The past decade has seen a dramatic increase in right-wing nationalism in Europe, from the UK’s Nigel Farage to the Vox party in Spain, and France is no exception to this trend. For years, the Le Pen family have been figureheads for the far-right in France, but now there’s a new polemicist figure attracting tabloid attention. Éric Zemmour, a far-right French writer and television personality, has soared to notoriety over recent months, without even formally announcing his candidacy for the presidential election. Known for his convictions for inciting racial hatred and controversial opinions on immigration, Islam and the ‘féminisation’ of society, Zemmour has captured the attention of global media outlets as he threatens an electoral campaign.
For some, Zemmour’s appeal lies in his supposed intellectuality, however whether or not he can claim intellectual status may be contended. Traditionally, ‘le devoir d’éthique participe à l’autodéfinition de l’intellectuel et en constitue l’une des marques de fabrique’ (Sand 2016: 63). This idea of morality and ethics is reflected in the works of intellectuals such as Zola and Foucault, who used their status to speak truth to power in an attempt to bring about justice; however this is not so explicit in the case of Zemmour. To many, he would appear a backwards bigot, whose sexist, racist and Islamophobic attitudes have no place in the twenty-first century. However, through creating a narrative that claims France is ‘en déclin’, Zemmour presents himself as an intellectual ‘guidé par une forme de générosité humaine’ (ibid.: 63), trying to right the injustices done to France over the past century.
Historically, the figure of the intellectual has been dependent on the media as a means of speaking truth in the public sphere, something which we continue to see today, especially with the development of social media. Having criticised French media as “une machine de propagande […] qui déteste la France et les Français” it is somewhat ironic that Zemmour uses this medium to voice his views and opinions so much so that he has now overtaken Le Pen in the polls. French MEP Jean-Paul Garraud laments this recent development, saying “Plus on parle de lui, plus il montera dans les sondages. On n’est pas à armes égales”. This statement leads us to question whether the extent of media coverage surrounding the pundit is an understandable repercussion of his opinions, or whether he is being deliberately controversial to increase his media exposure. In so doing, we can examine whether he is a genuine intellectuel engagé, or simply a master manipulator of media.
Interview with Le Grand Jury
On the 24th October 2021, Zemmour appeared as a guest on Le Grand Jury in an interview filled with tendentious statements. Amongst these assertions were his suggestion to deport the 25% of foreigners in French prisons, “en forçant” their countries of origin to take them back, withdrawing benefits from foreigners (even if they are legal residents), as well as reiterating his opposition to wearing religious symbols in public, claiming that “À Rome fais comme les Romains”. As a speaker, we can see how he has gained so much interest in so little time. He demands attention, speaking over the journalists as they try to probe him, and even holding his hand up to silence them. When told that Marine Le Pen had claimed he cannot win the election as “[il méprise] une grande catégorie de Français”, Zemmour smirked and laughed to himself, before saying “Je vois pas où il y a seulement un mot, une phrase qui prouve que je méprise une partie des français. D’ailleurs, le mépris n’est pas dans mon caractère”. Here, he attempts to make a mockery of his biggest right-wing competitor, dismissing Le Pen’s allegations and presenting himself as the more credible candidate.
His mantra claims that ‘Frenchness’ and national identity are under siege from multiculturalism, and particularly the growing Muslim population in France. Recently, he sparked outrage by saying that there should be a ban on foreign-sounding names, claiming that “appeler son enfant Mohamed, c’est coloniser la France”, adding fuel to growing Islamophobic attitudes. In September 2020, Zemmour took part in a debate in which he claimed underaged unaccompanied immigrants “n’ont rien à faire ici, ils sont voleurs, ils sont assassins, ils sont violeurs”. This statement drew alarming parallels with Donald Trump’s 2016 assertion that Mexican migrants “are bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”. Worryingly, this is not where the likenesses between the two end.
The ‘French Trump’
Some have dubbed Zemmour the ‘French Trump’, due to his provocative opinions, and opposition to twenty-first century standards, such as immigration, feminism and multiculturalism. However, their strongest similarity seems to be their inescapable presence in the media. Their inflammatory opinions spark outrage amongst the public and, consequently, attract attention and a disproportionate level of coverage compared to competitors. According to Acrimed, in September 2021 the name ‘Zemmour’ appeared 4, 167 times in the press, and he was given sixteen prime-time TV or front page slots, adding up to over eleven hours of airtime in comparison to just over an hour for Le Pen. As he gains increasing media coverage, the threat of his looming candidacy seems increasingly likely, something which won’t be taken lightly as he declared in his ‘Le Grand Jury’ interview, “Si je me présente, c’est pour gagner”.
This manipulation of the media is not a new phenomenon. In 1995, Jacques Derrida coined the term ‘temptation of the media’ as ‘the compulsion to misuse the privilege of public declaration in a social space that extends far beyond the normal circuits of intellectual discussion’ (Derrida 1995: 401). He goes on to say it ‘encourages academics to use the media as an easy and immediate way of obtaining a certain power of seduction, sometimes indeed just power alone’ (ibid.: 401), which we can see to be true in the case of Zemmour as he dominates global media simply by being both contentious and contemptuous.
Whilst there is an obvious correlation between Zemmour’s media overexposure and his surge in popularity, it is worth remembering that ‘Ce ne sont pas les médias qui, in fine, font l’élection, mais ils peuvent choisir le menu et quand on choisit le menu, on influe sur l’élection’. By choosing what gets most airtime and exposure, the media have an indisputable influence on the public’s voting habits, as seen in the 2016 Brexit referendum in the UK and election of Trump in the USA. However, ultimately people will vote for what they believe in, and perhaps what these polemic figures do is legitimise the public’s innermost and often unspoken fears and concerns.
Regarding Zemmour, whilst the idea of using media to his advantage to gain coverage is far from new, the striking difference this time round is, according to Cécile Alduy, “the reception and acceptance of this discourse in the public conversation”. He has struck a chord in the population, presenting himself as a potential leader at a time where, following the Covid-19 crisis, people are increasingly vulnerable and looking for a strong leader to help build a better future. He has criticised the French government’s handling of the pandemic, using this as evidence that France is indeed ‘en déclin’ and in need of new leadership to escape the suffering and damage caused over the past eighteen months.
Whilst there is no way that we can know for sure whether Zemmour believes his most outrageous claims or employs them as a tactic to shock that he knows will gain him attention and therefore political influence, from his previous writings we can assume that he does in fact believe everything he says. His 2006 book, Le Premier sexe, evokes ‘la craine éprouvée par certains hommes […], voire d’une suprématie masculine menacée’ (Colin 2008: 11), whilst his 2014 publication Le suicide français details the decline of contemporary France, concluding that ‘La France se meurt, la France est morte.’ (Zemmour 2014: 527). Whilst he was still in the public eye at the time of writing these books, he was far from the household name that he is today, leading us to conclude that his provocative opinions are genuine, and that he is not trying to manipulate the public but rather is taking on the traditional role of the French intellectual, speaking truth to power in the name of justice.
In a time of instability following a global pandemic, people are looking for comfort and reassurance, something which can be found in Zemmour’s raison d’être. He proports to offer the people of France a vision of a better future, where they can reclaim their national identity and relive the glory days of the French Empire. Polls suggest that Zemmour’s mantra that ‘c’était mieux avant’ seems to be resonating with more and more people and, should he choose to run in the 2022 election, his potential popularity poses a bigger threat than ever.
Fig. 1: LCI. (2021) ‘ZEMMOUR : « Si je me présente, c’est pour gagner. »’, YouTube , 25 October. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q8AG3uRpDCE. [Accessed 2 November 2021].
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