Author: Gwenaëlle Bauvois
In May 2022, France will elect its new president and in the array of candidates, one figure emerged as the biggest surprise: Eric Zemmour who suddenly became the new face of the extreme right. Not only his candidacy itself made waves but also the unexpected high numbers in voting polls, up to 20% at the beginning of his campaign. Several reasons can explain this phenomenal rise.
First of all, this presidential campaign is unusual on many levels: the Left is more divided than ever, with a socialist candidate historically low in the polls; and the traditional Right is painfully trying to position itself after struggling through internal divisions. Additionally, though unknown to the international public until recently, Zemmour has been a familiar face in France for many years already. A former political journalist, Zemmour became a popular television and radio personality in mainstream talk-shows in the early 2000 due to his eloquence and polemical views. This constant media exposure has played a significant role in mainstreaming Zemmour’s ideas – his media appearances score record audience numbers – but also in consolidating his legitimacy as a regular presidential candidate.
Zemmour is also a very successful author of books with evocative titles such as French Melancholia (2010) and The French suicide, a real hit with 477 000 copies sold in 2014. His latest self-published book France has not yet said its last word, a barely veiled political manifesto published not long before his candidacy, currently ranks fifth in the overall books sales in France in 2021, with 283,000 copies sold and 6 million euros in sales revenue. Without any political experience and no previous links to any political party – which contributes to his image as an ‘anti-system’ candidate – Zemmour is now projected to claim 15 % of the ballots according to the latest polls, rubbing shoulders with Marine Le Pen, who are essentially both campaigning around similar issues.
Staging the national glory
Zemmour’s trademark, as a polemicist, an author and now a politician, is centred around a very simple narrative: France is a great nation on the verge of collapse and the main root cause is mass immigration. Zemmour is known for being a long-term supporter of the ‘Great Replacement’. This conspiracy theory, popularised by French white nationalist author Renaud Camus in 2011, states that white European populations are being demographically and culturally replaced with non-European and non-white populations. Zemmour has clearly contributed along the years to the mainstreaming of the ‘Great Replacement’ in the media and now in the presidential campaign.
Zemmour’s rhetoric is clearly exemplified in the 10 minutes long video in which he announced his candidacy on 30 November 2021, an unprecedented move in French politics accustomed to more traditional campaign launches. Mimicking General De Gaulle’s famous call to arms on June 18th 1940, Zemmour reads aloud behind an old-fashioned microphone while Bethoven’s Seventh Symphony plays in the background. With a disparate catch-all flow of themes glorifying the past of a long gone France, the new candidate evokes successively Napoléon Bonaparte, Louis Pasteur, Brigitte Bardot, Victor Hugo, Joan of Arc, Charles Aznavour as supposedly embodying the French spirit of excellence. From being one the finest examples of culture, art, science and sophistication, France is now in a state of deliquescence and has become a battleground where unemployment, insecurity and “barbary” are proliferating.
Making a spectacle of the national debacle
This nationalistic glorification exercise paves the way to the presentation of the bleak reality of today’s France. Zemmour’s speech is supported by a fast paced flow of violent images creating an overwhelming impression of chaos and fear. Zemmour’s campaign video, currently watched by over 3 millions viewers on YouTube, is now prohibited for minors due to its ‘shocking or violent content’. It displays a succession of video clips of street riots, burning police cars, bleeding demonstrators, policemen being attacked, brawls and refugee camps littered with garbage.
Zemmour’s simple explanation for this debacle is immigrants coming to France to replace the autochthonous population with the complicity of diverse elites. French people have been lied to and the “gravity of the reality of our disenfranchisement” and “the reality of our replacement” have been hidden from them. Zemmour presents himself as the Providential Man. As all the other politicians are mere incompetents, he’s the only one able to “save France“ and save “our children and grand-children from barbary”, “our daughters from being veiled” and “our sons from being put into submission”.
With Marine Le Pen engaging in a long-term process of ‘de-demonisation’ and the Republicans constantly flip-flopping between centrism and radical right, it leaves the field open to Zemmour’s more straightforward extremist ideas. In January 2022, the presidential candidate Zemmour was convicted for inciting racial hatred for calling unaccompanied migrant children “thieves”, “murderers” and “rapists” on national television. The verdict represents his third conviction for hate speech and does not seem to affect his rise to popularity and his presence in the media. The former U.S. president, Donald Trump, recently called Zemmour to encourage him in his endeavour and urged him to keep his authenticity and ”courage.”
Gwenaëlle Bauvois is a researcher at the Centre for Research on Ethnic Relations and Nationalism (CEREN), Swedish School of Social Sciences, University of Helsinki. Her areas of expertise are anti-immigration transnational narratives, right-wing populism, countermedia and post truth politics.