The “Zemmour phenomenon”: How Éric Zemmour is Harnessing French Pessimism to Drive His Xenophobic Candidacy

The social policies that Éric Zemmour would implement, if elected as French President, perfectly distill the currents of the country’s racism and xenophobia over the past 50 years into a package of brazen hate and undisguised ethnocentrism. Zemmour’s proposed policies include banning all “non-French names” like Ahmad and repealing the 1972 Pleven law that criminalized inciting racial hatred. Zemmour is a candidate for the presidential elections in April 2022, and is seen by many as a more appealing Marine Le Pen, the enduring far-right candidate. Polls suggest that at least 35 percent of voters would choose either Zemmour or Le Pen in April. 

The comparisons between Zemmour and Donald Trump are obvious. He argued, in his 2006 book “The First Sex”, that a decline in male “virility” and the “feminization of society” were weakening France [1]. He has said that “Islam is incompatible with the French Republic”[1].  However, Zemmour’s identity is radically different from Trump’s, and he seems to be using uniquely French xenophobia and pessimism to propel his campaign forward. As Algerian Jews, Zemmour’s family immigrated to a suburb of Paris before his birth to escape Algeria’s war of independence from France. Now, one of his main priorities is to remind the French populace that Muslims are not welcome in France. Although France is nearly 10% Muslim, contemporary political language from all but fringe politicians does not applaud the country’s multiculturalism[2]. “In modern France,” argues Hakim El Karoui, a Muslim and a senior fellow at the Institut Montaigne, “Immigration equals Islam equals insecurity. No politician praises diversity any longer.”[3] In 2018, in response to the migrant crisis, centrist President Emmanuel Macron said he wouldn’t allow another refugee camp to form in Paris, before implementing policies to restrict the number of refugees coming to France[4].

Despite this, overt racism is not a sentiment shared by most French. Rather, anti-immigrant sentiment arises from general feelings that the country is in decline. “[Zemmour’s] catastrophic vision speaks to a deep-rooted French pessimism,” according to Pascal Perrineau, a social scientist at Sciences Po university. “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 inclination to overturn the table, and you have the Zemmour phenomenon.”[1]. As part of the Pew Research Centre’s 2015 Global Attitudes Survey, millions worldwide were asked whether “children growing up today will be worse off financially than their parents”. 85% of French respondents said yes, compared to an average of 64% among those polled in developed nations [5]. As one of the richest and safest countries in the world, much of this French pessimism is unfounded, meaning that immigration, anti-elitism, and the erosion of culture quickly become inflated to the level of existential threats.

Zemmour’s reach has been made stronger by widespread dissatisfaction with Macron, France’s president since 2017. Macron’s sweeping reforms to the country’s economy and labor laws have spanned the political spectrum. He has sought to revamp the labor dispute process from an adversarial system to a more consensus-driven one modeled after Scandinavian countries, but has also introduced labor clauses in the French Code de Travail that have disempowered unions. He has proposed a country-wide fuel tax, but in 2018, swiftly abolished the impôt sur la fortune (tax on fortunes), a wealth tax, with a Reaganite justification of “encouraging business growth and stimulating innovation” [6]. Macron’s approval rating, hovering around 40%, could be explained by the pessimism endemic to the country. Left-leaning French may be more inclined to focus solely on his conservative reforms, whereas those on the right may be dissatisfied with him due to his more progressive policies. 

Perrineau’s analysis of Zemmour’s appeal alludes to another aspect of French identity: subversive inclination. The modern culture of frequent manifestations (protests) is a product of the country’s revolutionary national identity, similarly seen in the United States and Haiti. Anti-elitist sentiments have been a constant in French culture since revolutionary times. If nothing else, the Zemmour candidacy is a revolution against the progressivism of the Macron administration. Furthering the analogy, both the modern French ethos and that of the late 18th century were informed by natural calamities. Both COVID-19 and the crop failures of the late 1700s, notably leading to bread shortages, have subverted the French economy.

Éric Zemmour is unlikely to prevail in the elections in April. However, he has been an exceptionally successful promoter of French pessimism, using it to feed nationwide racism and xenophobia. He has been convicted of incitement of racial hatred pursuant to the 1972 Pleven law he seeks to repeal. It would not be surprising if racially motivated violence perpetrated by his supporters flares up in the coming months in France. Even if Zemmour steps out of politics and back into his usual domain of writing polemics after a defeat in April, his actions will have made xenophobia, racism, and dissatisfaction with Macron easier to harness by forces across the new French right.


References:

[1] Cohen, Roger. “In France, a Right-Wing Polemicist Tries Channelling De Gaulle to Win Votes” The New York Times, December 4, 2021, sec. News Analysis. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/04/world/europe/eric-zemmour-france.html


[2] Abidor, Mitchell, and Miguel Lago. “Opinion | France’s Old Bigotry Finds a New Face.” The New York Times, December 2, 2021, sec. Opinion. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/02/opinion/eric-zemmour-france-jews.html.

[3] Cohen, Roger “A Jewish Far-Right Pundit Splits the French Jewish Community as He Rises”, The New York Times, October 25, 2021, sec. Europe. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/25/world/europe/eric-zemmour-france-jewish-bernard-he nri-levy.html

[4] “France to ‘take Back Control’ of Immigration Policy,”, Luxembourg Times, November 6, 2019.https://www.luxtimes.lu/en/european-union/france-to-take-back-control-of-immigration-polic y-602d6c62de135b9236b2eb9a.

[5] “French Pessimism Rules the World.”, France Connexion, Accessed December 11, 2021.https://www.connexionfrance.com/French-news/French-pessimism-rules-the-world.


[6] Ledsom, Alex. “France’s Rich Get Much Richer After Abolition Of Wealth Tax.” Forbes. Accessed December 11, 2021. https://www.forbes.com/sites/alexledsom/2020/10/09/frances-rich-get-much-richer-after-abo lition-of-wealth-tax/.

Tristan Byrne