Eric Zemmour is unlikely to be France’s next president. First of all, he is not yet officially a candidate. Second, his loathsome brand of far-right racist cod already has a well-established spokesperson: Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Rally (formerly Front National).
That said, Zemmour is doing well in opinion polls and significantly influencing the electoral agenda. Known as a television expert and polemicist, his latest bestseller, France did not have its last word, is a pseudo-intellectual requiem for “the death of France as we know it”, by which it designates white, Catholic France. In short, Zemmour claims Muslims want to take over the state.
Such drivel could be dismissed out of hand without the fact that, according to at least one recent survey, 61% of the French believe that it is certain or probable that the white and Christian populations of Europe are threatened with extinction because of Muslim immigration from Africa. A civil war is approaching, warns Zemmour; France could become an Islamic republic. Many voters seem to have taken fright.
This pernicious argument is rooted in the “great replacement theory” peddled by far-right French “thinkers” and adopted by like-minded fanatics in Donald Trump’s America and elsewhere. “The French people, their customs, their history, their state, their civility, their civilization” are in existential danger, says Zemmour. In the past, Protestants or Jews were the boys to be whipped up. Now it’s the Muslims.
Zemmour, like Le Pen, blames the “elites”, characterized by President Emmanuel Macron and the EU, for France’s problems. He would suspend the Schengen free movement rules (which would please Priti Patel). He wants France to challenge the European Court of Justice. Britain and France are historic enemies, he says, but the UK should not be punished for Brexit. All in a disturbingly Johnson way.
If he runs in the April elections, Zemmour is expected to collect 14.9% of the vote in the first round, against 19.6% for Le Pen. This potential split suggests that she, not he, would face the president, currently at 26%, in the second round. That’s what happened in 2017, when Macron triumphed by a 2-1 margin. You would expect him to do it again.
More intriguing, and alarming for Macron, is the possibility that Xavier Bertrand, ValÃ©rie PÃ©cresse or Michel Barnier, if they were chosen to lead the center-right Republicans, could overtake Le Pen and qualify, as FranÃ§ois Fillon almost did. . in 2017. This scenario represents a greater danger for Macron. Zemmour’s outburst of hatred would simply have ensured defeat at the polls for his ugly ideas.
It therefore seems clear that the real threat posed by Zemmour is not electoral. It is ideological and cultural. It is a threat to the social fabric of France and, by extension, other European countries where feverish questions of identity, security and perceived national decline have fueled the rise of xenophobic populist politicians. The Zemmour division feeds on the fear of change, the fear of difference, the fear of each other.
Great Britain, where Brexit has given rise to such sentiments, surely understands. Zemmour controversially visited London last week to spill his insidious bile. Yet fundamental differences persist. The investigation into shocking racism in English cricket, for example, is extremely painful. But he revealed a country determined, however imperfectly and awkwardly, to root out such poison and find better and inclusive ways. Can France honestly say the same?
What the Zemmour phenomenon dramatizes in both countries, and across Europe, is the persistent failure of the political and intellectual left to develop credible alternative platforms to push back the lies and distortions of the right. Support for French socialists, in power under FranÃ§ois Hollande just four years ago, has collapsed to 4.8%. In Britain, by all precedents, Labor should win hands down, but it doesn’t. The fight against the political militarization of fear and hatred is far from won.