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Zemmour: The Embodiment of Fear

Zemmour: The Embodiment of Fear
 Dominique Moïsi
Distinguished Senior fellow

Despite falling numbers in recent days, Eric Zemmour’s rise in the polls for the French presidential elections is a source of concern for our European neighbors, explains Dominique Moïsi. It lays open the multiple fractures in French society, caused by an extreme polarization that has little to do with Islamism, as Zemmour would want us to believe.

In the aftermath of Donald Trump's surprise election in the United States and the British vote for Brexit five years ago, many of my foreign friends had the same question: sustained by the success of populism in the Anglo-Saxon world, could the French far-Right rise to power in the 2017 presidential elections? Today, the question is the same: could Eric Zemmour succeed where Marine Le Pen failed?

My answer is a plain "no". Zemmour nevertheless already succeeded in imposing his security and identity politics agenda into the public debate through complacent media and social networks. Therefore, hasn’t the "Zemmour phenomenon" already become a danger, not only for France, but for Europe as a whole? This, for instance, is what some of my German friends fear. Doesn't Germany risk finding itself on its own with its "humane" treatment of migrants and immigration issues?

Dividing the French

By establishing his career in the continuity of Bonaparte and General de Gaulle’s legacies, Eric Zemmour should provoke nothing less but enormous laughter. Bonaparte and De Gaulle were the product of an exceptional encounter between men and circumstances. Zemmour is closer to General Boulanger (a highly popular figure during the Third Republic) than to the leader of Free France. If he must find a precedent, it would be closer to Poujade (who led a much publicized right-wing protest movement in France during the 1950s concerning the defense of the common man against the elites).

Yet Zemmour must be taken seriously. Not in and of himself, but more as a symptom of a deeply troubled France and Western world.

Yet Zemmour must be taken seriously. Not in and of himself, but more as a symptom of a deeply troubled France and Western world. Zemmour slips into the cracks of a political system faced with the crumbling of the traditional right/left division in favor of the rise of extreme political parties. There are dangerous similarities with the 1930s in his rise to power, in his own rhetoric but even more so in the debates he ignites.

At the time, a significant part of the population resigned itself to the rise of fascism in Europe as the lesser of two evils. "What do you want to do? We have to face Bolshevism, right?" Replace this last term by "Islamism" and you understand the underlying causes for Zemmour’s success. In a political climate still dominated by the scourge of terrorist attacks, he is able to rally many supporters behind his provocations. 

Values of tolerance, equality, justice, decency - or simple respect for historical accuracy - should mobilize us against Zemmour. Unlike General de Gaulle, he does not seek to bring the French together, but to divide and polarize them, to the point of a possible civil war.

A leniency full of guilt

A member of the French Academy recently demonstrated surprising leniency towards Zemmour. Instead of opposing him and his arguments - if only to contest their truthfulness - he warned against those who would be tempted to oppose the politician: "the more you oppose him, the more he will rise in the polls". As if a tactical political calculation could prevail over any moral consideration. 

In his desire to rewrite history and to somehow reconcile the paths of Pétain and General de Gaulle, Zemmour may be trying to erase the divisions between the Right and the far-Right.

This calculation is doomed to fail and not necessarily for good reasons. Despite his provocative stances, Zemmour will always remain "too Jewish" for a portion of his electorate. Nonetheless, Zemmour embodies a France that doubts and one that is afraid. And this fear prevails despite the country’s undeniable success in the fight against Covid-19 or regarding its economic recovery from the pandemic. We sometimes say "time heals all wounds". This definitely does not hold true for France's relationship with the Vichy period.

Zemmour may be trying to erase the divisions between the Right and the far-Right. This calculation is doomed to fail and not necessarily for good reasons. 

As early as 1972, US historian Robert Paxton’s research on "Vichy France" established, without the slightest ambiguity, the inexcusable role played by the Vichy regime in the persecution and deportation of French Jews. Eric Zemmour's provocative remarks in favor of the Pétain regime are chiefly intended to clear him of all suspicion in the eyes of his potential voters. It is his obsession with Islam however that is at the core of his doctrine, particularly relying on the "great replacement" thesis, an Islamophobic and white nationalist conspiracy theory.

Sense of humiliation

If there ever was a "great replacement" underway, which is far from certain, it is not the one Zemmour speaks of. The only "replacement" we are facing today is not the product of France's apparent "submission" to the rise of Islamism. Rather, it is the product of the relative decline of the West in the face of Asia, and in particular China. As it is too often the case, Zemmour’s analysis suffers from a gap between instinctive fear and reflective fear.

In France, the politics of reason will eventually prevail over those of anger and outrage. Barring any exceptional circumstances, such as a major scandal out of nowhere, the incumbent President is likely to hold onto power for a second term. This is already a small victory in the recent history of the Fifth Republic since 1958.

However, the image that France is currently projecting to the world is troubling. The country must be in a very dire state to gather more than 15% in voting intentions for a political agenda based on fear and hatred, led by a candidate guided by a feeling of humiliation and a personal desire for revenge. 

To counter the dangerous blend of manipulation and cynicism carried by Zemmour’s skillful provocations, only two solutions remain: impassioned moderation and ethical common sense. This requires firmness and clarity. It is not Islamism that constitutes the main threat for France, but an "American-style" evolution towards the extreme polarization of our society.


Courtesy of Les Echos (published on 05/11/2021).


Copyright: Ludovic MARIN / AFP

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