Zemmour, Le Pen and the French bourgeoisie
LA CAMPAGNE NUMÉRO CINQ: 181 days until Macron's re-election; Understanding the rise of Éric Zemmour.
Foreign readers could not have missed the rise, seemingly out of nowhere, of far right journalist Éric Zemmour. According to a poll published last Friday in Le Monde, he is running neck and neck with the other French far right candidate Marine Le Pen (both pegged at about 16% in the first round.) Zemmour's emergence is the big story of the early campaign, to the point where English-speaking outlets have begun to call him the “French Trump.”
Let’s not get too excited.
First off, Éric Zemmour is not some kind of gadfly, maverick outsider who’s just burst onto the scene. In fact he is quite the opposite. Zemmour has been deeply engaged in politics his entire adult life, but from the sidelines so to speak, as a professional commentator. He has been writing dyspeptic columns for the Figaro for decades, and has been a stalwart guest on talk shows for almost as long. Unlike the author of The Art of the Deal and Think Big and Kick Ass, Zemmour fancies himself a serious man of letters. Where Trump was a middling hotelier who played a billionaire on TV, Zemmour is a hack who plays the role of reactionary intellectual.
Éric Zemmour has been documenting his struggle at a fairly steady clip: Le Destin Français, Le Suicide Français, Mélancolie Française, La France n’a pas dit son dernier mot, etc. etc. Amidst all these La France this and La France that, you are also treated to a detour through Le Premier Sexe, a 2009 tome against feminism. I confess to not having read that masterful take-down, life being too short and too interesting.
Such prodigious literary output matters in France. In fact, most French politicians also write books (or, more exactly, “write” books.) The politician’s book is a genre in itself, almost part of the job description. Books, even a magniloquent 800-pages poetry collection, help cement your reputation for thought leadership, and provide material for press chatter. In a way, Zemmour merely flipped that script. He wrote the books first and then entered electoral politics, instead of the other way around.
Zemmour’s media presence makes it so that you don’t need to read his extensive body of work to be well-acquainted with the breadth and the subtleties of his political philosophy. In fact you could not avoid him even if you wanted to, and that was even before he embarked on his quest for the Presidency.
He is what could be called an authoritarian neo-reactionary. He believes in natural, biological hierarchies — between men an women, between people, between civilizations and religious traditions. A woman’s role is in the home, kinder-kuche-kirche, and the wealthy should retain more of their hard-earned fortunes. While challenged by foreign powers and contested from the inside by Marxists, feminists and immigrants, Judeo-Christian Europe sits at the top. Per the LA Times he recently spoke of the terrible plight of the “white, heterosexual, Catholic” man. I had missed that one, but who’s counting. Anyways, the solution to all of our society’s problems is to restore the natural order, otherwise the French will be replaced by hordes of Muslims. None of this is particularly original, let alone groundbreaking. It’s identity politics for Versailles and Neuilly, Paris’ very bourgeois western suburbs.
The novelty is not Zemmour’s ideas, which are firmly rooted in the 19th century. What's new is that he is contesting Marine Le Pen's hold on the far right and expanding her somewhat limited base.
Unlike Zemmour, Le Pen fille has a party to run and elections to win. For the past ten years she has been trying to steer her party away from its radical origins and to turn it into a more mainstream political machine. She rebranded the Front National into Rassemblement National and purged the old guard from its ranks — the residual Algérie Française militants, the antisemites, the neofascists and the Catholic integralists. She even excluded her father Jean-Marie from the party in 2015, for one statement too many about Pétain and Nazi gas chambers. That was the cost of her so-called “dédiabolisation.” It is simple political arithmetic: if she is to win the Presidency, Marine Le Pen needs to attract more voters, which entails becoming an acceptable electoral option for right-of-center conservative voters.
The problem is that so far this has not worked out. Some of it is the congenital amateurism of the Front National, rebranded or not, which still operates like a small family business (e.g. Jordan Bardella, the young new head of the party, happens to be the companion of Marine Le Pen’s niece.) The main reason, however, is structural: right-of-center politicians see no upside in forging a partnership with Le Pen’s party. Why make a deal and potentially give away seats in parliament and in local assemblies when you can as easily poach Front National voters in runoff elections?
Zemmour, on the other hand, does not have to care about all that horse-trading, party mechanics, local elections and whatnot. He can say whatever he wants about Vichy and immigrants. He can go farther than Jean-Marie Le Pen himself ever went, precisely because he is a TV pundit. Given enough time and encouragements, I bet he’ll end up telling us that Captain Dreyfus was guilty of treason. He has no party apparatus nor bureaucracy behind him, he represents nobody but himself, his words have no consequences on the electoral prospects of local officials. He is a political free-rider. It’s all a big circus of increasingly desperate stunts, a race to nowhere to keep the spotlight trained on him.
Zemmour’s stated objective is to accomplish what Le Pen has failed to do: to build, or rather to build anew, an alliance between what he calls the “bourgeoisie patriote” and the popular classes. In other words, Zemmour wants to attract both Le Pen’s and a portion of center-right voters. While reprising Le Pen père’s virulent anti-immigrant rhetoric, he is quietly raising funds and gathering support among his long-time Figaro readers, the old catholic bourgeoisie of Versailles and Neuilly. These are the people who demonstrate against same-sex marriage, who send their kids to the very traditionalist Scouts d’Europe, and who voted for François Fillon in 2017 because despite his well-known prevarications he was one of them. Le Pen and her voters are not: too unkempt, too improper, too populist, too poor. They are the hired help.
I can tell you that to the catholic grande bourgeoisie, there is nothing more important than people know their place in the world, especially others. I should know, my mother was a catholic grande bourgeoise, I grew up among them. They probably find Zemmour titillating. As a Jew, or an “israélite” as they usually call Jews (it is the preferred nomenclature), Zemmour can say out loud what they think, that Pétain was not so bad, that marriage is between a man and a woman, that France is no longer France, and that order should be restored. Zemmour, their bookish Jew friend, their articulate and well-spoken Hofjude, spares them the discomfort of examining their own ossified beliefs. I wonder who is using whom in this ugly, feral spectacle. They are a tiny minority, but Zemmour only needs 4% or 5% additional votes to vault into the second round of the Presidential contest. That should be enough.