France’s Zemmour Is No Kreisky
TV pundit Eric Zemmour is a French patriot, a prolific book author, and a Jew. He is also running for President of France.
Granted, he hasn’t yet officially declared, but he’s already on a campaign trail of sorts: he calls it a book tour for his latest opus, “La France n’a pas dit son dernier mot” (“France has not yet said its last word”). He is drawing large crowds across the country to listen to his France-first, anti-immigration, anti-Islam, back-to-the-good-old-times rhetoric. The book has sold 200,000 hardcover copies in five weeks.
If current polls are anything to go by, in a wide-open race with ten candidates, the diminutive, sharp-featured intellectual may come second in the first round of the presidential election on April 10, before facing President Emmanuel Macron in the run-off on April 24. According to the same polls, Macron would win.
Understandably, the prospect of a Jewish candidate getting so close to elected power creates a lot of interest in the French Jewish community. Perhaps less understandably, this interest is far from being wholly positive.
Zemmour’s success is based on a radical French nationalistic stance with which many Jews are uncomfortable. He wants all citizens, irrespective of their background, to be proudly French first and foremost, and to limit any other community commitments to the private sphere only. He has advocated against wearing a yarmulke in the public sphere in the same breath as he opposed the Muslim veil. He regrets that so many French Jews prefer to be buried in Israel. (He even said this — in a remarkably insensitive way — about victims of terror). And he never says anything about Israel — neither good nor bad.
Furthermore, Zemmour’s political strategy includes building a large conservative tent under which both the heirs of the Resistance and of Marshal Philippe Pétain’s collaborationist regime will be able to overcome their animosity and work together to save France, both from the European Union’s straitjacket and from assimilation toward Islam.
This, in itself, would not be new: for 40 years after the Second World War, the victorious Gaullists and the defeated Pétainistes used to vote for the same parties. But then, in the 1980s, came Jean-Marie Le Pen, who stirred up Vichy nostalgia and aroused the lasting animosity of the Gaullists. For the last 40 years, French right-wingers have been at each other’s throats, with those loyal to the memory of the Resistance preferring to see the Left win elections rather than allying with Le Pen. The party founded by Le Pen is now led by his daughter, Marine. To put it politely, Marine Le Pen is not overburdened with historical knowledge; but for the voters of the Right’s other half, her name still carries the stain.
Now, Zemmour wants to do away with that division and unite the entire right behind him. To that effect, he has sent not so subtle messages to the Pétainistes, going as far as writing that Marshall Pétain colluded in the persecution of foreign Jews on French soil, but protected the French ones. This is mostly incorrect: all French Jews (including Zemmour himself) know from their own family story that Vichy hounded, killed and delivered French Jews to the Germans, though they arguably did so in a smaller proportion than for our non-citizen cousins.
And therefore, the question arises: is Eric Zemmour a bad Jew? Is it an insult to the dead to court the vote of Pétain’s distant heirs as well as of his enemies? Will he use his own Judaism to turn against the interests of our community, or against Israel?
After all, there are precedents. Socialist Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky, who led his country from 1970 to 1983, was constantly lambasting Israel, flaunted his friendship with Yasser Arafat, and even refused to be identified as a Jew. Would Zemmour, as President of France, go the same way?
The answer is almost certainly a resounding no. Unlike Kreisky, Zemmour never denounced his Judaism. He was educated in Jewish schools, has Jewish children and (irregularly) goes to synagogue. During this last Yom Kippur, a Macron-supporting member of the French Parliament defiled the holiness of the prayers by shouting abuse at Zemmour inside a synagogue in central Paris.
Unlike Kreisky, Zemmour does not try to compensate for his Judaism by turning against Israel. Those who blame him for never mentioning the Middle East should consider that this probably makes Zemmour the first French Presidential candidate ever who is not on record criticizing the State of Israel. In France’s toxic political environment, that is no mean feat.
As for his ambition to unite the Pétainiste and Gaullist traditions in the face of a new common enemy, it should by now be obvious that this division is over 80 years old. Whether Zemmour wants it or not, it is condemned to fade away as new issues take precedence among the French public. Macron succeeded in overcoming the old division between the center-left and center-life, which had become irrelevant. Similarly, Zemmour is counting on the fact that a deeply traumatic but fading civil war cannot forever define political stances.
Eric Zemmour will probably not win. But he is already bringing together right-wing voters from the long-feuding Gaullist and Le Pen movements. He has imposed a campaign theme – preserving French identity against the assaults of immigration, Islam and EU encroachment – which was all but taboo before he burst into the scene. And he is doing all this without betraying his Jewish identity. Indeed, doesn’t the program which Zemmour offers the French – refusing assimilation, taking pride in your history and culture, and once again becoming masters in your own country – bear an eerie resemblance to the ideas that his Zionist schoolteachers were advocating for the Jews?