France

The French far right has never been stronger in my lifetime

CN: xenophobia, Islamophobia

OPINION

Out of sheer curiosity, I opened YouTube and watched Eric Zemmour’s campaign video for the 2022 presidential elections. Filled to the brim with nostalgia for a France that never was and apocalyptic warnings, the Beethoven symphony playing in the background was at least soothing. Ten minutes is a long time, especially when you are being warned of the dire destiny that awaits France – one where all women are forced to wear a hijab and the greatest of France’s intellectual community are being plagued by gender theory. The video certainly raised a few questions: what kind of France does Zemmour want, besides a white one? Why does the presidential hopeful refuse to look at the camera? I also found  myself cringing at the sheer absurdity of the superposition of unauthorised footage and references to the glorious days of de Gaulle’s presidency. All spectacle set aside, Eric Zemmour is now a figure on the political stage – one that must be examined. 

It is safe to say that the France of 2021 is far removed from the France of the 1960s. While any measured citizen would argue that good things have come from change, Eric Zemmour insists this modernisation has become a disease, robbing the ‘French soul’ and national identity. A central premise of his campaign, then, is the restoration of French grandeur. The nauseating idea that French civilisation, culture and heritage, is one that is uniquely superior, and therefore must be cherished and preserved at all costs. 

His campaign video cites greats from all walks of life – from Johnny Hallyday to General de Gaulle (which Zemmour likes to replicate some, or all, of the time). They represent a greatness that the polemist-cum-candidate wants us to believe has been lost to the European technocrats and multiculturalism. This rhetoric is not unfamiliar to any observer of contemporary democratic politics. Far-right politicians and populist leaders have always exploited a sense of loss, a lack of belonging and, above all, the feeling of being left behind during globalisation. 

This ‘patriotism’, a call to arms to save the French nation, is not dissimilar to that of Marine Le Pen, who is in second position, behind Macron in the polls. 

So what is Zemmour’s unique selling point? It is ultimately Zemmour the polémiste. In the last week alone there have been rumours that his campaign chair is pregnant with his child, he has been photographed in Marseille giving a female protester the middle finger, and has complained about at least one journalist’s questions on live television. 

While it is true that Le Pen has often been at the centre of scandal, she has spent much of the past four years mainstreaming herself as a credible politician. In her bid to appeal to a larger segment of voters, there has been a notable toning-down to her rhetoric. Who can forget the moment in February 2021 when Macron’s Minister of the Interior, Gérald Darminin, accused Le Pen of being ‘soft’ on Islam?  The champion of scandal and polemics in this presidential election, for now, is Zemmour. 

Of course, it can be debated whether Zemmour is in fact staging these media goldmines, as if to paint himself as the victim of a press establishment that is biased and bent on destroying his nascent political career. Either way, Zemmour’s campaign is off to a shaky start. The past week has seen him drop in the polls and lose a number of key allies in the race. In order to be able to officially run, Zemmour needs 500 official endorsements, a number he seems unlikely to reach soon. 

While their styles are markedly different, Le Pen and Zemmour’s discourse resemble each other strongly. The themes of nostalgia, injustice, anger and loss are reminiscent of Le Pen’s decades-long rhetoric. The idealisation of a France once so ‘glorious’, intellectually brimming and economically plentiful, aims to appeal to a working class struggling to keep up with the world both economically, due to the externalisation of labour, and culturally, due to the free movement of peoples. 

To that end, both candidates focus on immigration and the dire effects they claim it has on society. This is intricately linked with the cultivation of fear, an imagined fear: a fear of being invaded, of cultural erasure, of a designated other. This is what continues to attract the disillusioned voter to the far right. It is the idea that only this man, only this woman, will be able to address all of these fears; that these individuals are the only ones who understand the misunderstood. 

Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour are dangerous. Having two far-right candidates on the political stage in a presidential race is alarming, to say the least. Much like Le Pen, Zemmour employs an anti-immigrant rhetoric that underlies all of his ‘patriotic’ calls to save the French spirit. It is about locating then excluding the ‘other’, an enemy that is often depicted as being within France. This is especially true for the the Muslim population, which Zemmour demonises in both rhetoric and proposed policy. It is in this vein that he has expressed a desire to enforce policies that would obligate parents to give their children ‘French names’, all in the name of so-called integration. 

Hurtful and discriminatory campaign approaches and policy are being normalised. Even as I watched his dramatic take on a campaign video, I caught myself thinking that this was nothing I had not heard before. The lack of my own shock took me aback. For I am now used to hearing politicians be overtly racist. With every new far-right figure, we become more attuned to their rhetoric. We also become more used to their political success. Marine le Pen is not trailing far behind Macron and until recently Zemmour was above Le Pen. France is now a country where two out of the three leading presidential candidates are overt extremists. 

If Le Pen and Zemmour are so similar, why not join forces? This has crossed the mind of the former, who has called on Zemmour to join her campaign. Would he do so? It would probably be the best option for both him and Le Pen. As things stand, Zemmour is unlikely to reach political office, having become somewhat of a farce in French politics. Le Pen, however, despite having key voters taken away from her by Zemmour, is a likely figure in the second round. If this were to happen, she would benefit from scooping up the additional far-right votes that Zemmour seems to be attracting.

For now, though, political ego prevails, as Zemmour looks unlikely to give up his bid for power. Meanwhile, he continues to reinforce key issues on Le Pen’s agenda. Never has the far right had more political clout. 

What to make, then, of Eric Zemmour? It is tempting to view him as a darkly comical character – this man that glorifies a France that never existed in an over-the-top promo video that resembles more a trailer for a second-rate Hollywood thriller than a serious bid for the presidency. But he is a political candidate. And one we should take seriously – as a threat. It is still easier to laugh than to think too deeply about the state of French politics ahead of the 2022 presidential election. Democracy is feeling increasingly like a choice between the mediocre and the awful. Frankly, je ne veux ni l’un ni l’autre. 


All views expressed are the writer’s own.

Article Image Source: Flickr

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