In France, a right-wing polemicist tries to channel De Gaulle to win votes


PARIS — The retro choreography was heavy-handed, the intent was clear: Éric Zemmour in a dark tie, eyes away from the camera, reading into an old-fashioned microphone made of sheets of paper, just like Charles de Gaulle in his famous speech from London on June 18, 1940, when he called for the liberation of a fallen France.

Mr Zemmour is not a towering general and France is not on its knees. But Mr. Zemmour, the far-right polemicist who announced his run for next year’s presidential election this week, understands the power of provocative imagery. Embarrassment and scandal propelled his candidacy as an outsider.

His campaign launch video was a nationalist appeal for French glory reborn. From Joan of Arc to singer Johnny Hallyday, from Napoleon Bonaparte to Brigitte Bardot, from Voltaire to Versailles, from Notre Dame to village church bells, it took viewers on a tour of Mr. Zemmour’s imaginary France.

The France that – according to the accounts of this Jewish journalist of North African descent whose family arrived in France 70 years ago – existed before immigrants, Muslim veils, vandalism and corny elites led the country to its most recent strange defeat.

“His catastrophic vision speaks to a deep-seated French pessimism,” said Pascal Perrineau, a social scientist. “We are one of the most pessimistic countries in the world. Combine that with alienation from the political class, inward-looking nationalism and a defiant French tendency to overthrow the table, and you have the Zemmour phenomenon.”

Whether or not Mr Zemmour can build on his current support – in the 12 to 15 percent range, according to polls – and qualify for the second round of voting in April is unclear. But somehow he will influence the outcome, divide the far-right part of the votes and thus open the playing field. This man without a side has already shown how far France has slipped to the right.

There would be no Zemmour phenomenon if France was not ripe for it, just as there would have been no President Donald J. Trump if the United States had not been ready for his nationalist message.

Mr. Zemmour is explicitly modeling himself on Mr. Trump. He gained fame through regular TV appearances, he intersperses his apocalyptic message with anti-immigrant insults, he makes the unspeakable speakable, he enjoys a macho disdain for women, and his catchphrase might as well be “Make France Great Again.”

“We are a great nation, a great people. Our glorious past predicts our future. Our soldiers have conquered Europe and the world!” Mr Zemmour stated this week, before insisting that “we will be worthy of our ancestors. We will not let ourselves be dominated, turned into vassals, conquer, colonize. We will not be replaced.”

Mr. Zemmour, like Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, is a staunch believer in the theory of “the great replacement,” a phrase generally attributed to a xenophobic French writer, Renaud Camus, who said, “The great replacement is very simple. You have one people, and in the span of a generation you have another people.” The new France, according to Mr Zemmour, would be the country that has led to “decay and decadence” through Muslim immigration.

How did France get into this state, where polls suggest at least 35 percent of the population will vote for Mr Zemmour or the far-right perennial candidate Marine Le Pen in the first ballot?

Some factors are shared with the United States — cultural split between cities and the hinterland, deindustrialization, racial tensions, rising insecurity in the workplace — but others are unique to France.

The most important of these is the site of France’s second religion, Islam. Many of France’s millions of Muslims, as much as 10 percent of the population, it is estimated, have been successfully integrated, but their story is often overshadowed by numerous terrorist attacks by radical Islamists.

This has sparked fear, as well as the perception that the teachings of Islam may be difficult to reconcile with a republic committed to the idea that education resolves the differences in belief in shared citizenship.

“Immigration equals Islam equals uncertainty,” said Hakim El Karoui, a Muslim who is a senior fellow at the Institut Montaigne. “No politician praises diversity anymore.”

The rise of Mr Zemmour changes the presidential election, which will be held in just over four months. Because Ms Le Pen, the leader of the National Rally, who is in her third bid for president, and Mr Zemmour, will split the far-right votes, this could open the way for a center-right candidate to reach the second round. The percentage of votes needed to qualify as one of the top two candidates in the first round will be lower.

Valérie Pécresse, a moderate conservative who heads the Île-de-France regional council and is a former budget minister, looks almost certain to be elected this weekend as the center-right Republican candidate. She has described herself as “one-third Thatcher, two-thirds Merkel” and is emerging as the potential dark horse of an election in which the French left seems doomed to irrelevance.

For now, President Emmanuel Macron, who occupies a vast vacated central area, seems to be the favourite. But he would be less comfortable facing Ms. Pécresse in a runoff election than facing a far-right ideologue.

Mr Zemmour, unlike Ms Le Pen, has appealed to some of the center right through his erudition and culture, but his challenge is now twofold: to convince the French that he is not a one-trick pony and to give the impression overcome that he is not “presidential”. In other words, he must address issues beyond immigration, not least formulating something that resembles an economic plan; and he should probably cut from his repertoire the kind of rude gesture he directed against a protester in Marseille last month.

But so far, as with Mr. Trump, any outrage Mr. Zemmour could derail him strengthened, or at least still standing, and often the news of the day. An editorial in the centre-right daily Le Figaro this week noted that it was a French writer, Honoré de Balzac, who described the scandal as “the pedestal of success”.

Mr Zemmour has called child asylum seekers “thieves, murderers and rapists”. He has said that “most drug dealers are black and Arab.” He has suggested that the French collaborationist Vichy government saved French Jews during wartime. He has equated Jewish children killed in 2012 with their jihadist terrorist killer because their parents chose to bury them outside of France, in Jerusalem.

He has argued that “Islam is incompatible with the French republic” and suggested that mass deportation of immigrants may not be impossible. This is despite the fact that a whole section of the Verdun cemetery, the World War I battlefield where some 300,000 people died, is being turned over to Muslims who gave their lives for France.

He would ban all “non-French names” such as Mohammed. He would repeal the 1972 Pleven Act that made incitement to racial hatred illegal and has earned him repeated charges and one conviction.

The book of mr. Zemmour’s 2006 titled ‘The First Sex’, which was published while he was a journalist for the newspaper Le Figaro, was a bestseller. It argued that France had declined because of the loss of male “virility” and the “feminization” of society. In a subsequent bestseller, “The French Suicide,” published in 2014, he raved about the pre-feminism world when a bus driver was able to slide “a lustful hand” over a woman’s bum without risking prosecution.

Married to a lawyer, he is openly involved in a relationship with his political adviser Sarah Knafo, 28. He has not denied a news report that she is pregnant, although he has sued the magazine that published the article for invasion of privacy, according to his lawyers. The revelations have not caused a stir in France.

“A lot of French people don’t care,” said Mr. Perrineau, the social scientist. “They think a certain level of scandal is the price to be paid for renewing French political life.”

De Gaulle said in his speech in London that “the flame of the French resistance must not be extinguished and will not be extinguished”.

That was, of course, resistance to a France that had succumbed to Vichy’s racist, anti-Semitic ideology.

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