In mid-November Éric Zemmour, the French far-right presidential candidate, professional provocateur, and virulent Islamophobe, made a campaign stop in Bordeaux, one of France’s most affluent bourgeois strongholds. The hall was packed, notably with young white men in baseball caps who came for the rousing speech, but there were also many women, several of whom thanked Zemmour for his rejection of “feminist dogma.” Thousands of people were lined up outside to buy copies of his latest book, La France n’a pas dit son dernier mot (France Hasn’t Had Its Last Word). Whatever happens in the election next April—Zemmour’s chances of winning are almost nonexistent—he will certainly sell boatloads of books, as he does every time he publishes another lament about national decline or “suicide,” as the title of his best-known book, Le Suicide français (2014), proclaims.1 That is perhaps the moral of this story, if there is one: Zemmour responds to a deep and profound French anxiety that the nation is in free fall, a downward spiral that is somehow the fault of Muslim immigrants. He offers a crude exaggeration of what many believe but few dare to admit.

In France, moralistic hand-wringing over “decadence” is an intellectual tradition, and in some ways Zemmour is merely a continuation of the fear-mongering of the fin de siècle and the early twentieth century, when the likes of Maurice Barrès, Charles Maurras, and Édouard Drumont decried the perceived erosion of the organic national community. But most of all, Zemmour is a contemporary media creation, foisted onto the public by CNews, France’s equivalent of Fox News, which is backed by the right-wing billionaire Vincent Bolloré.2 He has used his platform as a television commentator and, until recently, a columnist for Le Figaro to launch endless culture wars that far more reasonable people then feel compelled to fight. He claims that he is motivated by a sense of history, French history in particular, but there are moments when that history catches up with him.

That night in Bordeaux was one of those. Toward the end of the evening Zemmour allowed a few questions from the audience. The first came from an older man who introduced himself as the founder of an organization called Vigilance Halal, and he asked whether Zemmour, if elected president, would ban ritual slaughter, which is part of the dietary rules for both observant Muslims and Jews. “You are the only candidate to say that Islam is not compatible with the republic,” the man said. This much, at least, is true. Zemmour has repeatedly declared that Islam does not belong in France, has been twice convicted in French courts of racism against Muslims and minorities, and has even floated the idea of deporting certain Muslim citizens. The man clearly approved of these antics, but he phrased his question more clearly to make sure Zemmour had heard. “I would like to know if you would ban religious sacrifice,” he said.

There were murmurs of discomfort among the audience, who at that moment were forced to confront the one thing about Zemmour that everyone knows but hardly anyone will mention: he is a Jew—a Jew who spits on Jewish history, is further to the right than France’s traditional far right, and has elicited the ire and embarrassment of institutional French Jewish leaders as he seeks to deny the real history of the Holocaust in France. Even more perversely, Zemmour has allied himself with unrepentant anti-Semites like Jean-Marie Le Pen—the ninety-three-year-old patriarch of the French far right and convicted Holocaust denier—who are still somehow fixtures in French public debate. But he is a practicing Jew nevertheless, a member of an Orthodox synagogue in Paris who grew up in a kosher home, as he describes in detail in his book Destin français (2018).

Zemmour became visibly uncomfortable at the question about ritual slaughter, even though moments like these—attempts to reconcile the reality of his identity with the cartoonish toxicity of his political program, to the extent that he has one—are inevitable. A man who is never at a loss for words suddenly found himself a little tongue-tied. “I confess it’s a difficult question,” he said, searching for a pivot. “I would try to find a compromise. I think we should work toward a compromise.” As I watched him struggle to answer, it occurred to me that he knew what he was really being asked, which was whether he was French or Jewish, an imaginary binary that exists in the minds of many supporters he has cultivated. This is the paradox of Éric Zemmour: those who accept him as he is see him as a charlatan, and most of those who love him might want a fundamental part of him to disappear.

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Central to Zemmour’s discourse is the decidedly French anxiety of le grand remplacement (the great replacement), the conspiracy theory elaborated by the French writer Renaud Camus, portending that the white Christian majority of France and Europe is being “replaced” by hordes of nonwhite, and especially Muslim, migrants from North and West Africa. That theory, of course, has reverberated elsewhere, including in the US. Behind the demographic and existential nightmare of the great replacement, there is an obvious nostalgia for a world that never quite existed. Unsurprisingly, this yearning for an atavistic France is the essence of Zemmour’s campaign pitch; he styled himself a latter-day Charles de Gaulle in the official announcement of his candidacy at the end of November.

But there is an obvious violence too. Fear of the great replacement has generated deadly attacks around the globe—most notably in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March 2019, when fifty-one Muslims were shot dead by a gunman in two different mosques. During his appearance in Bordeaux Zemmour condoned more violence to stop “ethnic substitution.” “We should be free to denounce those who attack us…those who want us to disappear!” he said. Yet he panders to those who might well prefer the ethnic substitution of his own Jewishness—a great replacement of himself.

Soumission, the best-selling 2015 novel by Michel Houellebecq, is a parable about the fall of France—this time to the Islamists, not the Nazis. In the book, which happened to be published the same day as the Charlie Hebdo massacre and two days before the related assault on a kosher supermarket on the outskirts of Paris, a North African Islamist wins France’s 2022 presidential election. So far, the candidate sucking up all the oxygen in the real-life 2022 election is indeed a North African ideologue, or rather an ideologue of North African descent, but he is not the character of Houellebecq’s imagination: he is a Jew from an Algerian family, not a Tunisian Islamist. The great replacement is his political promise, and perhaps also his personal promise. After all, the decidedly unironic name of his newly established political party is “Reconquête” (Reconquer), which harkens back to the Reconquista, the centuries-long military campaign by which Christians rid medieval Iberia of its Muslim conquerors. But that campaign ultimately expelled the Jews of Spain as well.

Zemmour can neither speak for nor claim to represent the French Jewish community, Europe’s largest and arguably most vibrant. I am not French, but I am Jewish, and my experience of Jewish communal life in France during my six years here has mostly been one of delight at its intellectual rigor and public pride. The rabbi of our Paris synagogue, Delphine Horvilleur, one of the most prominent voices in global liberal Judaism today, is a good example: she is a best-selling author, a proponent of interfaith dialogue in a time of mounting public hysteria over both Islam and Islamism, and a respectful participant in public debates that sometimes have nothing to do with Jewish affairs. This mindset probably characterizes the attitudes of most other representative members of the French Jewish establishment, but Zemmour nevertheless expresses an extreme distortion of an anti-Muslim sentiment that is very pronounced among some segments of the community.

The complicated and undeniable truth is that Islamist anti-Semitism poses an urgent and increasingly violent threat to Jews in France. In March 2012 an Algerian-French gunman, Mohammed Merah, targeted the Ozar Hatorah Jewish day school in Toulouse, killing the rabbi and three children under ten, one of whom was an eight-year-old girl he caught by the hair and shot point blank. Incidents like these have been occurring ever since: the attack on the kosher supermarket in 2015; the 2017 killing of Sarah Halimi, who was hurled out a window to her death; and the torture and murder of the eighty-five-year-old Holocaust survivor Mireille Knoll in 2018. I will always remember that during my first year in Paris, we were instructed to leave the synagogue after Kol Nidre services in groups of three, with no visible signs of being Jewish.

There are ways in which Zemmour’s hostility, however vulgar and violent it may be, channels a feeling of anger and even despair in the French Jewish community. At other times, he sounds like a Likud hard-liner, especially of the Netanyahu era.3 “It’s simple, if I dare to say it,” Zemmour told me when I interviewed him in 2018. “Anti-Semitism was reborn in France with the arrival of the populations from Muslim territories, where anti-Semitism—if you like—is cultural.” But homegrown French anti-Semitism is itself a cultural tradition, and Zemmour has arguably done more than anyone else in public life today to revive its vitriol and its vehemence.

Zemmour’s innumerable provocations unite the obscene and the absurd, and he has a twisted obsession with revising—and even denying—some of the most painful episodes in the French and Jewish pasts. He has disputed, for instance, the innocence of Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish army captain wrongfully convicted of treason in 1894. Dreyfus’s innocence, Zemmour has said, is “not obvious.” He has repeatedly defended Philippe Pétain, the leader of the Vichy government, which openly collaborated with Nazi Germany in deporting Jews from France during the Holocaust. “Vichy protected French Jews and gave up the foreign Jews,” he said in September on CNews. This is the same defense that Pierre Laval, a senior Vichy official, offered in his postwar trial for collaboration in October 1945. He was subsequently executed by firing squad.

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But Zemmour insults the Jews of the present as much as the Jews of the past. In La France n’a pas dit son dernier mot, he writes that the families of the Jewish victims of the 2012 Toulouse attack were less French because they chose to bury their murdered relatives in Israel:

Anthropologists have taught us that where we are from is the country where we are buried. When it comes to leaving their bones, they especially did not choose France, foreigners above all and wanting to stay that way beyond death.

These are things that even the most outspoken far-right ideologues stop short of saying, even if they happen to agree.

“To know that a man like him, who openly questions the innocence of Dreyfus, who rehabilitates Vichy, who reopens the debate on the dual identity of Jews—there is a consensus among French Jews that this is nothing less than an encouragement of anti-Semitism in France,” Bernard-Henri Lévy, perhaps Zemmour’s most outspoken public critic, told me recently.

“The only difference between Éric and me is that he’s Jewish,” Jean-Marie Le Pen told Le Monde in October. The details in the interview are something even Houellebecq could scarcely have invented. In January 2020 Le Pen and his wife, Jany, dined with Zemmour at the opulent Hôtel Le Bristol in Paris. The Le Pens brought with them a dear friend: Ursula Painvin, born Ursula von Ribbentrop, the daughter of Joachim von Ribbentrop, Nazi Germany’s foreign minister. Painvin thought very highly of Zemmour and sent him her “most admiring and friendly thoughts.” Well-to-do racists like her love Zemmour, because he can parrot their views but will not be ushered off the stage. What better way to deny or diminish the Holocaust than through the mouth of a Jew? As Le Pen put it to Le Monde, “It’s hard to call [Zemmour] a Nazi or a fascist. This gives him greater freedom.”

I once asked Le Pen what he thought his legacy would be. He answered me immediately, without pausing to reflect: “After all, they can say, ‘Le Pen was right.’” In a sense, Zemmour is an unexpected gift to the anti-republican, anti-European, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant far right of Le Pen and his predecessors. The Jewish polemicist is the way they win, if not at the ballot box then in the minds of the public.

Zemmour was born in the Paris suburbs in 1958, to a family of Algerian—specifically Berber—Jewish immigrants. He was raised in a religiously observant family but one that, in his telling, considered its identity a private matter. “The street should not suffer the smallest affirmation of a religious identity,” he writes. He looks not to the history of French Jews during World War II, who believed in the values of the republic only to be betrayed, but to the history of the French Empire and of the Jews in France’s Algerian colony, who became French citizens only in 1870, through the Crémieux Decree. (Muslims in the French colonies did not receive the same rights.)

Despite that newly conferred status, Algerian Jews initially faced organized and violent anti-Semitism from French Algerians most of all, and they lost their French citizenship during the Vichy years—which in many cases did not seem to erode their image of France. That inconvenient fact has certainly not eroded Zemmour’s image of it. As he writes in Destin Français: “My ancestors became Berber-French after having tasted peace and French civilization.” But many Algerian Jews also experienced violent Muslim anti-Semitism during the Algerian War of Independence between 1954 and 1962, a memory that lingers and that Zemmour has now mobilized to the extreme.

The France in which Zemmour was raised was in the throes of another struggle: how to remember the trauma of the Holocaust. In the years immediately after the war, France was the crucible of both the push to commemorate the catastrophe that did not yet have a name and the growing movement to deny that catastrophe. It was in Grenoble in the spring of 1943 that the Ukrainian-born rabbi Isaac Schneersohn established the Centre de Documentation Juive Contemporain, the early version of Europe’s first major Holocaust archive. It eventually became the museum Mémorial de la Shoah, on the site in Paris’s Marais neighborhood of Schneersohn’s Memorial of the Unknown Jewish Martyr, Europe’s first major Holocaust memorial, the cornerstone of which was laid in May 1953, before Israel had decided to establish Yad Vashem.

France also became the epicenter of denialism and in many ways its strongest citadel. Although Holocaust denial immediately followed the war everywhere in Europe, in France there was a veritable movement. Nothing quite compared to its self-styled intellectual pretentions. At least at the beginning, it was often an elite, even literary phenomenon, a coda to the fin-de-siècle and early-twentieth-century anti-Semitism of the Dreyfus Affair, propagated by writers and thinkers who saw the Jews as once again invading and dominating their country—this time with fabricated victimhood.

In 1948, a fateful year in Jewish history, the fascist writer Maurice Bardèche published Nuremberg ou la Terre promise (Nuremberg or the Promised Land), the first major attempt to publicly deny the Holocaust; the book was initially conceived as a response to the Nuremberg trials and the establishment of the State of Israel. There has been a robust French denial industry ever since. In his anti-Semitic journal, La Défense de l’Occident, Bardèche published Robert Faurisson, who went on to publicly question the existence of the gas chambers in Le Monde in 1978, one of the greatest embarrassments in the newspaper’s history.

This was the France in which Zemmour was formed. He was eleven in 1969 when Marcel Ophüls released The Sorrow and the Pity, his acclaimed documentary that exposed the extent of collaboration with the Nazi occupation in the city of Clermont-Ferrand and that was censored by the French government for some time thereafter. He was thirteen when the American historian Robert Paxton published—in a new French edition—Vichy France, his groundbreaking work on Vichy’s complicity with the Nazis, which shook the French establishment to its core. He was nineteen when Le Monde published the first of Faurisson’s infamous letters about the gas chamber; thirty-three when Jean-Marie Le Pen first referred to the gas chambers as a “detail” in the history of World War II; and thirty-nine when Maurice Papon, who sent hundreds of Jewish children from Bordeaux to the Nazi concentration camps in the 1940s, was finally put on trial. But for Zemmour, all this is the sign of a culture overly invested in self-flagellation. “It’s a question of fighting this repentance that kills us,” he said in September, “in order to lift up France.”

Zemmour’s candidacy has essentially become a campaign against an edifice of memory that remains fragile, however entrenched it may seem. For Henry Rousso, a prominent French historian who has written extensively on the subject, the problem is that once public Holocaust memory became accepted by the establishment, it was seen as yet another part of the establishment for populists to tear down. “The recognition of Vichy, and particularly of the Shoah, was the great objective of the memory wars—in France but [also] across the Western world,” Rousso told me.

It’s a pillar of contemporary morality; the Shoah constitutes the reference to absolute evil, the crime to which we compare all others. When [Zemmour] attacks this understanding, he simply recycles something banal on the right—a dislike for the question of repentance—but he goes much further. He adds a dimension of provocation.

“All historians are revisionists,” Zemmour told me when we met in 2018. He then explained his own method—or lack thereof: “I don’t consider myself a professional historian in the sense that I don’t go to the archives to exhume new pieces, et cetera.” Obsession with picking away at the past, and the Holocaust in particular, is not as bizarre in France as it appears from abroad. One of the oddest, most disturbing peculiarities of French life is that so many of the debates over the soul of the nation involve Jews as an abstract concept, often without insight from any actual members of France’s Jewish community (in which Zemmour was raised). In the French public imagination, Jews often become metaphors in the way that Jean-Paul Sartre imagined them, a figurative embodiment of something besides the real people they are.

The centrality of the Jewish metaphor has deep roots in modern history. During the French Revolution, France became the first European state to emancipate its Jewish population, and the very particular French conceit of universalism essentially became a debate about Jews: what to do with them, how to integrate them.4 The republic’s answer to those questions—the equality of all citizens in the eyes of the state, but also the priority of citizenship above all other affiliations—eventually led to the unparalleled success of Jews in commercial, political, and cultural life. Jews were exemplary republicans—les fous de la République (crazy for the Republic), in the famous phrase of the historian Pierre Birnbaum.5 But this made the republic appear, to its harshest critics, as a “Jewish” construct—la France juive, to quote the title of an 1886 book, the most infamous anti-Semitic text in French history.

Less than a decade after its publication, the Dreyfus Affair polarized the entire nation. Dreyfus the Jew was a metaphor, not a real person. For his defenders, he was the France of reason and rationality; for his opponents, he was the anti-France of Jews, foreigners, and immigrants. The conclusion of the affair—the exoneration of Dreyfus and the suppression of the Catholic Church’s domination of civic life and public education—was the triumph of one metaphor over the other, not to mention the origin of the professed values of the republic we know today.

The memory of the Holocaust—and Jewish affairs in general—is a constant reference in nearly every French debate over identity politics, Islamism, and even national decline, three of Zemmour’s favorite subjects. That history is constantly being renegotiated, but appeals to it also long ago became a political reflex among non-Jews in particular, the ultimate means of shutting down one’s opponent in public life, regardless of the subject at hand. The hashtag “Juifs” trends almost weekly on French Twitter, typically when a non-Jewish politician or advocate compares something to the Holocaust—for example, making an analogy between Covid vaccine passes and the yellow star—or argues that a non-Jewish adversary has not thought sufficiently about the Jews. That such performative philo-Semitism might itself be a form of anti-Semitism—sometimes appealing to an imagined Jewish power structure, othering Jews in a different way than more conventional discrimination does—appears to occur to no one except perhaps France’s actual Jews, who in any case are largely irrelevant to this psychodrama.

As a political candidate, Zemmour seems already to be floundering. But this is almost beside the point. What matters is what he represents, which is not the far right but a distortion of the French establishment itself: he offers an extreme version of biases and perspectives that crystalized long ago, especially on the question of Islam. It is the establishment that he ultimately embodies, no matter how much its representatives decry him (and rightly so). The former columnist has made himself into something of a collective id, an ugly mirror that reflects the raw sensibilities of many in France.

Without question, Zemmour’s rise is inextricably linked to a lingering trauma. France has suffered the most brutal of the recent ISIS and other Islamist terrorist attacks in Western Europe. In addition to the massacre on Charlie Hebdo journalists and the kosher supermarket in January 2015, there was the assault on the Bataclan concert hall and cafés across Paris in November 2015. There was the killing of Jacques Hamel, an eighty-five-year-old priest, in a village church in July 2016, and the slaughter on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice on Bastille Day 2016. In all, 234 people were killed in these attacks. Most recently, there was the beheading of Samuel Paty, a public schoolteacher in the Paris suburbs, in 2020 for the apparent crime of having shown caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad to students in a lesson about freedom of speech.6

For years—decades, even—one of the urgent questions in French political life has been the integration and assimilation of the country’s Muslim population, believed to be the largest in Europe. That question has only grown more urgent in the aftermath of these devastating attacks, especially since a number of them have been perpetrated by young men with a very similar social profile: French citizens whose grandparents arrived from former colonial territories in North Africa in the 1960s and 1970s and whose families enjoyed at least some level of success in France, however moderate. Some of these young men are even products of the same vaunted education system that produced both Zemmour and French president Emmanuel Macron, yet these young men managed to fall under the spell of jihadist extremism. The question is why. And answering that question has become a bitter fault line in French public debate.

This was the issue in the highly publicized debate in 2016 between the well-known French political scientists Gilles Kepel and Olivier Roy: in brief, Kepel argued that radicalization stemmed from Islamic fundamentalism, Roy that Islamism is merely the most available way for youths who feel excluded from French society to express their frustrations. Macron has clearly sided with Kepel in this debate, but the way his government has responded to the issue of terrorist violence after Paty’s beheading has been unfortunately to succumb to public hysteria, no matter the cost. Zemmour’s line on these events has always been the same: with or without attacks, he has long maintained that Islam—not just Islamism—is incompatible with the French Republic. What is striking, even chilling, is how the self-professed liberals who run the country and style themselves as the last bulwark against fascism have now essentially adopted this view, whether they realize it or not.

The proudly centrist Macron, elected in 2017 on a groundswell of opposition to Marine Le Pen, has embarked on a project of combating “Islamist separatism,” but its utter lack of seriousness has been clear from the start. Perhaps the most extreme—and Zemmourian—aspect of the government’s response to “Islamist separatism” has been its overt crackdown on academic freedom and what it calls—with total earnestness—Islamo-gauchisme, or Islamo-leftism, in French universities, as if the perpetrators of the recent attacks somehow became radical extremists in seminars at Sciences Po. In February Frédérique Vidal, Macron’s minister of higher education, told CNews that Islamo-leftism “plagues society as a whole and the university is not impervious.” More than six hundred academics signed an open letter in Le Monde against Vidal’s comments, and their names were quickly published on a far-right blog that sought to destroy their reputations online and to close opportunities for students who might wish to study very real phenomena such as discrimination against Muslims in France. Under mounting criticism, especially from CNRS, France’s premier academic research body, Vidal eventually walked back her declaration of war.

This is France’s version of the “war on woke” that has become the fever dream of the American right. The difference, though, is that in France, the loudest and most influential voices opposing what Macron called “social science theories entirely imported from the United States” are from the center left; Zemmour is by no means the sole knight charging those windmills. For him, the main threat to contemporary France is foreigners. “You just have to look at what’s happening in the streets to see the great replacement in progress,” he said in mid-December. But the same political establishment that wastes no time in rejecting Zemmour has nevertheless identified an apparently similar threat in the foreign ideas that often defend the same foreign people Zemmour attacks. This may be a different “replacement” anxiety, but it’s a replacement anxiety all the same.

Macron’s hard-liner on these issues is his education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, who in October established a think tank, Le Laboratoire de la République, designed to stop the spread of the allegedly “woke” ideas that, he told Le Monde, are at the “antipodes” of the republic. In that interview, Blanquer said that there is a

republican vision opposed to this doctrine that fragments and divides, and has conquered certain political, media, and academic milieux by proposing a logic of victimhood to the detriment of the democratic foundations of our society.

I had this exchange in mind when I heard Zemmour respond to a question about “le wokeisme” in Bordeaux. “You are absolutely right,” he told the man who asked him.

This woke ideology, which is to say the people who pretend to have awakened to inequalities, suffering real or imagined in terms of skin color or gender, is a threat to freedom of thought, intellectual health, and to our schools and universities.

Although their respective motives are different, there was no significant difference between Blanquer’s comments and Zemmour’s: the former legitimizes, and even cedes ground to, the latter.

Finally, there is the problem of the veil, the eternal blindspot of the self-professed French “universalist.” Unsurprisingly, Zemmour reserves a particular vehemence for veiled Muslim women, but what is truly surprising is how many others who purport to loathe his histrionics do not necessarily disagree with him on this issue, however they justify their opinion. The veil is banned in schools along with other religious signs and symbols, but it is perfectly legal to wear elsewhere in public. Many of Macron’s mandarins, however, seem to relish telling France’s Muslim citizens that wearing the veil makes them less welcome in public life and, in a sense, less French. In 2019 France’s former health minister Agnès Buzyn complained about a runner’s hijab introduced by the French sportswear brand Decathlon. “I would have preferred a French brand not to promote the veil,” she said. Blanquer has also commented that although it was technically legal for Muslim mothers to wear headscarves while chaperoning school field trips, he wanted to avoid them “as much as possible.”

Thus to see Zemmour merely as a fascist avatar is to misunderstand his significance: he is the natural extension of the French elite and its xenophobic provincialism. One of the more absurd recent spectacles on French television took place when CNews followed Zemmour to Drancy, the Paris suburb where he spent part of his childhood and where Jews were interned before their deportation to Auschwitz. He stood facing a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf, who turned out to be someone who is rarely veiled but who was brought onto CNews for the purposes of this exchange. “France is laïcité,” said Zemmour, referencing the country’s cherished value of secularism. “We are not in an Arabo-Muslim country…. In public life we, we say ‘I am French.’” The woman took off her headscarf, which was probably meant to show her coming to her senses on live television. As strange as this scene was, Zemmour said nothing that is not a fundamental conviction of so many traditional French feminists and mainstream republicans who genuinely believe that no Muslim woman can ever freely choose to wear the veil. I often wonder what these people see when they watch Zemmour, and whether they can discern their reflection in his image.

Recently Clément Beaune, Macron’s secretary of state for European affairs and one of the government’s most eloquent representatives, said, “Éric Zemmour is bad news for France. He is the opposite of France, the hatred of France.” He is certainly bad news, but he is not the opposite of France. In revealing and disconcerting ways, Éric Zemmour is France.

—December 16, 2021