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Fringe or frontrunner? Eric Zemmour’s French Presidential candidacy explained

Johannes Moehrle profiles Eric Zemmour, one of the most controversial politicians in Europe, now hoping to become the next President of France.

CW: Islamophobia, homophobia, antisemitism/ The Holocaust

In a video posted on November the 30th, reminiscent of Charles de Gaulle’s 1965 campaign broadcast, Eric Zemmour launched his long-awaited presidential campaign; both deliver their speech in a hyperbolic dramatic tone, in front of a library, not looking at the camera. Indeed, this 8/ how Zemmour wishes to be perceived: as the saviour of France from its current situation, in a similar manner that General De Gaulle saved France from Nazi occupation. Below the surface however, Zemmour’s political ideologies is one of division, intolerance and discrimination, and his mere candidacy is a testimony of France’s fragile political landscape and its descent into populist demagogy.  To fully understand the danger that Zemmour poses, it is important to understand how he has become a potential future president, having started as an outsider in the French world of politics.

His career originated in journalism, where he has built his success on making himself known as an outrageous figure, thriving whenever he was at the heart of controversies. Eric Zemmour has been convicted of incitement to racial and religious hatred in the past for comments he made on TV, saying that “Muslims have their own Civil Code, called the Quran”, implying that they do not adhere to the French rule of law. In fact, he is currently facing charges that are brought against him for incitement to racial hatred, after he said of unaccompanied child migrants on TV last year: “They’re thieves, they’re murderers, they’re rapists, that’s all they are. We must send them back.”

Just a few months ago in September, Zemmour reiterated his favourite creed, that the practice of Islam is not compatible with French values. According to him, “Muslims need distance themselves from Islam and have a more ‘Christian’ practice of their religion.” Furthermore, he has again and again, on TV and in his writing, advocated for a name-change for all holders of a Muslim name, and he has declared his intentions to enforce this if he is elected president in April 2020. For now, this extreme measure has been received with more humour than horror in France, where several “Zemmour Name-Changing Generator” have popped up on the internet following his campaign launch.

What is to be taken with less humour, however, is the hatred that Zemmour inspires and the division he causes, even though he is still far from ascending to the presidency. Zemmour has subscribed to the Islamophobic French Conspiracy theory of the “Grand Remplacement” (Big Replacement), which sees radical Islamism taking over the country, taking away France’s secularity and democracy. The violent rioting that took place during his first campaign meeting perhaps stands as a first manifestation of the unrest triggered by his persona. It is unlikely that his presence is going to be any less divisive as the presidential election approaches.

The failure of Emmanuel Macron and his predecessors to unite the country and to raise the living standards of the French, including the successive crises during his tenure, have led many French to look for solutions by turning to the extremities of the political spectrum. France is still amongst the European countries with the highest unemployment rate (8%), and poverty has been on the rise in the last decade (with 14% of the population living in relative poverty). The “Yellow Vest” protests at the beginning of Macron’s presidency have shown the difficult social and financial situation in which many French find themselves, and their loss of faith in the country’s political system and institutions. The pandemic, and the inevitable economic disaster it created, only exacerbates the economic and financial inequalities.

Furthermore, Zemmour’s support might come from elsewhere. Many of the many right-wing voters who formerly believed in Marine Le Pen might now look towards Zemmour after she and her father proved unsuccessful in acceding to the presidency. This might be Zemmour’s best chance at winning the election: obtaining sufficient votes from the traditional far-right voters and from deceived centrist voters. 

Nevertheless, Zemmour’s populism isn’t new and doesn’t differ much from the ideologies of populists before him, in France and abroad. Like Le Pen, he has identified Islam as a scapegoat for all of France’s ills, or similarly to Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” rhetoric, Zemmour promises to bring back times that never existed. Indeed, in his campaign clip, Zemmour attempts to position himself in the line of rulers such as Napoleon and General de Gaulle and tries to tap into the French people’s pride by mentioning literary figures such as Voltaire, Rousseau, and Victor Hugo. However, he seems to forget that all three authors lived and worked in exile, threatened, and censored by the French government, and that their ideas of enlightenment, equality, and freedom most certainly go against his promotion of hatred, fear, and intolerance. Ironically, Voltaire’s famous quote from his Questions sur les miracles, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities”, appears to be a cynical and fateful warning against Zemmour.

Zemmour’s Islamophobia is by no means the only matter for controversy. His homophobia is also well known amongst the French public, as his multiple utterances about LGBT+ rights have shown. In 2019 for example, Zemmour expressed his belief on TV that homosexuality “is a matter of choice”. Furthermore, as aforementioned, his approach to history is at best clumsy, but at worse it is insulting. Whilst he holds the General de Gaulle in high regards, he also repeatedly defended De Gaulle’s antagonist Philippe Pétain, who, while in charge of Vichy France during World War II, tightly collaborated with the Nazis – especially helping Hitler pursuing his Jewish Genocide. Pétain is nowadays known as one of the worst traitors in France’s history. 

If racism, homophobia, and misuses of history make Zemmour fit the mould of the typical populist, his professional and educational background does not. Indeed, unlike most populist leaders in our age of “outsiderism”, Zemmour’s education at one of the country’s best universities, “Science Po”, his contributions to the mainstream newspaper “Le Figaro” and his presence on national TV are all factors that makes him a high profile of the French elite, which can work in his favour as the campaign unfolds. Furthermore, the notoriety he acquired through the many polemics that surround his name, gives him an important headstart, since he doesn’t need to introduce himself nor what he stands for. This is why his opponents should see him as a serious threat because the world does not need another populist leader who was at first only seen as a “fringe candidate”. 

His campaign, whether successful or not, already shows us that France is divided at its core. Whoever the next president is, they will face the enormous challenge of uniting the country, a task which perhaps will be harder for Zemmour than anyone else.

Image: Remi Mathis / CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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