France’s Éric Zemmour is bewitching voters with an all-too-familiar appeal to their basest instincts
The Grand Hôtel de Nîmes is more ‘grand’ in a Colonel Gaddafi sort of way than ‘grand’ in an Irish sort of way. The hotel on the outskirts of Nîmes in southern France has, for example, the statue of a 5ft golden Great Dane in reception. You know something’s up when the 2,000 people filing past aren’t playing a blind bit of notice to the massive golden dog.
Their idol — Éric Zemmour — hasn’t arrived yet. He is an author, television pundit, philosopher and would-be French presidential candidate. The elections for president take place next April. Most were expecting a re-run of the last race: the far-right’s Marine Le Pen versus Emmanuel Macron in the final round. Then along came Zemmour and now no one has a clue what will happen.
The most recent polling suggests his support may be flatlining, but not before it had tripled in a month — at one point putting him ahead of Le Pen but behind Macron in a possible run-off.
Zemmour has outflanked Le Pen on the radical right. She has worked hard to make her party National Rally (formerly National Front) more palatable to a broader electorate. Beside Zemmour, though, Le Pen looks soft. The worry for National Rally is that Zemmour could spilt their vote and allow a candidate like Macron through the middle.
When Zemmour arrives at the hotel, the crowd goes berserk. As he walks to the stage he’s mobbed by the media and supporters. For them, he’s more cultural guru than politician, a French Trump.
His best-selling books include titles like The French Suicide and The French Melancholy. As harbingers of cultural doom go, some people really are delighted to see him.
When he eventually gets to the stage, he reminds the crowd it is exactly a year to the day since Samuel Paty was murdered, a teacher who was beheaded in an Islamist attack that shock France to its core. Zemmour’s speech is designed to retraumatise.
“This war has no name but it is happening every day, it is more than a civil war, it is a religious war that is threatening us.” The crowd erupts.
His message is a version of the Great Replacement Theory — that the French way of life is under existential siege from its growing Muslim population. The speech is part philosophical treatise, part history lesson. De Gaulle pops up a lot, but at the same time Zemmour is a Vichy apologist.
The audience are lapping it up; they’ve read his books, they are attuned to the frequency he’s broadcasting on. They also appear well-to-do. While Le Pen’s support base has traditionally been in working neighbourhoods, the Zemmour crowd look more middle-class. If the end is nigh, some are wearing loafers for the occasion.
Before the rally started, Zemmour’s communications director (who once worked for Nicolas Sarkozy) promised me a proper interview — one which never materialised. So I go for snatched questions here and there. On the way into the rally, I ask him what he’s offering to working French families who are struggling, aside from philosophy.
“During the presidential campaign, we have to talk about France. We have to maintain a high-minded level of debate. Like, what is France’s destiny in the next 10 to 20 years? After that you can go into details, but first we have to define the debate which is this: France and its destiny.”
In other words, forget about detail for now. He wants to frame the presidential campaign in terms of a clash of civilisations rather than bread-and-butter stuff.
Although this is a political rally in all but name, he hasn’t actually announced his candidacy yet. He would need the endorsement of 500 French mayors to qualify as a candidate; he would also need a pile of cash. So, after the speech, he sells and signs his latest book France: It Hasn’t Had The Last Word Yet. His team say he’s still just testing the water when it comes to a run for presidential office. In the meantime, though, he’s bringing the water to boiling point.
His name ‘Zemmour’ comes from his Jewish Berber roots in north Africa, but he has called for non-French first names to be banned for children born in France. He made his name as a comment writer on the right-leaning French newspaper Le Figaro. Last year, his profile was turbo-charged by air time on CNews, what some call French Fox News. In April the channel was fined €200,000 for inciting racial hatred after Zemmour described young migrants as murderers and rapists, one of two such transgressions.
During the book signing after the speech, I sidle back up to him.
“To Mohammed. Kind regards, Eric” is the message least likely to appear on a book sleeve in this hotel ballroom. I try for another question. Does he think Muslims, just by dint of their faith, are more likely to be a murderer or rapist?
He becomes angry. “I have never said that. Islam is not only a faith, it is also a legal and political system and a civilisation, so it is much more complex than what you seem to say.”
Zemmour is tapping into a deep concern in France about what being French actually means in the modern world. The people we talk to in the queue outside are suffering from a form of acute national identity anxiety.
Some of it is just thinly veiled racism: “France for the French,” exclaims one young volunteer, but there’s more going on in the queue than just bad old-fashioned xenophobia.
“I like his sincerity. He is an intellectual. He knows France’s problems. He loves France,” an elderly lady tells me. Her friend pipes up: “We are patriots. We love France. We are republican. We love our history. It’s not about being white or Christian, it’s about our values: liberty, equality, fraternity.”
There is a feeling in the crowd that France’s growing immigrant population is less connected with these values. Also a sense the country’s story is being rewritten and the people in the queue are being, somehow, written out of that story.
The suburb of La Mosson in Montpellier is an hour’s drive from Nîmes. It has a big north African, Muslim population. The place hit the headlines this year during a visit by Emmanuel Macron.
A local mother, wearing a hijab, approached the president and told him her young son had never met anyone called ‘Pierre’ in his school. The exchange happened in front of the television cameras and sparked hours of debate about assimilation and integration in France.
La Mosson has problems, but it also has people trying to tackle those problems. Such as Marwan, a community worker of Moroccan heritage. For him, Zemmour represents an assault on the community work he does — on the ‘fraternité’ side of France’s motto.
“He denies part of my history — my history is French, Muslim, working-class, diverse, colourful — that’s France and he denies that part of France, that cultural identity; for him French identity is frozen.”
Marwan brings us to the outdoor market in La Mosson to meet a group of artists and community workers. One, Nouredine, runs a small library in the estate.
He says he understands the appeal of a ‘philosopher/politician’ making sense of a confusing, globalised world for people. But for him there is zero subtly in Zemmour’s message.
“For the first time, I have the feeling that someone wants me dead — that’s what Zemmour represents for me.”
Paraic O’Brien is a correspondent with Channel 4 News