How Eric Zemmour became France's new political obsession
A political journalist, writer, columnist, and more recently “polemicist”, Eric Zemmour has been part of the French politico-media environment since the early 1980s.
The 63-year-old was born in Paris to Berber Jews who moved from Algeria to France during the Algerian war of independence in the 1950s.
Claiming to be from the school of Gaullism, a political movement inspired by Charles de Gaulle, and also a Bonapartist, he now firmly belongs to the extreme right-wing movement and is being touted as a popular new candidate for the 2022 French presidential elections.
"While not yet an official candidate, multiple polls show that Eric Zemmour is getting close, or even surpassing, the extreme right-wing candidate Marine Le Pen"
He routinely portrays himself as a defender of France's Christian civilisation and promotes the racist conspiracy theory that immigrants are gradually replacing Europeans. He also said that he would ban Muslim names like Mohammed if he were to be elected as president.
While not yet an official candidate, multiple French polls show that Eric Zemmour is getting close, or even surpassing, the extreme right-wing candidate Marine Le Pen from the National Rally (Rassemblement National), a party inherited from Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front, in voting intentions in the first round of the presidential elections.
Both personalities share similar ideas in terms of being anti-immigration and critical of Islam, but Marine Le Pen has been “normalising” the party since taking over her father’s legacy to make it look more reasonable, respectable, and electable.
Her father used to dismiss the Holocaust as a “detail” of history and frequently criticised Jews, Muslims, Black people and immigrants with racist statements in the media. She, on the other hand, is trying to have her party accepted and seen as an alternative to the traditional right-wing parties such as the liberal-conservative The Republicans (Les Républicains).
Eric Zemmour, over time, followed a completely different, and radical, path, saying notably that France should leave the European Union (EU), that immigration should be forbidden, and that Islam is “incompatible with France”.
But his controversial views found an audience, and he worked as a reporter for Le Figaro newspaper and then as a columnist – despite being convicted of incitement to racial discrimination – before the right-wing news channel Cnews offered him a free and large platform.
As of September 2021, according to the news magazine L’OBS, Eric Zemmour has been prosecuted in seven cases over eleven years, acquitted four times, found guilty for three others, while three cases are still pending trial.
All of the cases concern racist statements from Zemmour, who, among other things, said that employers “have the right” to refuse to hire Black and Arab people, that drug traffickers are mostly of Arab and Black origin, and that Muslims live among themselves with the Quran as their “civil code” and have “invaded” France.
According to an investigation from the newspaper Mediapart, Zemmour has also been accused of sexual abuse and harassment by several women.
“Today, you can explain his popularity because of two things,” Jean-Yves Camus, associate researcher at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS), told The New Arab.
"Zemmour promotes the racist conspiracy theory that immigrants are gradually replacing Europeans, and wants to ban Muslim names"
“One is that the Conservative right led by the Republicans is having an identity crisis, torn between a more moderate approach and a more conservative one, whose members participated in the protests against same-sex marriage in 2013. These people think the Republicans are too centrist, but at the same time, Marine Le Pen didn’t win the presidential election three times in a row. Zemmour can appear as a replacement candidate for a part of the right-wing that is growing larger with time.”
Jean-Marie Le Pen has also declared himself a potential supporter of Zemmour, saying he would support him “if Eric is the best placed national camp candidate”. He added: “Our world loves change, and Eric Zemmour has the advantage of novelty. He arrives, it is astonishing, he is impactful and it shakes up existing structures.”
In effect, Le Pen senior is saying that Zemmour represents his ideals better than his own daughter, who is leaning towards more so-called “respectable” approaches, such as limited immigration and integration as a necessity. This open support by Jean-Marie Le Pen for Zemmour could aid his potential candidacy and turn a large part of the National Rally towards a more extreme candidate.
Zemmour’s personality, as well as the possibility of him becoming president, has attracted a lot of media attention, which has been criticised by some as giving him too much room to air his controversial views.
“It’s a complicated issue because you can’t not talk about him as he represents a right sensibility that is taking importance,” Camus told The New Arab. “You can’t really censor him. At the same time, the suspense around his candidacy and the multiple surveys every week participate to a storytelling he doesn’t need to pay for,” he added.
“He’s also the kind of person who attracts 1,500 people at a meeting in Lille without being a candidate, who sells many books including his last one. While the Republicans are waiting to announce their candidate in December, Zemmour is the main media attention.”
"Eric Zemmour has been convicted multiple times for inciting hate speech"
As a result, immigration in France has once again come to the fore as the main talking point among candidates and the media. This despite the pandemic-related economic crisis and the recent rise of energy prices.
“What is really important are socio-economic and environmental issues, which is what the left-wing parties should lead with,” Camus said.
“The left needs a consensus candidate who could talk about topics Zemmour never talks about it, while on the right-wing it is important that the parties decide what they lean towards: going further than Zemmour on identity and immigration, or expressing clearly they don’t share his opinions," he added.
"The point is: Zemmour must not organise the political debate."
Florence Massena is a freelance journalist based in Norway after six years spent in Lebanon. She reports on the environment, women's issues, human rights, and refugees in the Middle East, Africa, and Europe
Follow her on Twitter: @FlorenceMassena