Eric Zemmour has one undeniable quality. He is true to himself. He detests 2021. He wants to go forward to the past — frequently a past of his own imagination.
The far-Right French pundit and essayist finally launched his presidential election campaign yesterday with a bizarre YouTube video which lasted for ten minutes and 11 seconds.
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His chosen channel of communication was pure 2021. His method of delivery was that of the early to mid-20th century. He sat at a polished desk with a 1930s’ radio microphone in front of him and leather-bound books behind him. He read from a script in a funereal voice to the sound of Beethoven’s seventh symphony. He wore an undertaker’s outfit of black suit, white shirt and black tie. In ten minutes, he looked into the camera, briefly, on only three occasions.
Zemmour was playing the role, one assumes, of General Charles de Gaulle making his first Free France radio address from London on 18 June 1940. He, like De Gaulle, was appealing to France to resist the invader. He actually came over (except in his lugubrious appearance) more like Colin Firth playing an emotionally-strangled George VI in the movie, “The King’s Speech”.
The Zemmour declaration was intended as an eloquent paean to a glorious but disappearing France: the France “of Voltaire” of “Johnny Hallyday; “of Charles de Gaulle and Charles Aznavour”; of Joan of Arc and Barbara (an excellent French-jewish pop singer who died in 1997). France, the true France, he said to be effaced by immigration, by Islam and by the European Union.
“This country which you search for desperately everywhere, for which your children are nostalgic without ever having known… that country is in the process of disappearing,” he said. “You have not left your country but it as if your country had left you. You feel like foreigners in your own country. You are interior exiles.”
The video cut frequently to scenes of random or political violence; muslims praying in the street; white footballers taking the knee against racism; young, white women with big curly hair being obliterated by veils or headscarves.
“It is no longer a question of reforming France but of saving it,” Zemmour said. “That is why I have decided to become a candidate in the presidential election. Vive la République and above all Vive la France.”
What on earth to make of such a performance? It was as if Zemmour was rejecting not just the politics of the last 80 years but every advance in political communication since the dawn of the television age (while posting straight onto the internet).
It was a performative performance. The medium was the message. He was saying, in effect: “You and I detest the normal talking-heads on TV (even though I made my reputation as one). You and I detest all the standard, glib paraphernalia and tropes of 21st century politics. I will bring you back to a purer, more sincere age, when France was France and politicians sat behind microphones on polished desks; when we had Edith Piaf not hip-hop and the France football team was all-white.”
A month ago, that might have appeared like a courageous stroke — a confident rejection of the advice of political strategists and focus-group obsessed pollsters. It might have seemed like a brilliant innovation by a journalist-turned TV pundit-turned politician who had grasped a public hunger for something bold and new, both in ideas and presentation.
A month ago — even three weeks ago — Zemmour was riding high in the opinion polls. He had come from 0% in August to 18-19% in voting intentions for the first round of the presidential election on 10 April next year. He was second in most polls, behind President Emmanuel Macron (on 24-25%) but ahead of his far right rival Marine Le Pen and well-ahead of the rest of the field of standard politicians of the centre-Right and Left. He achieved all of that without even declaring that he was definitely going to run.
In the past three weeks, the wheels have started to come off the Zemmour bandwagon. Seven opinion polls in succession, by different organisations, have shown his support melting. The most significant of all those polls — the seventh — was published yesterday by Harris Interactive, just before Zemmour released his “1940s-style” YouTube video. Harris was the polling organisation which first picked up Zemmour’s surge in September and which placed him at 19% on 8 November. Yesterday it gave him only 13% and fourth place — a six point fall in three weeks.
In those circumstances yesterday’s retro-political performance — even though recorded two weeks ago — will seem to many like an act of destructive stubbornness or even an act of desperation. A politician staring at his script rather than at the camera might have appeared bold and innovative a month ago. Yesterday it appeared uncertain and furtive.
The declaration had to be brought forward a few days because of Zemmour’s poll collapse. It was originally to have been released just before a big rally for 5,000 people at the Zenith concert hall in northern Paris on Sunday. It also emerged yesterday that Zemmour had not sought permission to use clips from classic French movies seen in the video — a piece of amateurism that could cost himself and his campaign dearly.
Several high-profile supporters and backers have distanced themselves from Zemmour in the last ten days: the multi-millionaire, Charles Gave; the ultra-Catholic campaigner, Philippe de Villiers; and the independent hard-right mayor of Béziers, Robert Ménard.
They did so because he had ignored their advice to broaden his campaign, to speak of the everyday concerns of French people — from purchasing power to Covid — not just focus on Islam and migration. He made a couple of fleeting references to such concerns yesterday but offered no clues on how — in the very unlikely event that he becomes President next year — he would actually govern France.
His fall in the polls follows a series of mis-steps and outlandish statements — but they should not for the most part be seen as mistakes. They accurately reflect who Zemmour is and what he is trying to do.
He used the anniversary of the Bataclan terrorist slaughter on 15 November 2015 to stand outside the concert hall where most of the murders occurred and criticise the actions of then President, François Hollande (breaking a taboo on using an anniversary of this kind for political campaigning). When insulted by a passer-by who raised her digit to home, in Marseille last weekend, he returned the gesture and was heard to mumble “and very deep too”. The following day it was revealed by Closer magazine that Zemmour’s campaign manager and girlfriend, Sarah Knafo, was pregnant. He is 63; she is 28.
Zemmour’s outlandish statements go far beyond his core argument that white France faces “swamping” and “colonisation” by migration and Islam. Those claims may be factually exaggerated but they represent a genuine fear shared by many. A recent opinion poll found that 67% of French people, including some on the Left, believe there is some truth in the theory of the “Great Replacement” espoused by Zemmour: that there is a deliberate attempt by “the elites” to substitute brown and black people for white ones.
But Zemmour goes much further. He is also attempting — without any obvious electoral advantage or any sense of response to genuine public concern — to rewrite French history to fit a long-standing, ultra-Right wing, nationalist narrative. Captain Dreyfus, the Jewish officer who was framed a spy by ultra-nationalists in the French army in the 1890s, may not have been as innocent as reputable historians now believe, Zemmour said. The collaborationist Vichy regime in 1940-44 was kind to French Jews, said Zemmour (who is himself Jewish). There is not a scrap of evidence for either assertion.
The allied liberation of France in June 1944 was partly an attempted American colonisation that was defeated only by the vigilance of De Gaulle, Zemmour said last month. At least he did not go to the US military cemetery above Omaha Beach to make the claim. He was speaking in Rouen, at the other end of Normandy.
Why make such claims? What on Earth do they have to do with France’s problems — real or exaggerated — in 2021? Why campaign on history at all? They are part of Zemmour’s attempt, already seen in three of his best-selling books, to change the memory tape of recent French history.
Zemmour rejects what he sees as an anti-French, defeatist official narrative created by the Left and by the cosmopolitan forces of Europeanism, globalism and anti-nationalism. France, according to the Zemmourian world-view, is not a wealthy, medium-sized country which was liberated by the allies in 1944. It is a great civilisation — even the greatest of all civilisations — which has been deliberately frustrated and cast down by, inter alia, les Anglo Saxons. The “great replacement” is therefore just the latest attempt by global elites to conspire against France and Frenchness.
These historical-cultural obsessions suffused yesterday’s 10 minutes and 11 seconds oration, even though it was intercut with more tangible facts and anxieties. Zemmour is, in that sense, a sincere man — unusually so for a politician maybe. No calculating politician would have made yesterday’s bizarre declaration in that form. Zemmour did so because it reflects accurately what he is and the way that he thinks.
Will it also prove to be good electoral politics? I doubt it.
It will certainly appeal to his core supporters, who are mostly concentrated in sections of the young and old within the well-off bourgeoisie. Surveys suggest that the Zemmour constituency straddles the better-off part of the ultra-nationalist or far right vote, a chunk of the conservative or Gaullist vote and some nationalist voters who have been lost to the electoral system for years. Unlike, say Marine Le Pen, Zemmour does not particularly appeal to the “suffering” France of white blue-collar workers and forgotten rural or outer-suburban towns.
To reverse his decline in the polls, he needs to expand his base support beyond the ultra-Catholic and ultra-nationalist bourgeoisie. Nothing in yesterday’s address appeared likely to so. Nothing appeared particularly calculated to do so.
Zemmour, at the end of the day, seems to be more interested in being Zemmour than in being President.