Meet the far-right Jew who’s set to seek the French presidency - analysis

Eric Zemmour is of Jewish Algerian heritage and has defended Nazi-collaborators and embraced far-right conspiracy theories on Muslim immigration.

French journalist Eric Zemmour leaves after delivering a speech at UMP political party's conference at the National Assembly in Paris (photo credit: CHARLES PLATIAU / REUTERS)
French journalist Eric Zemmour leaves after delivering a speech at UMP political party's conference at the National Assembly in Paris

Éric Zemmour is a firebrand, far-right French nationalist who rails against Muslim immigration, wants to ban the name Muhammad, has defended Nazi collaborators and has been convicted of incitement to racial hatred.

He is also Jewish.

With the French presidential elections looming in April 2022, Zemmour has recently embarked on a spree of public and media events, including a book launch and tour, which very much looks like the precursor to a formal election campaign, although he is yet to declare himself a candidate.

What’s more, he is practically tied in second place in polling for the presidential election with Marine Le Pen, a hard-right nationalist who Zemmour has outflanked by adopting even more extreme rhetoric on issues critical to the French Right than she has.

Given that the top two candidates go into a final run-off election, with the other contender most likely to be current president Emmanuel Macron, Zemmour’s rise in the polls has driven significant national, and international, attention towards his incendiary political rhetoric and nascent campaign.

French President Emmanuel Macron visits Lebanon, September 2020 (credit: REUTERS/GONZALO FUENTES/POOL)French President Emmanuel Macron visits Lebanon, September 2020 (credit: REUTERS/GONZALO FUENTES/POOL)

As a Jew, an identity he has repeatedly talked of in public, Zemmour’s putative run for the presidency has also drawn the attention and scrutiny of the French-Jewish community.

Although the leadership of mainstream French-Jewish communal organizations has strongly repudiated him, Zemmour is attracting interest and even support from some of France’s Jews, and is the frequent topic of conversation in the Jewish community, in synagogues, at social events and at the Friday night Shabbat table.

So who is Éric Zemmour, why are some French Jews supportive of him, and how could his candidacy for presidency, if he formalizes it, impact the community?

Zemmour was born in 1958 in a suburb of Paris to Algerian Jewish immigrants who had moved to France only a few years earlier and attended Jewish schools as a child.

He worked as a journalist on the politics beat for several newspapers for much of his career, but began to move towards work as a columnist, polemicist, author and talk show host in the 2000s.

His 2014 book The French Suicide sold more than 500,000 copies, and his Face à l’info (Facing the News) talk show on the right-wing CNews where he aired anti-immigrant and historically revisionist opinions was gaining close to 900,000 viewers until Zemmour was forced to stand down as a presenter by the broadcast regulator because of his apparent political campaign.

In recent years, in his newspaper columns, on his shows, and in his books, he has taken hardline positions on issues of immigration and integration, especially regarding France’s large Arab-Muslim population, while at the same time uttering racial stereotypes about Arab and African immigrants for which he was convicted for incitement to racial discrimination.

Zemmour has called for an end to all immigration and adopted the far-right conspiracy theory of the “Great Replacement,” which posits that societal elites, especially capitalists, want to replace the native white French population with immigrants for cheap labor.

He recently called for a ban on the name Muhammad, as well as other foreign names, described immigrants as “thieves, killers, rapists” and said that parts of French cities represent “foreign enclaves” that “live under the reign of Allah and drug bosses who ensure order and everyday life.”

And Zemmour has also made comments that have deeply disturbed the French-Jewish community.

In his 2014 book, Zemmour said that Marshal Philippe Pétain, who headed the Vichy regime, which collaborated with Nazi Germany, had saved French Jews from deportation to Nazi concentration and death camps in the east, and “sacrificed foreign Jews,” for “political efficiency.”

The Vichy regime rounded up and deported between 70,000 to 75,000 Jews in France, of whom around 25,000 were French born, according to mainstream historians.

Zemmour also equated the Islamist terrorist who killed a rabbi and three children at a Jewish day school in Toulouse in 2012 to the victims themselves, by asserting that their French identity was of secondary importance to them, since the relatives of the terrorist wanted him buried in Algeria, while the victims were buried in Israel.

These comments, and others, have appalled many French Jews, and he has been condemned for them by French-Jewish leaders.

Not only have they been seen as both highly offensive and, regarding Pétain and Vichy, also incorrect, there are fears among the community that his vitriolic rhetoric and hardline policies for societal integration will have long-term consequences for the Jewish community.

Concerns have also been voiced that his historical revisionism will legitimize the far Right and make it mainstream, which could also have a negative impact on Jewish life.

President of the CRIF Jewish umbrella organization Francis Kalifat has said that “Not one single Jewish vote” should be cast for Zemmour, while just last week Chief Rabbi of France Haïm Korsia said Zemmour was “an antisemite certainly, a racist obviously.”

Several other Jewish organizations and their leaders have denounced Zemmour, including Philippe Meyer, president of B’nai B’rith France, the Fonds Social Juif Unifié, the Union of Jewish Students of France and others.

According to Steve Nadjar, a radio anchor at Radio J and journalist for the news magazine Actualité Juive, the large majority of French Jews have been outraged by Zemmour’s comments, both regarding Pétain and more broadly against France’s Muslim population and his extremist positions.

And Nadjar says many French Jews are worried his antagonism towards Islam could have repercussions for the Jewish community.

Last week during a tour of a Paris suburb, Zemmour made derogatory comments about the hijab to a Muslim woman wearing the Islamic head covering, and told her she should take it off.

Although he has not publicly expressed a position on whether religious head-coverings and garb should be outlawed in public, as others on the far Right have suggested, it is likely he will be asked about it, and if he advocates for limitations, that will cause problems for French Jews.

And the Jewish community has similar concerns about any position Zemmour might take on religious slaughter for halal and kosher meat, which has been targeted by far-right and green parties elsewhere in Europe.

BUT JUST as worrying, if not more, is Zemmour’s efforts to sanitize Pétain and the Vichy regime.

For many years there has been a dividing line between the moderate right wing in France, represented by The Republicans party, and the far-right nationalists, formerly represented by the National Front under Jean-Marie Le Pen and now under its new brand name National Rally, under Le Pen’s daughter Marine Le Pen.

One of the major components of that dividing line was the positions of either side over the historical memory of what happened in France during the Nazi conquest and the Vichy collaborationist regime, says Nadjar.

The moderate Right firmly asserted that Pétain and his regime had betrayed France, and that its collaboration with the Nazis, including its round-up and deportation of Jews, was a moral stain on the country.

Nadjar argues that Zemmour is blurring these lines, trying to rehabilitate Pétain not in order to offend Jews but out of political expediency in order to be able to attract both moderate-right and far-right voters to his side.

Since Zemmour is Jewish, he lends a “kashrut stamp” to this narrative and legitimizes the far Right, bolstering its standing and pushing it in to the mainstream, a phenomenon that could have serious negative consequences for the Jewish community.

Despite all this, it appears that there are some Jews who are interested in what Zemmour has to say and are attracted to his message, specifically regarding the French-Muslim community and Islamist elements within it.

Many Jews have suffered terribly due to the rampant, deep-seated and pernicious antisemitism that has emanated from significant sections of the Muslim population.

French Jews in the poorer suburbs of France’s cities have found themselves living alongside large Muslim communities and have suffered badly from antisemitism coming from that population for decades now, having had to contend with incessant incidents of antisemitic abuse and harassment.

And in the last 15 years, 12 French Jews have been murdered by Islamist terrorists in France.

Nadjar notes that in 2017 15% of Jews voted for Le Pen in the presidential election that year, showing that there is a considerable, if not large, part of the Jewish community that is sympathetic to the hard or far Right.

And one senior official in a major French Jewish organization, who spoke anonymously, says some Jews are fundraising for Zemmour, while others are attracted to his ideas, pointing out that one of his most senior advisers, with whom he is allegedly conducting an affair, is also Jewish.

The official worries that Zemmour’s candidacy will inflame antisemitism by legitimizing the far Right, stating “He can say things that Le Pen can’t say because he is Jewish.”

Bernard Abouaf, president of Radio Shalom, also believes that a not insignificant portion of French Jews are “interested” in what Zemmour has to say, due to his positions regarding immigration and integration, and his fierce criticism of extremist Muslim elements in French society, which have caused severe problems for France’s Jews.

Abouaf says such Jews fit into two categories.

The first are those who say tolerating Zemmour’s positions on the Vichy regime, the Toulouse attack and other issues, is the price that needs to be paid to fight Islamism in the country.

“Such Jews would say ‘this is the last chance to save France because in 10 years the country will be basically Arabic,’” says Abouaf.

The other category would be Jews who simply think Zemmour does not mean what he says, and argue that his Jewish identity would mitigate against any possibility he could harm the Jewish community.

Abouaf notes that one recent listener on a Radio Shalom call-in show pointed out how she had seen Zemmour buying meat in a kosher butcher, intimating that he cannot mean harm to the Jewish community if he has that level of observance, and said he has had similar interactions with other French Jews.

He also says he does not believe the majority of French Jews to be disgusted with Zemmour, but rather that many simply do not know what to think of him.

And he asserts that there is a greater attraction to Zemmour specifically among France’s Sephardi Jews, who are more likely to live in the same neighborhoods and suburbs as Muslim communities and have suffered from antisemitism coming from that population.

He also notes that such Jews also recall the repression and persecution they, their parents and grandparents suffered when living under Arab rule in Algeria and Tunisia, and look at the lawlessness in immigrant neighborhoods and the growing Muslim population with concern because of this.

The consensus opinion among French-Jewish officials and political commentators in the Jewish community appears to be that Zemmour will not ultimately garner a large amount of Jewish support because of his extremism in general, his highly offensive views regarding Pétain, Vichy France and courtship of the far Right, and his antagonism towards religion in the public domain.

Despite this, some French Jews, including some prominent Jewish professionals and journalists, are clearly attracted to his radicalism regarding France’s Muslim population and its Islamism problem, and are therefore willing to over look the problems Zemmour might cause for the Jewish community itself.

What does appear clear is that there is a deep concern among many French Jews, including its mainstream leadership, that Zemmour’s great prominence in France’s public debate and his likely candidacy for president could have serious negative consequences for the community, whether he succeeds or not.

Whether it is his efforts to sanitize the far Right, his extreme rhetoric, or his positions on religion in the public domain, Zemmour’s hopes to enter the Élysée Palace come May is giving France’s Jewish establishment something of a migraine at present.