The ghoulish pundit Éric Zemmour is leading a confident and radicalized conservative movement.
“What progressives fail to understand is that the future is not ruled by economic curves but by demographic curves,” Éric Zemmour postulated, visibly nervous before the audience of conservative activists assembled at the September 2019 Convention of the Right in Paris.
Massive ears folding out around the receding jaw, beady eyes fixed to the notes on the lectern, Zemmour droned on: “The demographic dynamism of our continent allowed whites to colonize the world. They exterminated the Indians and the Aborigines, enslaved the Africans. Today, we are experiencing a demographic reversal that will lead to a reversal of migratory currents, which will lead to a reversal of colonization. I’ll let you guess who will be their Indians and their slaves: It’s you!”
It was a speech worthy of an interwar eugenics conference. For Zemmour, this talk was something of a coming out. To be sure, France’s most notable far-right polemicist had long peddled the “great replacement” theory, the idea that Western societies are undergoing an engineered demographic shift in favor of migrants from the Global South. What Zemmour thought about Islam, immigration, multiculturalism, and the 1960s had also long since ceased to be a mystery. But this 30-minute lecture on the decadence and collapse of “progressive” civilization was his most concise call-to-arms yet.
Zemmour’s admirers consider him an intellectual, a status that he has nurtured from his early days as a reporter and political columnist. After a series of (relatively) tempered books on conservative politics in the 1990s and a strange novel on the life of German socialist Ferdinand Lasalle, Zemmour’s 2006 essay Le Premier Sexe, a masculinist rebuttal of Simone de Beauvoir and feminism, made him into the culture-war darling of talk radio and late-night television.
Comfortably ensconced as a columnist at the leading right-wing daily Le Figaro, he churned out a trilogy of best sellers in the 2010s—Mélancolie française, Le Suicide français, and Déstin de France. Variations on a theme, these 500-plus page doorstops are sprawling exegeses on the Great Moments and Great Men of the French past (Louis XIV, Napoleon, de Gaulle), what and who destroyed them (human rights, the reunification of immigrant families, historian of the Vichy regime Robert Paxton), and how it’s not yet too late.
By the 2019 Convention of the Right, Zemmour had arrived. Here he was giving the keynote speech before a Who’s-Who of right-wing operatives, politicians, and activists. Brought together by Marion Maréchal, Marine Le Pen’s niece who abandoned her aunt’s far-right party in 2019, this was the generation of conservatives that had come of age with Zemmour, savoring his zingers from the late 2000s on the late-night talk show On n’est pas couché. Uniting figures in the orbit of Le Pen’s National Rally party, the traditional center-right Les Républicains, and an array of other groups, the convention was a showcase for a new moment in French conservatism.
Its convenors wanted to provide a new outlet for the momentum that had been building for years. The memory of spring 2013 was still fresh in peoples’ minds, a “Conservative ’68,” as the political scientist Gaël Brustier put it. That year, hundreds of thousands of right-wingers took to the streets for weeks of protest, dismayed by the half-measures of Nicholas Sarkozy’s single-term presidency and reeling from François Hollande’s move to legalize same-sex marriage. Emmanuel Macron’s victory in 2017 would be remembered as a blip, they were sure, the result of the mainstream media’s tarring of François Fillon, the once-favorite Les Républicains candidate who became embroiled in an embezzlement scandal weeks before the last election. To mobilize a conservative silent majority, Zemmour had long argued, the right needed to overcome its obsolete divisions and shed the taboos imposed by a conformist Parisian elite.
“Union of the right, rally of all the rights?” Zemmour asked at the beginning of his speech, poking fun at the goal of the conference attendees. “It’s settled, case closed, you’ve come for nothing, move on, there is nothing to see! You know that we’re still in France, and that in France we have the dumbest right in the world!” With a camera team from the 24-hour news network LCI (La Chaîne Info) there to capture him live, it had all the trappings of a nominating convention.
Today, this is a scene worth remembering. The 2022 presidential election is only five months away, and Zemmour is omnipresent in French political and media life. The country is captivated by the likelihood that the 63-year-old polemicist, prosecuted and sanctioned on multiple occasions for provocation of racial hatred, will run for president.
Since the release in September of his latest book, La France n’a pas dit son dernier mot, which has already sold some 205,000 copies as of late October, Zemmour has crisscrossed France on a quasi book tour, quasi stump circuit. This came on the heels of an extended postering operation this summer, when activists from Génération Z, the youth arm of Zemmour’s still unofficial campaign, put up tens of thousands of “Zemmour Président” posters with the face of the ghoulish pundit throughout urban areas.
With most preliminary polls showing him in the mid-teens for the first round in France’s two-stage voting system, Zemmour’s hypothetical candidacy has reshuffled the cards for an election long billed as a replay of the 2017 contest between Macron and Le Pen. Most polls even show Zemmour outpacing the incumbent leader of France’s far right—a November 9 poll from Harris Interactive has Zemmour at 19 points, trailing Macron by 5 percent. Taken together, Zemmour and Le Pen divide some 34 percent of the first-round electorate. This is a stinging indictment of Macronism’s original promise to contain right-wing nationalism.
With no formal program released thus far, one needs to stitch together a Zemmour “platform” from his many sound-bites and catchphrases. To roll back multiculturalism and ward off the civil war that many on the right now seem to wantonly take for granted, he proposes mass deportations, the stripping of citizenship from dual nationality French people not deemed to have sufficiently assimilated, and more outlandish propositions, such as the outlawing of non-French-sounding names.
The restoration of “order”—on the streets, at school, between the sexes (Zemmour has been accused of multiple incidents of sexual harassment)—is on the lips of all his supporters. Zemmour proposes to unwind the already precarious controls on executive power that have been etched into the Fifth Republic’s Constitution. This is one of his long-standing obsessions; a 1998 essay lamented the “Coup d’État of the Judges.”
“He regrets not having more actively participated in political life. Not having abandoned his journalistic career,” Zemmour opined in an April book review in Le Figaro of a new biography of Jacques Bainville, the monarchist historian and leading member of the far-right group Action française who died in 1936. Zemmour ventriloquized his idol, writing: “I always was wrong to not aim high enough. An excess of false modesty, of false pride! Excessive distrust of oneself, a feeling of helplessness.”
For months, the press has eaten up statements like this, in a dynamic that recalls the symbiotic relationship between the American media and Donald Trump in 2016. Zemmour’s latest broadside, each more horrific than the last, instantly makes the rounds of the news networks. If the spectacle of Zemmour ordering a Muslim woman to take off her headscarf on live TV is too offensive to watch for some people, they can still count on a given week’s stream of front-page stories, interview spreads, and magazine features with the familiar face front and center.
On September 8, the Conseil supérieur de l’audiovisuel, a broadcast media regulatory body, ordered that Zemmour be considered a political figure and therefore subject to caps in TV appearances. The next week, he finally lost his prime-time slot as a pundit on CNEWS, the conservative news network founded by his leading surrogate, the billionaire Vincent Bolloré. The problem, of course, is that Zemmour no longer needs to speak in order to be heard. The French press, and much of the political class, have absorbed the polemicist’s ideas and verbal tics. Columnists and TV anchors may discard some of his bluntness, but they roll out a media diet filled with anxiety about Islam, insecurity, and French decline.
One of Zemmour’s old pet projects is the rehabilitation of Marshall Pétain, leader of the collaborationist Vichy regime between 1940 and 1944, reviving the theory that Pétain prioritized the deportation of foreign Jews in order to save France’s Jewish population. A practicing Jew born near Paris to parents who fled Algeria in the early 1950s, Zemmour argues that overcoming postmodern France’s allergy to its conservative traditions requires undoing the “taboos” surrounding the leader of Vichy and his “national revolution.” A three-part series aired in early November on the highbrow public radio station France Culture aimed to set the record straight (again) about Pétain’s role in the massacre of foreign and French Jews alike, but that this was deemed necessary is indicative of Zemmour’s ability to straitjacket the public debate.
Take another example of what is referred to as the “Zemmourization” of the French mind. After the AUKUS scandal broke in mid-September, in which the United States signed a defense pact with Australia that led to the cancellation of a submarine contract between Paris and Canberra, there was, understandably, a whirlwind of debate in France around the transatlantic alliance and foreign policy more broadly. In its September 18 feature on the crisis, Le Monde concluded, matter-of-factly, “The affront is, in fact, likely to strengthen the thesis of France’s declining geopolitical power theorized by Eric Zemmour.” As if the only way to make sense of France’s snubbing in the context of the duel between the United States and China rise were via the author of The French Suicide.
It would be an exaggeration to say that Zemmour is a pure product of media buzz or of the government’s willingness to feed into culture-war crusades on secularism, multiculturalism, and insecurity. There is a restlessness and desire for radicality on the French right. Zemmour has spearheaded this, revarnishing the blood-and-soil nationalism of an old right-wing tradition that in recent decades had been sequestered, if only superficially, beyond the fringe of legitimate conservative politics.
Jean-Yves Camus, a specialist on French conservatism at the center-left Jean-Jaurès Foundation, argues that classifying Zemmour as a “extreme right” candidate might prevent us from truly understanding what is going on. Camus says that Zemmour—although he may vaunt his working-class origins, and though many of his ardent supporters may come from a constellation of extra-parliamentary far-right groups—is unquestionably a figure of, by, and for the conservative establishment. Zemmour represents a dramatic radicalization of this sector and is now vying to outflank Marine Le Pen and stitch together a single conservative force.
“They think that Zemmour can unleash something on the French right and within the Républicains party,” Camus said. “He says to their base: ‘Your party, it’s a fake conservative force. It’s a party of the center, which is why there was a segment that joined Macron. If Macron is reelected, it’s likely there’ll be another break to join him. And in any case, you say a lot of stuff about immigration, but you don’t do anything serious when you’re in power.’”
Released on October 28, Étienne Girard’s biography of Zemmour, Le Radicalisé, traces Zemmour’s insatiable quest to join the upper ranks of Parisian society. On this ascent, he has been no stranger to rejection from the class he dreams of joining. As a young adult, Zemmour was mired in depression after he failed to enter the École Nationale d’Administration, an ultra-exclusive training ground for future political elites. Earnestly believing that his essays constitute serious contributions to French letters, he likewise seems to be genuinely perplexed by his snubbing by academic historians.
His attempt to join the rarefied Circle de L’Union Interallié, a private club for top political figures and businessmen, also ended in disappointment. An avid swimmer, Zemmour apparently spoke too abrasively about politics in the locker room. In a closed-door speech for members, he called Macron the “new Louis Philippe”—a reference to France’s last king, ruler of the constitutional July Monarchy, between 1830 and 1848. For an audience of industrialists and investment bankers, it was Zemmour’s barely concealed way of describing a figure who doesn’t pursue their interests ruthlessly enough.
Kept at arm’s length, Zemmour may be useful to a class that is wary of throwing its support behind Le Pen and skeptical of Macron’s centrist triangulations. In recent months, Girard reports, Zemmour has kept up a steady routine of dinners and meetings with chief CEOs and business leaders, testing their appetite for his candidacy.
While Zemmour leads this charm offensive in the halls of power and privilege, a swarm of operatives and young activists has been waging a well-publicized “draft Zemmour” campaign. Organized under the auspices of the Friends of Eric Zemmour, it brings together the former right wing of the Républicains who supported Fillon in 2017 with stragglers from the National Rally disenchanted by Le Pen’s leadership.
“We know that the Marine Le Pen electorate is more grounded in the lower classes, while the [Républicains] electorate is more bourgeois,” said Dénis Cieslik, who joined the Friends of Éric Zemmour early this year. “Zemmour wants to bridge this gap: make the synthesis between the patriotic bourgeoisie and the working classes.”
In the as yet unofficial campaign, Cieslik is in charge of corralling the 500 signatures from elected officials that Zemmour needs in order to be on the ballot next April. The campaign has been reaching out to officials in both the National Rally, which officially anointed Le Pen as its candidate in July, and the Républicains, currently embroiled in a nomination fight.
“Of course, it happens that people reply, ‘Out of the question,’” Cieslik said, indicating that they were still in the 200-signature range, declining to give an exact figure. “But most often we’re very warmly received by [the officials we contact]. In certain cases, people say, ‘I would vote Zemmour, I’m sure, but I will not give my signature.… I don’t want necessarily to take the risk of diverting from the party line.”’
Cieslik is optimistic that they’ll get the signatures on time, but in the long run it might not matter. The forces driving the Zemmour blitz will outlive the 2022 election. “The Républicains are going to die,” Cieslik predicted, “and they’ll be replaced by a large force that goes from Zemmour to Le Pen. And we’ll be better off for it.”
Whatever “it” is, it’s becoming the driving factor in French politics. The left-wing parties languish in disunity and the social movements that characterized the years before the pandemic are struggling to reignite. Even if Macron can hold things together for another term, his presidency has been the obliging midwife for a new, confident, and radicalized conservatism.