France Is Living in Zemmour’s World

Illian Derex/Éric Zemmour opens his presidential campaign in Villepinte

On the 5th of December, Éric Zemmour held his first official political rally. It was an intense affair, with 13,000 “Zemmouristes” assembled to listen to the newly-minted candidate for the French presidency deliver a barnstorming speech in which he blasted the “eternal adolescent” Emmanuel Macron. Despite some chaotic moments—several left-wing militants were punched by far-right opponents—the rally was a triumph for Zemmour and cemented his transformation from political commentator to presidential candidate. Zemmour is a descendant of ethnically Berber Jews from Algeria. Once, this would have made his new position as a leading politician on the French far-right unthinkable. Times have changed even in these political quarters.

Zemmour held his rally in the Parisian suburb of Villepinte, a favorite rendezvous point of all the historic figures of the right, from Jacques Chirac to Nicolas Sarkozy. But Zemmour, a former political journalist who knows both of those men personally, does not belong to what remains of the center-right Gaullist party, now known as Les Républicains. Instead, he blasts its leadership for betraying the French right. With a small cadre of dedicated supporters, Zemmour launched his own presidential campaign, riding high on the massive commercial success of his latest book, La France n’a pas dit son dernier mot (in English, France Has Not Said Its Final Word). Despite growth in his campaign’s numbers, Zemmour remains outflanked in the polls by French President Emmanuel Macron, the center-right Valérie Pécresse, and rival far-right leader Marine Le Pen. His rejection numbers are higher than any of these opponents.

And yet amid this electoral jockeying, Zemmour’s views are not just popular among the population, but increasingly reflect a turn within the French political establishment itself. This Zemmourization is most evident on the flashpoint issues Zemmour himself calls the “four I’s”: immigration, identity, insecurity, and Islam. France’s politicians, including its current government, are steering sharply to the right to adjust to this new political reality. While a Zemmour presidency still seems unlikely, his ideas will shape France’s politics for years to come.

The Cassandra of France’s Death

Zemmour believes France is on the verge of extinction. It is an existential dread that can be found in Michel Houellebecq’s novel Soumission, published in 2015 on the day of the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack. Set in the near future, an Islamist politician wins the presidential election, sparking a mass exodus of French Jews toward Israel. This fictional account already reflects a reality in France: the number of French Jews making aliyah to Israel has accelerated in the past two decades. Houellebecq’s main character, a white agnostic French man, comes to the realization that “there isn’t an Israel for people like me,” and ends up embracing the new Islamist order in France. It is a thought that haunts Zemmour, who argues that the 2022 presidential election is France’s last chance before demographic trends become overwhelming and any prospect of maintaining its republican political order disappears.

Zemmour endorses the concept of the “Great Replacement,” developed by the far-right intellectual Renaud Camus. It refers to the argument that political elites are using immigration to progressively substitute native Europeans with immigrants, especially those from the Middle East and Africa. Zemmour believes that France will face a civil war in the near future—or at the very least, some form of profound ethnic and religious partition—if the vast demographic change that has occurred over the past 50 years is not checked.

One of his most ardent beliefs is that Islam will never be compatible with the French culture. Pointing to the rise of France’s Muslim population, which is believed to comprise between 6 and 10% of the country, Zemmour has argued for years that a clash of civilizations exists within France itself. He recently capitalized on a study by France Stratégie, an institution under the authority of the Prime Minister, that showed that the share of non-European immigrants and their children in French cities has been surging in the past decades. The proportion of non-European youths in the Parisian banlieues of Clichy-sous-Bois has risen to 84%, and has become as high as 61% even in the relatively provincial city of Limoges.

The term “Great Replacement” taps into a larger cultural and physical insecurity in France. Since 2015, hundreds of public figures have been living under close police protection over their criticism of political Islam, a list that includes Instagram influencers, philosophers, Charlie Hebdo journalists, prominent ex-Muslims who have left their religion, and Zemmour himself. Over the past decade, those killed by Islamic fundamentalists include priests, journalists, and teachers. Tactics for these killings have included beheadings, mass shootings, and suicide bombers. The fear of a Lebanonization of France looms large and is no longer unique to the far-right.

The Zemmourization of Public Opinion

Zemmour’s own career is a marker for how open the French population has become toward narratives of societal crisis. While only 12-18% officially back him in the presidential race, both his books and his media presence enjoy a much wider audience. He has sold around 300,000 copies of his 2014 political tract Le Suicide français and his latest book, published in 2021, has already sold over 200,000 copies. Unlike their equivalents in the U.S., the books French political leaders put out actually have a popular readership. In 2016, it was Macron himself who gave France one of that year’s best-sellers with his book Révolution, which sold around 200,000 copies—the same as Zemmour’s latest release. Zemmour has also built his brand as a public commentator on television: his talk show boosted ratings on the CNEWS network that hosted it, rising from 270,000 viewers in 2019 to 852,000 in 2021. Rival networks now invite Zemmour-adjacent commentators such as Le Figaro’s Eugénie Bastié or Valeurs Actuelles’s Geoffroy Lejeune.

Polls continually identify high levels of support for Zemmourian positions among the French populace. This includes topics like stopping immigration from Muslim-majority countries, perceived judicial lenience, and even support for the “Generals’ Letter” in which 20 retired generals and around 1000 members of the military declared that France faced a threat of civil war.

This convergence between Zemmourian ideas and French public opinion is not confined to the center-right. A recent Harris Interactive poll concluded that 67% of the general population are concerned to some degree about the idea of a “Great Replacement,” including 61% of supporters of La Republique en Marche (LREM), Macron’s political party. When asked whether they believed such a development would actually occur, 61% of the general population and 52% of LREM supporters responded that they did. The mainstream of French society—including the Macronist base—has shifted toward a consensus that, only a few years ago, was too radical even for Marine Le Pen to endorse publicly.

France’s ongoing social tensions have even started to enter the politically progressive world of cinema. Bac Nord, the fourth-best selling movie of 2021, depicts a grim and violent world in the quartiers nord of Marseille, where drug dealers run the neighborhoods with heavily weaponized and organized local militias and where police are welcomed like foreign invaders.

Like Houellebecq’s novel, this film has a basis in reality. Police officers, who have to deal with superiors wary of creating unrest, have long since lost the monopoly of legitimate violence and are perceived in the banlieues as a destabilizing force rather than the militias. They mostly intervene in those neighborhoods only in large groups and leave swiftly. In 2016, a group of four police officers in Viry-Châtillon was ambushed by local gangs and nearly burnt alive in their car with Molotov cocktails. Two of the police officers were caught in the flames, then trapped in their car by about 20 masked teens armed with steel bars.

In some of these neighborhoods, gangs maintain a dual hierarchy with certain Islamist imams and preachers, which allow gang members to gain religious sanction for their activities. Such preachers have found fertile recruitment grounds in these neighborhoods. Many young French jihadists were formerly involved in the criminal underworld before finding their way to the Middle East to join organizations like ISIS. Their networks are also largely connected, with many jihadists having worked in the informal economy of their neighborhood. Mohamed Merah, who killed police officers and Jewish children in 2012, was first put in contact with the jihadist ecosystem by an Afghan associate who also dealt drugs.

In particular, French Jews who lived in the banlieues have fled them in large numbers over the past decades due to hostility and attacks. According to the National Vigilance Bureau Against Antisemitism, some 60,000 Jews have left their neighborhood between 2007 and 2017 because of physical and cultural insecurity in the Ile-De-France region alone—which includes Paris and its banlieues.

Transforming the Right

The greatest threat to Zemmour might not come from his ideological opponents at all. The French establishment seems increasingly capable of updating its ideological lines in order to preserve itself in the face of the conflicts that are fracturing French society—and to steal the wind out of the far-right’s sails.

This transformation is most obvious among Zemmour’s opponents on the right. The ultimate winner of the Les Républicains runoff, the “two-thirds Merkel, one-third Thatcher” Valérie Pécresse, wants to restrict the delivery of visas, increase the number of deportations of illegal immigrants, and expel foreigners who served a prison sentence in France. Rather than quarreling with Zemmour on his diagnosis, Pécresse argues that her experience in the Ile-de-France region makes her a better fit to deal with the issue of “separatism.”

Her rivals echoed similar—and sometimes far more inflammatory—rhetoric. Michel Barnier, a quintessential centrist who came back from Brussels and EU politics to campaign in the primary, began making the case for a moratorium on immigration and the restriction of the power of the European judiciary on migratory issues. The turnaround was abrupt enough that Lord Frost, Boris Johnson’s Brexit negotiator, gave the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that he might have rubbed off on Barnier during negotiations. The more likely answer seems to be the popularity of Zemmour’s ideas among Barnier’s own voter base. Eric Ciotti, who was runner-up in the primary, proposed amending France’s citizenship laws to become jus sanguinis—by descent—and tentatively agreed when asked whether he believes in the “Great Replacement.”

Even Marine Le Pen is under pressure as a result of Zemmour’s surge. Following years of “detoxification” of her party—now called Le Rassemblement National (RN)—that has caused tension with its old guard, she has made anti-EU rhetoric and “liberty” more central to her campaign. Zemmour has bet on outflanking her from the right, focusing on more traditional far-right targets like immigration and Islam. With Le Pen’s own niece and former party colleague Marion Maréchal now appearing alongside Zemmour to promote this refocus, her latest campaign may have to decide between expanding the RN’s appeal or losing her own base to Zemmour.

All the various candidates to the right of Emmanuel Macron collectively command an imposing 45-55% of the electorate. The political leaders that command this proportion of the country have shifted considerably toward Zemmour’s positions.

Emmanuel Macron En Marche

But perhaps the clearest sign of France’s Zemmourization can be found in Zemmour’s foremost political opponent: President Macron himself. Macron ran as a center-left candidate in 2017. He stirred controversy with comments that there is no such thing as “French culture” and that Angela Merkel had saved “Europe’s collective dignity” in 2015 by welcoming over one million migrants to Germany.

Since then, Macron has pivoted from a center-left candidate to a center-right incumbent, especially on economics. Many of the left-wing economists who advised him in 2017 have since aired their disappointment. But his turnaround on immigration and points of cultural conflict has been considerably more surprising to his early supporters.

In 2018, Macron unveiled a new bill on immigration that sought to place further restrictions on asylum seekers and increase its ability to carry out deportations, both goals he had previously opposed as a candidate. Gérard Collomb, Macron’s then-Minister of the Interior and former Socialist Party Mayor of Lyon, justified the bill by claiming that some French neighborhoods were being “submerged” by asylum-seekers, and asked rhetorically whether France could “build a medium-sized city every year to accommodate these refugees?” Many of Macron’s left-leaning MPs, who had backed government bills before then without much pushback, vigorously opposed the bill. It was progressively watered-down, with quotas on economic immigration dropped entirely.

Collomb went on to resign from the Ministry of the Interior in 2019. In his resignation speech, he expressed that while “today we live side by side, I fear tomorrow we might live face to face.” Collomb had previously argued that the “situation could become irreversible within five to six years,” dreading a “secession or a partition.” In that sentiment, he might well have been echoing former French President François Hollande, a fellow Socialist Party member who expressed the same fears himself to journalists.

In the fall of 2021, as Zemmour’s rise in polls was underway, Macron decided to slash visas granted to people from the Maghreb, in order to pressure their governments into taking back nationals who live illegally in France. The move, a long-time demand of both Zemmour and Le Pen, was now being carried out by a centrist president.

This convergence does not seem limited to public political rhetoric or diplomatic chess moves. Over the past few years, Macron himself has publicly engaged the French right’s intellectual circles and media outlets, and has repeatedly acknowledged the legitimacy of many of their concerns and even policy positions. In 2019, Macron gave a 12-page interview to the right-wing magazine Valeurs Actuelles where he criticized Zemmour’s “deadly dialectic,” though he simultaneously argued that “we need to expel all the people who don’t belong here” and denounced a creeping “secession.”

Macron went on to have a private discussion with Zemmour himself in May 2020, after the latter was accosted and spat on by a bystander in the streets of Paris. Zemmour, recounting the discussion in La France n’a pas dit son dernier mot, claimed that Macron suggested he send over a memo on his proposals on immigration. He also asserted that Macron agreed with his diagnosis of French society and on Islam’s mentality of conquest but that if he spoke like Zemmour “we would be heading towards civil war.”

Despite this criticism of Zemmour’s more radical stances, decisions like the restriction of visas to North African states show Macron’s willingness to adopt restrictionist measures on immigration questions. But his engagement with these stances appears to go further than either rhetoric or leverage in diplomatic clashes. The French political journalist Marc Endeweld, author of two biographies of Macron, claims that Macron “thinks exactly like Valeurs Actuelles” on questions of Islam and immigration. Going further, he also reports claims from employees of the Elysée that Macron uses the term “Great Replacement” in private with his aides, and that he is “obsessed” with the concept. While this could be chalked up to the informal and blunt style for which Macron and other LREM aides are known in private, rather than to personal beliefs, it shows a familiarity with and willingness to discuss these views.

It is difficult to tell how far Macron’s engagement with such ideas goes. At the very least, he is taking their ideas seriously enough to engage them publicly. Moreover, the fear across the French political spectrum about France’s cultural and demographic stability—including among leading members of both LREM and the Socialist Party, in addition to the center-right—suggests that a political response from within the establishment itself would likely find cross-partisan support. Post-war French leaders have broken with Western liberal norms before when reacting to what they considered existential threats to the French state. The most famous of these was bringing Charles de Gaulle to power in 1958 under threat of a military coup. With a growing political leadership role in the EU and a military that lets it act as a middle power, France has unusual ideological leeway within the Western alliance.

What keeps Macron distinct from Zemmour is not an unwillingness to address issues around culture and immigration, but his insistence on seeing them in the frame of international French power and influence, rather than cultural preservation. With France holding the presidency of the Council of the EU, Macron stated in December 2020 that he had made the relationship between France and Africa a “priority” and that the “link between our two continents that border the Mediterranean is the big political and geopolitical project for the decades to come.” In contrast, Zemmour argued that European aid in Africa “creates resentment and hatred against those who help, especially when the helper is the former colonizer.”

The contrast with Zemmour is also apparent on the question of student visas, which number 90,000 a year. Zemmour advocates drastically limiting the number of visas, even if this harms France’s international reputation. Macron, in contrast, seems earnest in his commitment to the Napoleonic “esprit de conquête” that defined his 2017 campaign. He believes that France’s issues cannot be solved in isolation from the EU and without cooperation with the African countries from which the lion’s share of France’s immigration comes.

Despite these differences, the existence of a seemingly Zemmourian diagnosis of France’s ills among figures in the Macronist camp has even become visible in public debates. One prominent example occurred in February 2021: Gérald Darmanin, Macron’s Minister of the Interior, sparred with Marine Le Pen in a televised debate on the question of Islam. After Le Pen argued that she would attack “political Islamism and not Islam,” the latter of which she sees “as a religion among others,” Darmanin launched an attack that caught her off-guard: citing Le Pen’s detoxification campaign, he accused her of becoming “a little soft” and suggested that she should take “vitamins.” He also attacked her view that political Islam was only a question of ideology, saying that political Islamism in fact stems from “a sectarian movement of Islam.” By pointing a finger not only at radical Islamist ideology, but at currents within the Islamic religion itself, Darmanin broke with the political norm of framing the debate within the sphere of politics rather than culture and faith.

Earlier in the same debate, Le Pen had claimed she could have co-signed Darmanin’s book on “Islamist separatism.” His public attacks on the CCIF and similar organizations the previous year, and their subsequent shutdown, had already proved the French government’s willingness to act on such rhetoric. The debate’s moderator, journalist Thomas Sotto, remarked that Darmanin and Le Pen “think and say the same thing,” giving voice to the stunned confusion that was palpable in the audience.

France’s Ideological Update

While Zemmourian ideas seem politically potent, it remains to be seen if they will lead to profound institutional change, with many among the French elite firmly committed to the centrist and neoliberal elements of Macron’s original platform. The real challenge to this shift would likely come from the judiciary and from parts of civil society.

Historically, France’s highest administrative and constitutional courts have curtailed the ability of the government to implement restrictive immigration policies.

A large proportion of immigrants come to France not as a result of a discretionary public policy or a law voted for by the National Assembly, but because they have the right to do so according to the courts’ interpretation of the law, the constitution, and of EU treaties. In 2019, 46% of residency permits were granted to migrants on family reunification and humanitarian grounds, as opposed to around 14% for economic migrants. Familial unification is protected under constitutional law; France’s highest administrative court, the Council of State, has ruled that the government cannot set limitations on family reunification—a stance it maintained even during the COVID-19 pandemic. The law likewise curtails the government’s capacity to deport asylum seekers deemed ineligible for asylum status in France.

This means that Zemmour’s radical plans on immigration would likely be declared unconstitutional if they went through the normal legislative procedure. Short of a constitutional amendment or a referendum on immigration, French and European courts would seriously limit the capacity of a right-wing government to implement a Zemmourist migratory agenda. Within French legal circles, the Union Syndicale des Magistrats, France’s second-largest magistrates’ union, is likewise known for its openly activist stances on political issues and its historic opposition to even more moderate center-right presidents like Nicolas Sarkozy.

In addition to judicial obstacles, France’s powerful NGOs have also shown a willingness to confront the government on migration issues. But increasingly, Macron and his allies are striking back. Following the murder of the high school teacher Samuel Paty in 2020 by an 18-year-old Islamist after he showed cartoons of Muhammad in class, the French government shut down the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF), a prominent organization that documented anti-Muslim hate crimes. Darmanin called the organization an “enemy of the republic” and accused it of having supported the campaign against Paty prior to his murder.

In the February of 2021, Minister for Higher Education Frédérique Vidal tasked the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), France’s prestigious state research organization, to publish an inquiry on the influence of “Islamo-gauchisme” in academia. The term had originally been coined by the intellectual Pierre-André Taguieff to describe the alleged political alliance between left-wing activists, NGOs, and Islamists. The CNRS itself resisted this move, with professors and researchers lambasting the government for instigating a “moral panic.”

The French leadership’s shift has been a source of controversy within left-wing circles and human rights groups. The secretary-general of La Cimade, an NGO that gives legal assistance to asylum seekers, openly accused the debates informing Macron’s decisions of being shaped by “the discourse of the extreme right.” Similarly, Macron’s increasingly tough approach on the conflicts between French secularism and Islam reached U.S. headlines when Macron traded blows with The New York Times. These same publications had praised Macron in the 2017 presidential election for standing up for liberal democracy and cosmopolitanism against Marine Le Pen.

In the status-quo scenario of Macron’s reelection, it seems that the French president wants to build a wider coalition that will go beyond LREM and include many center-right parties and politicians. These would likely include more Les Républicains heavyweights if their candidate fails to make the runoff for the second time in a row, as well as Macron’s former Prime Minister Edouard Philippe—himself a former LR politician and the leader of Horizons, a new center-right party. Staunch left-wing LREM politicians, such as former Macron ally Aurélien Taché, have either left LREM or tried to create fledgling center-left networks within the wider Macronist universe.

Either Zemmour or Le Pen would probably have more difficulty implementing their agenda given their lack of governing experience. They would also likely face administrative pushback. Unlike the United States, France does not have a spoils system that would allow a new president to position ideologically-aligned individuals in key administrative positions. Many high-profile servants had made their opposition to Le Pen clear ahead of the 2017 election, with some saying they would stay at their jobs to resist her administration from the inside. If the shift comes from within the French establishment itself, however, such resistance strategies would become more difficult and costly.

The French presidential election has become a battlefield between a rising far-right, an increasingly hardline center-right, and Macron himself, with the left seemingly relegated to irrelevance. France is increasingly living in Zemmour’s world. He may yet be defeated at the ballot box, but the French establishment itself might just bring his vision to pass.

François Valentin is a political researcher and analyst. He has worked for Eurasia Group in London and completed a Master’s degree at Sciences Po School of Public Affairs in Paris. He tweets @Valen10Francois.