France is the home of “Liberté, Égalité et Fraternité” and the birthplace of the Rights of Man. But running simultaneously through the country’s political traditions is a much darker strain of racism and antisemitism. It looks as if a new, more virulent chapter in that history of French bigotry may now be opening — with a seemingly unlikely champion.
Éric Zemmour, a far-right polemicist who officially declared on Tuesday that he is running in next April’s presidential election, is the loudest and most extreme voice of French racism today. While his poll numbers have started to slide from their highs earlier this fall, Mr. Zemmour’s divisive campaign has resonated with a significant portion of voters and he is still among the leading candidates. He is capturing national headlines and unleashing vicious bigotry into the mainstream in a way unseen in years.
The great irony is that Mr. Zemmour, twice convicted of inciting racial hatred and discrimination, is a Jew — a member of the very community once targeted by the racists whose traditions he inherits and invokes. He has updated France’s oldest hatred for a new era.
The roots of the current French far right can be understood only in the context of its prehistory.
Religious antisemitism was long a staple of reactionary thought in France. In the 19th century, that turned into economic and political antisemitism, taking its definitive form around the time of the Dreyfus Affair, the scandal involving the Jewish military officer, Alfred Dreyfus, who was falsely accused and convicted of passing secrets to Germany. The battle between Dreyfus’s supporters and his accusers came to define French politics. The period brought with it the appearance of antisemitic newspapers like “La Libre Parole,” whose masthead featured the slogan “France for the French,” still a favorite of the French right. This movement lived on well into the 20th century. Its final chapter was the Nazi-aligned Vichy government and French participation in the roundup of Jews for deportation and murder.
After the Holocaust, antisemitism was no longer viable as a political movement — though it was never entirely expunged from society. With the advent of mass immigration from France’s former colonies, antisemitism was largely replaced by anti-Black and, especially, anti-Arab racism. Since the 1970s, the political voice of this racism has been the far-right National Front party, now rebranded as the National Assembly as part of an attempt to enter the mainstream. This party has twice reached the second round of the presidential elections, in 2002 and 2017. Mr. Zemmour is now outflanking it from the right.
It doesn’t take much to see the roots of Mr. Zemmour’s ideology: his insistence that France is engaged in a religious war with Islam and a race war with its Black and Arab population; that entire neighborhoods of its major cities have been “colonized” by Muslims; that Islam is a religion of terror; that French Muslims must be made to choose between Islam and France (which he considers mutually exclusive). All of it is an updating of the Jew-hatred of a century and a quarter ago.
In the same way that the antisemites of the past accused the omnipotent, maleficent Jews of being guilty of crimes of all kinds, even of causing the flooding of the Seine, for Mr. Zemmour there is no crime for which Muslims are not guilty. The cause of exurbanization, with working people forced to drive to work from their distant homes? The immigrant “occupation” of cities and their suburbs. The spread of drugs? All immigrants’ unaccompanied minors are drug dealers. The cause of resource shortages in hospitals? Immigrants’ abuse of a system to which they don’t contribute.
His solution to these problems — and every other — is simple. Like the antisemites of France’s past, he wants to reduce the presence of immigrants in the country’s life. Social housing should be available only to the French, by which he means white French people. How he would exclude naturalized or French-born Muslims is something he doesn’t explain, which isn’t the point. Racism is the only point that matters.
Mr. Zemmour is not blind to this historical legacy. He is not just a demagogue; he is also a writer and a popular historian. He regularly quotes from reactionary political figures, writers and thinkers from French history, particularly the time of the Dreyfus Affair. Among his many revisions of French history, Mr. Zemmour most famously continues to assert a claim he first made in 2014 that Philippe Pétain, the leader of the French collaborationist government, protected French Jews during World War II, only helping to deport foreign Jews.
He has also revised the history of the Dreyfus Affair. Mr. Zemmour says that the French General Staff, where Dreyfus was posted and from which he was supposed to have stolen documents, was justified in suspecting Dreyfus of espionage because he was a German. This is false. More outrageous, though, is his claim that both sides in the Dreyfus Affair had “noble” motives. Never mind that Dreyfus was exonerated. His accusers, Mr. Zemmour says, were driven by their concern for “the nation.” The nobility of those who condemned Dreyfus has long been a marginal opinion. No longer.
In expressing these positions, Mr. Zemmour, an Algerian Jew, is demonstrating a perverted version of Jewish assimilationism. The threat posed by French right-wing antisemitism is long dead. The attacks on French Jews in recent years have been the work of isolated individuals, mobs or terrorists. When the country’s Jews were truly in danger, it was because the government was behind the threats. This is not the case today. In Mr. Zemmour, the Jew, formerly the outsider, is now an insider, and the Jewish insider defends France even when it has harmed its Jews.
The Jewish community, like all of France, is deeply split over Mr. Zemmour. There are Jews on all sides of the campaign, from Mr. Zemmour and his closest assistant, Sarah Knafo, to Mr. Zemmour’s principle intellectual foe, Bernard-Henri Lévy. Given this split, among the many things the Zemmour campaign represents is the assimilation of French Jewry.
As Mr. Zemmour presents himself as the voice of France, as its “savior,” his Jewishness serves him and the far right well. By defending Vichy, by defending Pétain, by defending French colonialism and even its massacre of “Arabs and certain Jews,” as he recently did, he, as a Jew, absolves the French right of its worst stains and helps give it new life as it wages war against Muslims.
The Jew as the stalking horse for anti-immigrant racism, as the voice of its normalization in public discourse, is a new, frightening development. The results of this are unforeseeable, but they bode no good.