French Jews divided over Éric Zemmour
Jewish communities in France are deeply divided over the far right journalist Éric Zemmour, a proponent of the theory of the ‘great replacement’. With Zemmour shortly expected to announce his candidacy for the presidency, French Jewish community leaders have been saddened to discover that many of their members would be prepared to vote for him.
Whether or not Zemmour’s popularity proves to be a flash in the pan, it’s a wake-up call: the extent of Islamophobia and support for Israeli policies amongst French Jews can no longer be ignored.
The lawyer and politician Patrick Klugman used the 6th of October edition of his ‘opinion column’ on RCJ Radio, the community radio station of the Fond social juif unifié [Unified Jewish Social Fund], to express concern about Zemmour’s racist rhetoric, his anti-Arab and anti-Muslim stance and the growing number of of French Jews giving credence to his ideas. According to Klugman,‘There is nothing, beyond his birth,’ to link ‘the hero of the French extreme right’ with Judaism.
Serge and Arno Klarsfeld echoed Klugman’s words In Le Monde on 11 July 2021, imploring French Jews to ‘distance themselves from the extreme right.’
Klugman is also a member of the management committee of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France (CRIF in its French acronym) and the president of the Union of Jewish Students in France (UEJF). From 2014 to 2020, he was Deputy for International Relations in the office of the socialist Paris Mayor’s office.
Close to both the former mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, and the current mayor, Anne Hidalgo, Klugman was behind the controversial decision to re-create a ‘Tel-Aviv beach’ in Paris in the summer of 2015. One of many increasingly disillusioned supporters of Israel, Klugman is known for his anti-racist stance: he was a member of the association SOS Racism and has spoken of his horror at the growth of Islamophobia amongst the population in general, and the Jewish population in particular.
Klugman’s opinion piece touches a nerve for me. Like many others, I have relatives who see no contradiction between being Jewish and voting for Zemmour. Whether we react to these people by arguing, seething silently or sighing in resignation, many of us have experienced the shame of hearing someone close to us extolling the ‘good ideas’ of a public figure whose views we find abhorrent. By expressing support for Zemmour in community and family circles, some Jews have crossed a new line.
"Let's hope the upcoming debate – or confrontation shall we say - won't further platform and propel Zemmour in becoming the first openly bigoted president of France"
Flash in the pan or a seismic disruption? It’s hard to know. Concerning as it is, the Zemmour phenomenon is not new. In 2016, more than 1200 people paid to attend a conference in celebration of Pétainism [the brand of fascism of former French prime minister Phillippe Pétain during the Vichy regime] at the Grand synagogue of Paris in Rue de la Victoire, at which Éric Zemmour debated with the grand rabbi Gilles Bernheim.
‘The final opportunity before exile’
As the arguments become more heated, Zemmour’s Jewish supporters, many of whom are retired, have begun to emerge from the woodwork, spurred on by coverage of the expected candidacy on CNews and some 24 hour news channels.
Noémie Halioua, Editor in Chief of the Paris bureau of i24news, Patrick Drahili’s pro-Israel channel, spoke consciously to this demographic on 27 September when she voiced some sympathy for Zemmour’s stance on the site of Causeur, a magazine of the extreme right edited by Elizabeth Lévy. ‘For several weeks now,’ Halioua wrote, ‘at the end of prayer in synagogues all over the country, discussions have begun to turn confrontational, to escalate to insults.
The response to the questions from some - ‘Are you not ashamed? Do you really want to vote for a Pétainist?’- is ‘Zemmour is our saviour: God has sent him to defend us.’ For many working class North African Jews, Zemmour represents the final opportunity before exile, a bulwark against disappearance, a glimpse of a possible new life. All of this might justify turning a blind eye to some of his excesses.’ A blind eye indeed.
Halioua goes on to wax lyrical about the ‘man who has no time for etiquette, peer pressure, or the seraglio, and always guards against tribal reflexes.’ These include ‘dancing to eastern music at weddings, like a Sephardic Jew.’ Zemmour is partial, however, to the particularly French tribal ritual of the urban lunch.
As Le Monde recently revealed, this includes breaking bread with Jean-Marie le Pen, multiply convicted for anti-Semitism, and the daughter of Joachim von Ribbentrop, a Nazi who was tried and executed at Nuremberg. The historian Jérémy Rubenstein commented caustically on this revelation on Hiya on 7 October: ‘One can almost feel the viscosity of that meal, with the obsequious Mr Z searching for witticisms, bending over backwards like a good Kapo to entertain his masters.'
The lawyer Gilles-William Goldnadel, a colleague of Patrick Klugman’s from the opposite side of the political divide, is another public figure to have expressed support for Éric Zemmour. An open Islamophobe, active supporter of the Israeli ultra-right and staunch supporter of Israeli settlements, Goldnadel is a frequent TV guest as well as a writer for Causeur and a staff columnist for Figaro-Vox (two active pillars of ‘Zemmourism’).
Goldnagel is particularly fixated on the scourge of ‘leftism’, On 27 September, following a debate between Zemmour and the MP Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Goldnadel commented that Zemmour should ‘launch a much more forceful attack on the disquieting camp of the extreme left...leftist ideology has succeeded in brainwashing a large part of the elite and a small part of the masses with the belief that patriotic resistance to invasion is akin to collaboration.’ For Goldnadel, Zemmour’s celebration of Philippe Pétain is collateral, a small example of one of Zemmour’s ‘excesses’. This despite the fact that Pétain, as Klugman has pointed out, was personally responsible for downgrading the social status of Jews.
The CRIF is concerned about ‘Zemmourism’. Its vice president, Yonathan Arfi, published a piece on 20 September entitled ‘Zemmour: the double heartache of French Jews’. Arfi wrote, ‘As Jews, we’re not responsible for Eric Zemmour’s statements. What we are responsible for is speaking out against them. The president of CRIF, Francis Kalifat, added, ‘Not one Jewish vote should go to the potential presidential candidate Éric Zemmour.’
The historian and researcher Marc Knobel, director of studies at CRIF, has been attacking Zemmour’s ideology for some time, branding him a ‘creator of apocalypse’ and a ‘Denial Jew’, critiquing, for example, his co-option of the language of the anti-Semitic extreme right to describe the culpability of Captain Alfred Dreyfus. Other Jewish community leaders to express concern include Ariel Goldman, president of the Unified Jewish Social Funds, who declared himself ‘ashamed to have the same religion as him,’ and Noémie Madar, president of the UEJF, who denounced his ‘lies about historical truths’.
Zemmour was born in the Parisian suburb of Montreuil, but has never hidden his roots as a ‘pied-noir’ Jew, including during his defence of Pétain. His most recent book, La France n’a pas dit son dernier mot [France has not had its last word], makes use of subtext, insinuation and the type of false irony often employed by racists and anti-Semites to excuse their choice of words, including their use of racial slurs.
Some say Zemmour is a man consumed with self-loathing. This may be true. There have been others like him: in the 1930s, many assimilated Jews, often former combatants, supported Colonel François de La Rocque. Leader of the league of the Croix-de-feu [Cross of Fire], de La Rocque denounced ‘Jewish purulence’ and allied himself with Pétain, continuing to rail against Jews at the beginning of the war. The historian Michel Wieviorka explains, ‘Zemmour is part of the world of Jews from Algeria who became French after the Crémieux decree of 1870, which was no longer possible after Pétain repealed the decree in 1940. He sees himself as a Jew, yet he appeals to an electorate which includes many anti-Semites.’
The fierce debate around Zemmour has exposed two analytical errors frequently made by commentators. The first, Wieviorka explains, is that ‘for some time, much of the intelligentsia has believed that the only anti-Semitism in France comes from Muslim Arabs. There has been a blindness to the persistent anti-Semitism of the extreme right. We are witnessing a resurgence of this at the moment, including the use of slogans that have nothing to do with current events in Israel and Palestine.’
The second error is the failure to realise the depth of the fracture in the French Jewish community (which is estimated at 700,000 people). It has far more to do with positioning on Israel than with approaches to religion. Most French Jews are concerned about anti-Semitism, but they are divided on their opinion of the policies of increasingly right-wing Israeli governments, governments that have been unfailingly supported by community organisations in France for the last two decades.
The growth of the settlements and the ever-increasing racism in Israeli society feel to some like another ‘great replacement.’ The current prime minister of Israel, Naftali Bennett, makes no secret of his anti-Arab sentiments. Zemmour is playing a tune that is familiar to one section of the French Jewish community, a section that is well-represented in cultural and religious institutions, highly engaged in support of Israel, and comprises some people who live with one foot in each country. ‘The Jewish world is sick, it’s desperate,’ laments a renowned Jewish intellectual who wishes to remain anonymous, for whom ‘none of our counter-arguments seems to be working.’
One horrified religious leader in the Paris area explains, "Violence is something people are used to with Israel, because of the constant attacks. They’re not scared by Zemmour’s verbal violence: it’s the same tone that’s being used in the rest of the country. Zemmour says out loud what people are thinking in private." A community representative adds, "The least visible part of the synagogue community is usually the part that experiences the greatest fear of aggression; the religious ones are afraid to wear the kippah, they no longer wear it outside." The problem is that this touches on "very personal feelings...Jewish people are using the same words, the same phrases, the same reasoning as the non-Jewish Duponts or Durands or Martins. They’re articulating the same malaise. By sounding off about France being under threat, Zemmour is exploiting that. And sadly being a Jew doesn’t necessarily stop you being full of shit." These two men, both deeply invested in the social life of their community, share the worry expressed by the rabbi of Levallois-Perret, Chalom Lellouche: ‘This threat is large and real. It concerns the co-existence of religions, it concerns national unity, it concerns France itself.’
It is certainly at synagogues that the stand-off feels the most electric. Challenged by the president of the CRIF, Zemmour quipped, ‘I’m very popular when I go to the synagogue. I advise Mr Kalifat to come with me and see which of us is more popular.’ On 12 October, Zemmour called Francis Kalifat "a useful idiot to the last anti-Semites who still exist in France." Kalifat responded by calling Zemmour "the useful Jew and the new leader of revisionism in our country."
‘A pathetic, reactionary path’
Despite the support he enjoys in some quarters, several of Zemmour’s public statements have prompted near-universal unease. These include his criticism of the burial in Israel of some of the child victims of a terrorist attack perpetrated in Toulouse in March 2012 which claimed seven victims, three of whom were children at a Jewish school. Zemmour claimed that the perpetrator of the attack, Mohamed Merah, had been buried in Algeria (Merah was in fact buried in Toulouse).
Zemmour has also argued for the banning of foreign first names in France. One of the main spokespeople for the Franco-Israeli right, the MP Meyer Habib, commented dryly, ‘Mayer Habib will no longer be able to be called Meyer Habib.’ He went on to denounce Zemmour’s ‘shameful, scandalous, melodramatic’ declarations about the graves of the Toulouse children. Our community representative reports that Zemmour’s comments ‘about the Jewish children who were Merah’s victims and who were buried in Israel were unacceptable. A lot of people were very shocked.’
Zemmour’s detractors are yet to hit on the most effective response to his repeated displays. There is an urgent need to address the effects of on-going support for the ultra-right in Israel, as well as the confusion over a pseudo conflict of civilisations being fomented by Israel’s partisans. There is currently no shortage of toxic public discourses that Zemmour can happily align himself with. When it comes to attacking Arabs, everyone seems to be in agreement. ‘Something is amiss’, one community representative told me sadly. I couldn’t agree more.
For Michèle Sibony, spokesperson for the French Jewish Union for Peace (UJFP), ‘The France that Zemmour is trying to assimilate himself into is ‘Deep France’ [traditional, non-urban, conservative]. His pathetic, reactionary path goes against all that Jews have contributed to the history of humanism and revolutionary universalism.’ It’s hard to disagree with this assessment. Wieviorka goes on to say, however, that ‘This Jew who has thrown in his lot with the extreme right hasn’t actually begun his campaign yet. He hasn’t yet been put on the spot. The attacks will start to come, including from important personalities like Bernard-Henri Lévy and Francis Kalifat, who, though they may not be my cup of tea, do hold significant power. At the moment, the electorate remains relatively uninformed.’
We can only hope that the upcoming debate – perhaps it should more accurately be termed a fight – will help us to avoid the bad joke of seeing a Jew become the first revisionist, racist, Islamophobic, misogynist and homophobic president of France.
Jean Stern is a former member of Libération and La Tribune, and a contributor to La Chronique d’Amnesty International. He published in 2012 Les Patrons de la presse nationale, tous mauvais (La Fabrique), and in 2017 Mirage gay à Tel Aviv (Libertalia).
Translated by Rachael McGill
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.