In Zemmour, France's Old Bigotry Finds New VoiceRoundup
tags: racism, immigration, French history, antisemitism, Dreyfus Affair, Éric Zemmour
Mr. Abidor is the author of several books about French history and a contributing writer at Jewish Currents. Mr. Lago is a political scientist who teaches at Sciences Po Paris.
France is the home of “Liberté, Égalité et Fraternité” and the birthplace of the Rights of Man. But running simultaneously through the country’s political traditions is a much darker strain of racism and antisemitism. It looks as if a new, more virulent chapter in that history of French bigotry may now be opening — with a seemingly unlikely champion.
Éric Zemmour, a far-right polemicist who officially declared on Tuesday that he is running in next April’s presidential election, is the loudest and most extreme voice of French racism today. While his poll numbers have started to slide from their highs earlier this fall, Mr. Zemmour’s divisive campaign has resonated with a significant portion of voters and he is still among the leading candidates. He is capturing national headlines and unleashing vicious bigotry into the mainstream in a way unseen in years.
The great irony is that Mr. Zemmour, twice convicted of inciting racial hatred and discrimination, is a Jew — a member of the very community once targeted by the racists whose traditions he inherits and invokes. He has updated France’s oldest hatred for a new era.
The roots of the current French far right can be understood only in the context of its prehistory.
Religious antisemitism was long a staple of reactionary thought in France. In the 19th century, that turned into economic and political antisemitism, taking its definitive form around the time of the Dreyfus Affair, the scandal involving the Jewish military officer, Alfred Dreyfus, who was falsely accused and convicted of passing secrets to Germany. The battle between Dreyfus’s supporters and his accusers came to define French politics. The period brought with it the appearance of antisemitic newspapers like “La Libre Parole,” whose masthead featured the slogan “France for the French,” still a favorite of the French right. This movement lived on well into the 20th century. Its final chapter was the Nazi-aligned Vichy government and French participation in the roundup of Jews for deportation and murder.
After the Holocaust, antisemitism was no longer viable as a political movement — though it was never entirely expunged from society. With the advent of mass immigration from France’s former colonies, antisemitism was largely replaced by anti-Black and, especially, anti-Arab racism. Since the 1970s, the political voice of this racism has been the far-right National Front party, now rebranded as the National Rally as part of an attempt to enter the mainstream. This party has twice reached the second round of the presidential elections, in 2002 and 2017. Mr. Zemmour is now outflanking it from the right.
It doesn’t take much to see the roots of Mr. Zemmour’s ideology: his insistence that France is engaged in a religious war with Islam and a race war with its Black and Arab population; that entire neighborhoods of its major cities have been “colonized” by Muslims; that Islam is a religion of terror; that French Muslims must be made to choose between Islam and France (which he considers mutually exclusive). All of it is an updating of the Jew-hatred of a century and a quarter ago.
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