French far right’s new face: the meteoric rise of Éric Zemmour

He has been convicted for inciting racial hatred, attacked by historians for claiming the Nazi collaborator Marshal Philippe Pétain saved French Jews rather than aiding their deportation to death camps, and was this week described by the French justice minister as a dangerous racist and Holocaust denier.

But Éric Zemmour, a far-right French TV pundit, is rising so fast in opinion polls for president that one survey this week found he could make the final round of the April election and take 45% of the vote against the centrist Emmanuel Macron.

Rights groups have expressed outrage and leftwing politicians declared themselves “nauseated” by Zemmour being handed vast amounts of airtime on primetime TV and radio in the past two weeks to promote his latest book, La France N’a Pas Dit Son Dernier Mot (France Hasn’t Had Its Last Word), which claims that immigration and Islam will destroy the country and warns of a “war of races”. At book signings across the country, he has argued that the “white, heterosexual male” is under threat from ethnic minorities and a so-called “gay lobby”. He claims foreigners have taken over whole neighbourhoods in France and, unless immigration is stopped, France will become an “Islamic republic”.

Zemmour also admires the former US president Donald Trump and regards the UK’s Brexit vote as ballast for his anti-immigration position. He says he wants to create an ultra-conservative arc from the mainstream right to the far-right, harnessing voters from both low-income backgrounds and what he calls the educated “patriotic bourgeoisie”.

His political ambitions are in part aimed at the far-right Le Pen dynasty. For the last 47 years, a far-right candidate from the Le Pen family has stood in every French presidential election: first the ex-paratrooper, Holocaust-denying provocateur, Jean-Marie Le Pen; and more recently his daughter Marine Le Pen, now on her third run.

But while the anti-immigration Marine Le Pen tried to broaden her voter base by sanitising her Front National’s image, shifting it away from the racist, jackbooted imagery of the past and changing its name to Rassemblement National, Zemmour argues she has gone too soft, could never win the election and that France wants a more radical take on what he calls a “war of civilisations”. Zemmour has no party and no election experience, but this week – thanks largely to his many media appearances where he often presents his views unchallenged – he overtook Le Pen in the polls.

“Zemmour uses a very-old fashioned, French far-right discourse – there’s nothing new in what he’s saying,” said Cécile Alduy, a Stanford University professor and expert on French political semantics. “But what is new is the reception and acceptance of this discourse in the public conversation … It’s a turning point in French political history that Zemmour’s discourse is given so much space and legitimacy by the media,” she said.

She said textual analysis of Zemmour’s new book showed similarities to the works of Jean-Marie Le Pen, but Zemmour has been able to reach further than Le Pen ever did. “The contrast is that for Jean-Marie Le Pen there was this hermetic barrier put up – Jacques Chirac refused to debate him in 2002 and a lot of journalists refused to invite him on political talkshows because they were afraid of antisemitic slurs and comments.

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“There was an ostracism of Jean-Marie Le Pen for moral and historical reasons – fear that he would bring up the darkest stages of French history and try to legitimise them. Yet Éric Zemmour is doing the same, he’s rehabilitating Marshal Pétain [head of the Vichy regime that collaborated with the Nazis] and very few people object, ensuring he has the full attention of the entire mediascape. That is what is different.”

Zemmour, 63, is the Paris-born son of Jewish Berbers who emigrated from Algeria in the 1950s. He grew up in the Paris suburbs and became a political reporter for Le Figaro newspaper, covering the right and the far right. He rose to fame after a deliberately provocative 2006 book on the dangers of what he called “feminist ideology” and his promotion of men’s inherent “need to dominate”. On the back of it, he was hired as TV chatshow pundit – a provocateur whose outrageous views would bring in big ratings. He aimed to shock what he called the leftwing “politically correct consensus”.

Convictions for incitement to racial hatred did not stop Zemmour’s meteoric TV career. In 2011, he was convicted of inciting racial hatred for telling a TV chatshow that drug dealers were mostly “blacks and Arabs” and was fined for telling another channel that employers “had a right” to turn down black or Arab candidates.

The French comedian Yassine Belattar said Zemmour’s recent TV soundbites about a war of civilisations and Muslims taking over France were extremely damaging. “On French TV, the more you broadcast someone, the more popular they are. French Muslims are very worried that Éric Zemmour says these things on TV without being challenged, without journalistic work to dissociate the madness of jihadists from the majority Muslims. He’s a provocateur … This feels like a historic moment where we’ve never felt so much racism.”

Antoine Diers, who has a background in Nicolas Sarkozy’s rightwing Les Républicians party, is a young spokesperson for the organisation Les Amis d’Eric Zemmour (Friends of Eric Zemmour), which is coordinating fundraising and campaigning to gather the 500 political signatures required for Zemmour to run. He said the justice minister, Éric Dupond-Moretti, had breached his ministerial duty in calling Zemmour racist “which shows how worried they are high up” and denied Zemmour was racist or a Holocaust denier.

Diers said Zemmour’s appeal was that “he is not like a classic politician at all … he speaks clearly and he doesn’t have the politically correct language of the political class. French people have had enough of the current political class.”

The investigative website Mediapart published accusations this spring by women who said Zemmour had forcibly kissed or touched them in the past. Zemmour and his lawyer have refused to comment and no legal investigation has been opened.

Whether or not Zemmour runs, he has taken credit for the fact that other potential candidates, such as the former Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, are now presenting hard lines on immigration. Zemmour said this week: “At least I’ve imposed that topic in the presidential race, and I’m happy about that because it’s a question of the survival of France.”