The New Face Of France’s Far Right

Éric Zemmour has electrified France's presidential election. His rise is a disaster for liberalism.

Éric Zemmour, France’s right-wing political star who warns darkly of a Muslim invasion, is everywhere these days—in kiosks, where his name is regularly splashed across weekly magazine covers; on TV, where he is the subject of documentaries and talk shows; and at book shops across the country, where he has been signing copies of his latest book, France Has Not Said Its Last Word.

Zemmour has upended the widely-held assumption that the 2022 presidential race would be a repeat of 2017, when his arch-rival, Marine Le Pen, ran against President Macron in the second round. In July, Zemmour’s ratings in public opinion polls were at about 5 percent. By mid-October, they were hovering around 17 percent, ahead of Le Pen.

And he isn’t even a presidential candidate—not yet. But ever since “Zemmour President” posters mysteriously popped up on billboards in Paris and other French cities early this summer, the 63-year-old former television host has been sucking the oxygen out of the French political debate, with only five months to go until the April election.

Zemmour seems to revel in wielding political lightning rods, targeting groups across society. In a 2013 book, he argued that the arrival of women in the political sphere has “feminized” power for the worse. “Power evaporates when they arrive,” he said in a recent debate, noting in an aside that Angela Merkel and Margaret Thatcher were exceptions because of their “masculine attributes.”

He has also tried to defend the Second World War collaborationist regime in Vichy, which he claims protected French Jews during the Nazi occupation, while handing over foreign Jews—a point vehemently contested by historians. This attempt to rehabilitate Vichy is particularly painful for France’s Jewish community since Zemmour, whose parents emigrated from Algeria during the French-Algerian War, is himself Jewish.

But Zemmour is mainly preoccupied—some say obsessed—with the threat of immigration, and what he predicts will be a future civil war against Islamist jihadists. He maintains that France has signed its death warrant by accepting some 400,000 immigrants a year, a number disputed by many experts. He argues that “the great replacement”—a French theory popular among white supremacists from the United States to New Zealand—is already underway. “It is an inexorable demographic replacement of one civilization by another,” he said during a debate last September.

He has called for a ban on family reunification visas, which allow immigrants to bring their families to France; an increase in deportations; and a ban on non-French first names, such as Mohamed and Nasser (but also Jordan and Kevin, in a nod to his lament about the Americanization of French culture).

Like other populists in Europe—Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, for instance—Zemmour is ready to milk the anti-immigration theme all the way to the top.

In his multiple television appearances, Zemmour strikes a compelling figure: he is articulate and passionate, often aggressive. He also likes to show off his formidable erudition—a credit to his education at Sciences Po, one of France’s top universities.

After a brief detour into advertising, Zemmour began a career in journalism—at a local paper, then at Le Figaro, a conservative daily, and finally on television, culminating with his own show at CNews, a right-leaning channel.

Zemmour’s show was dropped last September after France’s audiovisual watchdog ruled that as a political figure, he was getting too much exposure. Yet even now, the channel—often compared to Fox News—relentlessly promotes Zemmour and his favorite themes: it recently gave Renaud Camus, who coined the term “great replacement,” an hour of prime time.

Despite his political opinions, or perhaps because of them, Zemmour’s star has steadily risen since late spring. He had 11 hours of coverage on CNews during the month of May, three times more than any of the other potential presidential candidates. “CNews is very important because it gives him legitimacy,” says Etienne Girard, author of The Radicalized, a new book charting Zemmour’s rise. The channel’s continued support “inflates his image, and gives the impression that everyone is a Zemmourien.”

In contrast to recent apologies and recriminations about painful French historical moments from Vichy to Algeria, Zemmour offers a reassuring narrative—a nostalgic view of France as a great power, with a great history, and nothing to be ashamed of.

His vision of the future, however, is bleak. He has warned that France will be an Islamic republic by 2100. He has proposals on how to slow or even halt immigration, but he doesn’t have anything positive to say about France’s Muslims, estimated at between 6 and 10 percent of the population.

Many of those French Muslims are second or third generation immigrants. Most are integrated; many are not. There are real problems in the “banlieues”, as the outskirts of Paris and other big cities are called: drug trafficking, petty crime and violent criminals, discrimination against women, easy access to hate-filled invectives from radical Salafists and toxic relations with the police. But Zemmour, in coded and not-so-coded language, has identified the problem almost exclusively as one of the Muslim population—not just Islamist jihadists, and not all immigrants, say Latin Americans or African Christians.

When he writes about a “religious colonization” of the banlieue, he is obviously speaking about Islam. When he talks about the “replacement” of Western Christian civilization by another, he clearly means Islam. When he says the young men of the banlieue “hate us, they hate France,” he is targeting a particular segment of the population.

And his supporters, in interviews after his public meetings, have picked up the thread. “Well, we should just divide them up between good and bad Muslims, and send the bad ones back to their country of origin,” said one Zemmour fan in October. “In any case, they all want to impose their religion on us.”

It is still early days in the French campaign, and hard to predict who would fare better in a head-to-head second round against Macron—Zemmour or Le Pen. One November 11th poll shows Macron winning easily against both.

Worryingly for Zemmour, his popularity ratings have plateaued in the run-up to a declaration of his candidacy, expected before the end of the year. He has dropped slightly in relation to Le Pen, who recently shifted her approach in response to his challenge. Back in the summer, she suggested they could be allies; but as Zemmour’s star rose, Le Pen became more aggressive, challenging him for instance on women’s issues, clearly looking to capitalize on her advantage among female voters.

Meanwhile, as the novelty of an outsider’s sudden rise wears off, Zemmour is increasingly on the defensive, pressed to come up with solutions to the emergencies that he has declared and to take positions in areas where he is less sure of himself, such as the economy. He has appealed to France’s rural conservative vote with a proposal to restore the speed limit on country roads back to 90 km/h (an 80 km/h limit imposed by the Macron government is a grievance among supporters of the 2019 “yellow vest” movement).

Finally, to even qualify in 2022, Zemmour must obtain signatures from 500 elected officials—a difficult threshold for a politician with no party and no track record. Last week, his friends claimed he had “promises” from about 250.

But ultimately, whatever happens to Zemmour the candidate, Zemmour the phenomenon will have left its mark. He has opened the gates to a divisive ideological free-for-all that starts with immigration, but goes well beyond it, reopening old wounds and setting up new conflicts. The problem is that he is being heard not just by his supporters, or potential supporters, but also by millions of Muslims who must now be wondering what their future in France will look like if Zemmour gets closer to the presidency in 2022.

Celestine Bohlen is a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times who served as Budapest bureau chief from 1989 to 1991.