Rabbis, historians and observers are especially concerned that Eric Zemmour has tried to spread false information about the Vichy government’s role in the Holocaust.
Eric Zemmour, the French far-right presidential candidate, made a career out of controversy as a provocative writer and a regular TV commentator for almost 20 years.
From 2019 until 2021, the 63-year-old hosted a daily show on the conservative channel CNews which allowed his far-right ideas about immigration and Islam to enter the mainstream.
Yet at his first official political rally on December 5, Zemmour appeared to boast about his minority background, calling himself a “little Berber Jew who came from the other side of the Mediterranean.”
Zemmour is of Jewish-Algerian descent, but his comments on Jewish history have been heavily criticised as offensive and false.
Some playfully refer to him as an armchair historian (“historien du dimanche”), but most, especially those from the Jewish community, find him far from amusing.
Chalom Lellouche, a rabbi in Levallois-Perret, a suburb near Paris, told Al Jazeera that Zemmour’s words “have offended and worried us. We cannot rewrite our history today – the history of the Jews of France.”
Zemmour upset many in September when he commented on a dark chapter in French history: the Vichy government’s role during the Holocaust.
In September, he reiterated a theory that he has been claiming since 2014, that “Vichy protected French Jews and gave foreign Jews away.”
This argument attempts to present Philippe Pétain, the chief of state of Vichy France, as a saviour of French Jews during the Nazi occupation of France between 1940 and 1944.
Historians have long been at work on the subject and found that between 1940 and 1945, 76,000 Jews were deported from France. Of those, 24,000 were French citizens.
Although France lost much less of its Jewish population compared with other European countries such as Belgium and the Netherlands, historians agree that it was not thanks to Pétain.
Rather, a range of complex factors were at play, including, according to American historian Robert O Paxton, a lack of resources from Nazi Germany.
As Zemmour’s ahistorical argument on Vichy resurfaced, foreign and French historians set the record straight.
Paxton told Le Monde newspaper that “the Vichy legislation targeted all Jews, without exception,” while French historian Laurent Joly told radio network Franceinfo that “the Vichy policy consisted of collaborating and carrying out an anti-Semitic policy that aimed at getting rid of as many undesirable Jews as possible.”
The Great Rabbi of France, Haïm Korsia, said in October that Zemmour is “certainly” anti-Semitic and “obviously” racist.
On another occasion, Zemmour wrote that the Jewish children Arié and Gabriel Sandler, aged six and three, and Myriam Monsonego, aged eight, murdered in 2012 in Toulouse by Mohammed Merah, were “foreigners above all else and wishing to remain so beyond death” because they were buried in Israel.
Zemmour has previously suggested that French citizens with “non-French” first names should change their names in order to assimilate, and in the same manner, analysts believe that he used the example of the Toulouse attack to question the grieving families’ sense of belonging to France.
“He uses this story to say that, ‘We love the country where we are buried’, and, consequently, he sows doubt,” Marc Knobel, a French Jewish historian who researches anti-Semitism.
French far-right commentator Zemmour attends a political campaign rally in Villepinte near Paris, France, December 5, 2021 [Christian Hartmann/Reuters]
Knobel explained that Zemmour tries to manipulate history for political points and that the dissemination of his ideas “hurts”.
“My father, who was French, at the age of 10, wore the yellow star. He had to hide. He underwent what others underwent, that is to say, the discrimination, the exclusion from all schools and all jobs, the arrests, then the transits in concentration camps, then the deportations. So one does not joke with this kind of subject.”
Despite being Jewish, Zemmour has said he admires anti-Semitic figures such as Maurice Barrès, a French novelist, journalist and politician who died in 1923, and Charles Maurras, the late nationalist and scholar.
Zemmour’s political party for the 2022 elections is named “Reconquête” (“Reconquest”). Critics view this name as a nod to the Spanish “Reconquista” – the historical period when Christian forces expelled Muslims and Jews from the Iberian Peninsula.
According to Knobel, Zemmour’s faith matters little; what links Zemmour to anti-Semite history is his far-right ideology.
“His words are extremely harsh towards minorities, immigrants, refugees, because there is a political continuum,” the historian said. “His ideology carries him and makes him a man of the far-right.”
Another key figure of the French far-right, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the father of Marine Le Pen, said that he would likely vote for Zemmour over his own daughter.
Marine Le Pen, who challenged Emmanuel Macron in a second round in 2017, plans to run in next year’s vote.
The elder Le Pen told Le Monde: “The only difference between Eric and me is that he is a Jew. It is difficult to call him a Nazi or a fascist. That gives him greater freedom.”
According to French law, collecting data on ethnicity is illegal, so it is impossible to know if any minorities support Zemmour.
Main figures from the French Jewish community have said that they trust Jewish voters to not elect the far-right pundit.
A recent poll suggests Zemmour could secure about 15 percent of votes in the April 2022 election, not enough to compete in a second round.
Regardless of his performance, political analysts are concerned that Zemmour’s far-right views and distortions of history have become part of mainstream debate.
On December 8, President Emmanuel Macron became the first French leader since Charles De Gaulle in 1959 to visit Vichy, the central town where Pétain set up his collaborationist government.
Though Macron has not officially announced his candidacy for re-election, the visit was seen as highly symbolic and calculated in light of Zemmour’s remarks months earlier.
Macron did not mention the French pundit explicitly but said that history “is written by historians, and it’s a good thing to stick to it. Let’s not manipulate it, let’s not agitate it, let’s not revise it.”
With the potential for far-right figures to rise in France, Rabbi Lellouche believes inter-religious dialogue be strengthened.
He said he was particularly “outraged” by Zemmour’s Islamophobia; Zemmour has previously said Muslims are “colonising” French neighbourhoods and claimed Islam is a religion of “terrorism”.
“I don’t have the same conception of Judaism as Eric Zemmour. For me, humanism and universalism are intrinsic conditions in Judaism. We don’t close doors, we welcome.”