made enormous efforts to assimilate.” Unlike the writers Renaud Camus or Richard Millet, condemned as reprobates, Zemmour remains “fréquentable” (meaning respectable in the sense that he is still paid to debate on national radio and TV). That said however, at least one planned TV discussion – on ‘iTélé December 19 last year — never saw the light of day. Reportedly answering questions from Olivier Galzi, Zemmour was said to have responded at one point “the definition of French identity cannot be reduced merely to the possession of a French passport, to be an ardent follower of the Muslim faith excludes one from at the same time being French.” Apparently this crossed a red line for the programme producer who canned the interview.
Anxieties and concerns expressed in Zemmour’s book appear to have lighted a touch paper among an angered and frustrated cross-section of the country’s grassroots, and in turn confirmed the recent strong gains by the Front National in three consecutive sets of elections. (see here and here .)
Writing here Peter Martino notes: “One of the few French journalists who openly defends Zemmour is Élisabeth Lévy, who, like Zemmour, is of Jewish Algerian descent. She criticises Zemmour’s “bonapartism,” but has also called the behaviour of Prime Minister Valls — and others who attack the book without having read it — “Stalinist and Orwellian.” According to Élisabeth Lévy, ordinary French citizens long for the past – not, however, to the days of Napoleon, but rather the days when French suburbs had not become strongholds of radical Islam; when French society was still based on French values, and when people who felt insecure were taken seriously by politicians. The enormous commercial success of Zemmour’s book illustrates the deep dissatisfaction of many average French citizens with their political and cultural elite. Éric Zemmour’s book illustrates that many ordinary French are not prepared to commit national suicide”
Christopher Caldwell the conservative author and long time American observer of French affairs writing in The Weekly Standard oversimplified the Zemmour’s main arguments thus: “since the French student uprising of May 1968, women’s libbers, Muslim migrants, crooked bankers, and overzealous judges have brought France to ruin … and large parts of the French public think he is right”
Zemmour’s idea, adds Caldwell, “is that France is built around its great nation-builders: Richelieu, Napoleon, and above all General (later president) Charles de Gaulle … The son of North African Jewish immigrant parents, Zemmour is sensitive about immigration in both senses of the word ‘sensitive.’ That is, he is highly nuanced and easily angered. Even if it was retreating from a large colonial empire, France had no recent legacy of slavery and segregation to atone for, as America did. But it was not lost on the Socialist president François Mitterrand, who came to power in 1981, what a powerful rallying cry and organizing tool the rejection of racism had proven to be in the United States. In 1984 his government helped establish the NGO SOS Racisme to agitate and propagandise. It was a solution in search of a problem, but it was mightily effective in intimidating French journalists and politicians. Thereafter the press covered immigration, Zemmour writes, through anecdotage, discussing “the individual fates of immigrants, their wives, their children, their emotions, their resentments . . . wilfully obscuring their collective, historical side, as members of a people that had its own roots, its culture, its religion, its heroes, and its dreams of post-colonial vengeance.”
Despite its popular success, Zemmour’s book is hardly leading to a serious intellectual debate. But perversely for some — Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls earlier insisted that the book “did not deserve to be read — Zemmour and his “zemmourisme”, seem likely to be hard to stop and the kernel of his views goes well beyond any personal coterie, says l’Express. The philosopher Régis Debray, the leftist intellectual Jacques Julliard and former Mitterrand minister Hubert Védrine, have all let it be known that they have read his book and found its themes and ideas “stimulating”.
Story: Ken Pottinger