Is Éric Zemmour (pictured), a likely candidate in France's upcoming presidential election, really a racist? Is France on the verge of tipping over into fascism? Of course not. What is actually happening in France is a liberation of freedom of speech. For the first time in 40 years, topics such as immigration, Islam, and the preference of the elites for unvetted mass-migration are being spoken about openly on radio and television. (Photo by Nicolas Tucat/AFP via Getty Images)
The rumor that a Jew making racist and anti-Semitic remarks could be a candidate in France's presidential election of spring 2022 has crossed the country's borders. Worse, the rumor is that this supposedly racist, anti-Semitic Jew, Éric Zemmour, is buoyed by polls that forecast him as a very possible second-round candidate against France's current President Emmanuel Macron.
Sacrebleu! How could such a thing have happened? Is Zemmour really a racist? Is he carried by a wave of the extreme right, as many on the left suggest? Is France on the verge of tipping over into fascism?
Of course not. What is actually happening in France is a liberation of freedom of speech. For the first time in 40 years, topics such as immigration, Islam, and the preference of the elites for unvetted mass-migration are being spoken about openly on radio and television.
The reason all these topics are finally on the table is because Zemmour brought them there, to the media. Before Zemmour, if you talked apprehensively about migrants, it was considered "racist". Anyone concerned about the rapid change in France's identity was labelled as a member of the extreme right. Being French and defending French culture apparently made you a Nazi. Anyone who dared to criticize Muslim immigration and Islam was immediately branded a racist "close to Jean-Marie Le Pen", vilified by the media and even taken to court.
Zemmour's achievement is to have broken the wall of shame, with the help of Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of a far-right National Front party. Le Pen was the first to criticize Muslim immigration and raise questions about Islam, but regrettably, he did so in a way so caricatured and racist that it was not difficult for the media and leaders of the Socialist Party to demonize him -- and often also the very real problems the National Front addressed, such as the identity of the country, the role of secularism, competition in the job market, and the status of women.
When the historian Georges Bensoussan addressed the issue of Muslim anti-Semitism on the radio in 2016, he was instantly prosecuted by "anti-racist" associations and taken to court. Although he was acquitted three times, the intimidation had its effect. Who, after such a legal marathon, would have the courage once again to address the complex question of the place of Islam in a Western society in general, and in France in particular?
The accusation that Zemmour is a racist arises not only from subjects related to immigration, but also from the numerous lawsuits that Islamist organiaztions, "anti-racist" organiaztions and some partisan elected officials have brought against him. Most of the time, the judges have acquitted Zemmour, but sometimes not. Judges have occasionally convicted him. In 2011, he was sentenced for claiming that "French people from immigrant backgrounds are stopped by the police more than other [people are] because most of the traffickers are Black and Arabs.... That is a fact". Zemmour was convicted not because he was lying, but because such an assertion was impossible to prove. Ever since World War II, French law has prohibited any mention of ethnicity in official statistics. In 2020, Zemmour was also convicted for "provokimg hate."
The accusations of racism and anti-Semitism leveled against Zemmour come also from the Jewish establishment. The chief rabbi of France recently declared Zemmour to be "Antisemitic certainly, racist obviously." Francis Kalifat, president of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France (CRIF) called on Jews not to vote for him.
The Jewish establishment has accused Zemmour of rehabilitating Marshal Pétain and the Vichy regime, both of whom collaborated with Nazi Germany during WWII. Zemmour has said that Pétain "protected French Jews while handing over foreign-born Jews to the Nazis in a necessary compromise to occupation. According to Zemmour, "The figures speak for themselves... in France, 40% of foreign Jews were exterminated and 90% of French Jews survived."
The thesis, however, is that of Alain Michel, a rabbi and Jewish historian of French origin now living in Israel. According to Michel, Zemmour should have said that "between 90 and 92%" of French Jews had survived. In addition, Michel claims that:
"contrary to what Serge Klarsfeld [president of the Organization of Sons and Daughters of Jewish Deportees from France] asserts.... these figures cannot be attributed solely to the action of the 'Righteous Among the Nations'. It was the policy applied by the Vichy government, which slowed down the application of the 'Final Solution' in France."
Michel and Zemmour do agree that it is extremely difficult for historians in France to question the popular view that the Vichy regime could not have been anything other than a clone of the Nazi regime.
No one quite understands why Zemmour is bringing up Vichy and the Second World War, but the ferocity of the accusations against him does not prevent him from remaining extremely popular within the Jewish community.
Zemmour does not deny his Jewish origins and goes regularly to synagogue. He makes it clear that he is not a Zionist, but makes it equally clear that he is not anti-Zionist. Zemmour says he belongs first to French culture and French civilisation. He seems to be a "Napoleonic" kind of Jew who considers that his religious identity should be confined to the private sphere, at home or in a synagogue.
During the French Revolution in 1789 and then under Napoleon, Jews became "emancipated". They were granted all the personal rights accorded to other French citizens in exchange for their abandonment of communal rules, such as compulsory marriage between Jews and respect for religious laws ahead of the laws of the Republic. Zemmour is bewildered that these rules, which successfully assimilated Jews into French society, have been abandoned for Muslims.
To save France, Zemmour asserts France has to return to a policy of assimilation. He would like to see Muslims "assimilatd" and more like long-established French citizens. "We must encourage them (all these Muslim migrants who come to France) to become the same," he said, "appropriate the history, the customs, the way of life, the tastes, the literature, savor the words, the language the landscape."
Zemmour puts so much emphasis on his desire to save France and to be a French citizen that he has sometimes verged on the discourteous. In his last book, he unnecessarily hurt people who had been hit hard by Islamist terrorism. He wrote that families of the children murdered in 2012 at a Jewish school near Toulouse were behaving like foreigners for having buried their children in Israel instead of in France. "Anthropologists have taught us that we are from the country where we are buried," he wrote, seemingly applying the same pro-French standards for Jews as for Muslims. Jewish families in France, however, who do not want to risk having the graves of their sons and daughters be desecrated by anti-Semites, may have felt offended.
Zemmour, not yet an official candidate for the 2022 presidential election, will be able to survive politically over the next six months only if he is considered a viable candidate by the media, and that will happen only if he is able to create a "buzz".
The buzz, however, can become unpleasant, not to say vicious. The philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, who admits to some differences with Zemmour, nevertheless regrets the "anathemas" launched against him, and said of Zemmour: "He is the object of an obsessive vindictiveness. It is counterproductive." Finkielkraut added:
"[Zemmour] has the merit of putting the question of France at the heart of the debate.... He takes on the existential anguish of a growing number of French people who wonder if France will remain France, if their right to historical continuity will finally be respected or if it will continue to be scorned."
For French people, actually, the most important question is not if Zemmour is racist or antisemitic, but if France as they know it -- "with the history, the customs, the way of life" -- will continue to exist.
Yves Mamou, author and journalist, based in France, worked for two decades as a journalist for Le Monde.