Eric Zemmour is a media celebrity in France: he may very well be a candidate as president of France in succession to Emmanuel Macron.
It’s unlikely that he’ll get to the Elysee Palace next April, but as a candidate, he would draw votes away from other parties and certainly make a splash. After the recent regional elections, 10,000 posters appeared across France with the words, “Zemmour for President”.
Zemmour has been described as “an extreme Right-wing author”, racist, sexist and, most especially, an Islamophobe, since he has been fiercely critical of the Muslim presence in France and its alleged incompatibility with French values. (He thinks Muslims should take French names like Pierre and Jean-Louis, rather than Mohammed and Mustapha.)
His personal background provides a clue to this hostility towards Muslim Arabs. His family were Jewish Algerians (with some Berber), who fled from Algeria after independence — though Zemmour himself was born and raised in France.
But to dismiss Zemmour as a “far-Right” Islamophobe is shallow and reductionist. He is an interesting and influential thinker. His book on the decline of France, Le Suicide Francaise, sold 400,000 copies. His television talk show, Face a l’Info, which I have watched almost nightly since lockdown, via the internet, is often electrifying, nearly always entertaining, rich in debate, ideas and stories.
I started watching the Zemmour talk show partly as an antidote to the dullness of lockdown. I also wondered if I’d ever see Paris again and this was a vicarious way of revisiting a great Parisian tradition of sparkling discourse, provocative ideas and performative talk. The French have been masters of this genre since the literary salons of the 18th century.
The TV channel CNews has been described as the French equivalent of the American Fox News, but it is way more intelligent, and nuanced. It is also sparkier than the rather limp GB News, recently launched in Britain by Andrew Neil, as a conservative alternative to the perceived Left-liberal bias of mainstream broadcasting.
Zemmour certainly attacks this “hegemony of the Left in media”, as he has called it. The liberal-Left, he says, “conquered” TV between 1980 and 2010, all over the Western world. This was the heritage of the cultural revolution of 1968 — and American influence.
He’s fiercely critical of American “cultural imperialism”, driven, he says, by Hollywood. He ascribes the rise of feminism — and “the disappearance of the father” — to America, as well as movements like LGBT. He says he has no animosity towards individual homosexuals, but thinks the LGBT movement is part of a pattern of the reversal of the natural order.
Sometimes, he makes statements which are, indeed, extreme and go beyond the decently acceptable. His hostility to Islam can verge on the odious. And, yet, the way in which the left has embraced Islam politically (“Islamo-Gauchisme”) is questionable: Sharia law is hardly compatible with socialist secularism.
But you can consider someone an interesting thinker without agreeing with every idea they hold. Sartre and De Beauvoir held some terrible opinions — deference to communist dictators, soft on paedophilia — but they were still towering intellectuals.
And many of Zemmour’s ideas are stimulating and compelling. He genuinely favours patriotism. He quotes Renan’s saying: “The nations which praise the universal end up by giving up their nation.”
His political hero is De Gaulle: Macron he despises as an agent of “globalisation”. He criticises Brussels for its alleged desire to “subjugate” all of Europe to its imperium — “giving lessons to Poland and Hungary”. He champions the French language — he regrets the loss of Canada to Anglophones.
Zemmour has an incisive analysis of the identity of France: there are two main traditions — the Catholic and the Republican. Catholic France goes back to Clovis and Clothilde and every French monarch subsequently: it’s the history of the people. But Republican France is the political tradition, with its embrace of “laicite” (secularism). Both threads are in the deposit of the nation.
He is critical of Germany and probably too soft on Russia. He thinks Pope Francis is “politically correct” and “too easy on China”. He laments the decline in French fertility (“demography is destiny”).
He can be tolerant, even wise: “We must respect other civilisations./One has the politics of one’s geography./In Africa, they respect the old.”
Zemmour is certainly loathed by his opponents and has been convicted of hate-speech. His supporters include Jean-Marie and Marion Marechal Le Pen, and Francois Fillon, the Catholic presidential candidate now appealing against a prison sentence for financial irregularities.
Personally, I hope Zemmour doesn’t make a presidential run: he performs a better service for free speech and the clash of ideas which should enliven any democracy as a media debater than he ever could in politics.
He represents those people who feel that values have been upended and traditional ideas marginalised, or erased.
It’s healthy such themes should be heard in a national discourse.