Eric Zemmour: A nexus between French populism and political Christianity

The firebrand far-right candidate was provided his platform by a multi-billionaire media mogul – but it had some strings attached.

With the first round of the French presidential elections just two months away, the campaign trail has seen its fair share of surprises and disappointments. 

The political discourse has certainly been disappointing as most right-wing candidates have been regurgitating the racist and xenophobic slogans of the far-right. Opinion polls consistently show that more than 30 percent of French voters are attracted to one of several far-right candidates. Their themes are generally comparable: they want to stop immigration, deport more foreigners, and make life more uncomfortable for the country’s estimated six million Muslims. 

One of the most in vogue far-right candidates in this campaign has been Eric Zemmour. Born in the Parisian suburbs to a Jewish family originally from Algeria, Zemmour is a French polemicist, pundit, writer, and politician. His rise in the French public sphere was accompanied by his controversial and defamatory statements, for which he was indicted several times by the courts. Unrepentant, he continuously feeds the media controversy with anti-Muslim, racist, and sexist statements.

After studying at Sciences Po Paris and failing the exam for the prestigious School of National Administration (ENA), Zemmour worked as a journalist for newspapers such as Le Quotidien de Paris and Le Figaro. Afterwards, he became a television personality, appearing in entertainment shows hosted by the public broadcaster, France 2. Subsequently, he started hosting his daily shows and working as an analyst for morning shows. 

Interestingly, in the 1980s, Zemmour veered towards the left: he was a Mitterrand enthusiast and voted for him in 1981 and 1988. Gradually, however, he started his drift to the far right. Journalist Etienne Girard, who wrote a book about Zemmour, asserts that he struggled with his own identity because he was born to an underprivileged family. He argues that Zemmour never got rid of “a class complex, which always pushes him to seek the approval of the intelligentsia,” evidenced by his efforts to enter the very select club of power. 

Friends in high places

Zemmour found a shortcut to climb up the social ladder. His fiery punditry was welcomed by multi-billionaire media mogul Vincent Bolloré, who had his own political agenda. The latter gave Zemmour the chance of his life: A nightly show at CNews, in which Zemmour spread his vitriolic messages and furthered his political agenda. 

However, this arrangement had strings attached. Bolloré, who is the descendent of a long lineage of Breton industrialists from his father’s side, while also connected to the powerful Goldschmidt family from his mother’s side, is active on many fronts. He has long aspired to bring political Christianity to the driving seat of French politics. 

The tycoon, often described as a “conservative Catholic,” has manoeuvred over the years to propel Via, the new label of the Christian Democratic Party, into a prominent political position. However, no one within their ranks had Zemmour’s ability to create media buzz. Hence a marriage of convenience was sealed between this long-marginalised conservative Catholic clique and firebrand polemicist Eric Zemmour – who is not even a Christian.

Besides his hostile takeover bids in the business sector, Bolloré has been growing his acquisitions in the news media sector. His portfolio includes television channels (Canal+, CNews), radios (Europe 1), and magazines and newspapers (Paris Match, le Journal du Dimanche). Every time, Bolloré makes sure to put his loyal enforcers at the reins of the newsroom and restrict the range of opinions contradicting his ideological affinity. 

Meanwhile, in this presidential campaign, Zemmour intensified his incendiary statements. For instance, he multiplied the statements whitewashing Marechal Pétain, who headed the pro-Nazi Vichy regime in France, claiming that the latter had “protected” French Jews while only handing over foreign ones. 

On another occasion, French President Emmanuel Macron opened a museum dedicated to the exonerated Jewish soldier Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army captain who was wrongly accused of being a German spy during World War I. Zemmour, however, questioned Dreyfus’ innocence, echoing antisemitic theses and flirting with French far-right revisionism, attracting the ire of many commentators. In a critical piece published by Haaretz, historian Robert Zaretsky stated that “Zemmour is the Jewish heir to a particularly vicious French brand of antisemitic nationalism – repurposed to target other minorities.” 

Nevertheless, Zemmour’s incitements against the Muslim community far surpasses any of his other rhetorical attacks. Ranging from scathing attacks on the Muslim call to prayer and smearing the children of migrants as rapists and thieves to pressuring a Muslim woman to uncover her hair on live TV, Zemmour has gone far and beyond any other candidate in his provocations. 

A Machiavellian move?

However, politics is full of surprises, and things are sometimes not what they seem. Some observers assert that Bolloré has put in place a Machiavellian strategy. The business mogul recognises that Zemmour is a novice player with neither an established political party nor the aptitude to run the country effectively. A bad economy is not what Bolloré – or the wealthy French class – has in mind. 

Seen in this light, Zemmour could be a mere pawn in the game put forward to undermine Marine Le Pen and cannibalise the far-right votes. If such a move materialises, it ensures the re-election of Macron, whose plans better fit Bolloré’s business aspirations. Meanwhile, Bolloré also benefited from Zemmour, as his media assets earned handsome amounts from advertisements driven by the Zemmour controversies.

So far, the polls seem to validate this theory. According to Politico’s poll of polls, Macron is stable at 24 percent of the voting intentions (comparable to the 2017 data). Le Pen (16 percent, compared to 2017’s 21.3 percent), Valerie Pécresse (14 percent), and Zemmour (15 percent) are all fighting for the votes of the far-right, whereas a united candidate could easily beat Macron.

While these are only forecasts, and many factors could still push the electorate to vote differently on election day, one thing is certain: there is more to Zemmour’s campaign than meets the eye.

This article originally appeared in the opinion section of the TRT World website.

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