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The origins of Eric Zemmour French nationalism has a long and bloody history

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March 18, 2022   8 mins

“Long live France anyway.” Even in front of a 12-man firing squad, Robert Brasillach was never lost for words. The author and journalist turned his dying phrase (“Vive la France quand même”) into a sort of “whatever…” quip on 6 February 1945 at a Paris military base. After General de Gaulle, then chief of the provisional government, had refused to pardon him, Brasillach became the best-known literary figure to suffer the ultimate penalty for collaboration with his nation’s German occupiers.

Although he was technically convicted for treason under Article 75 of the pre-war penal code, everyone grasped that the cocky, clever and pro-fascist editor, columnist and novelist faced the squad essentially thanks to his “crimes of opinion” on platforms such as the noxious anti-Semitic paper Je Suis Partout. From judges and civil servants to industrialists, battalions of high-powered collaborators saved their skins. Brasillach, about whom Simone de Beauvoir later argued that “there are words as murderous as gas chambers”, served as an iconic scapegoat during France’s post-liberation Purge — and proof that his country still took the written word with deadly seriousness. As his biographer Alice Kaplan puts it: “Writers knew that words counted in a court of law. This was both an intimidating and an empowering knowledge: they mattered.”

In France, they still can. Cut to spring 2022. Another wittily provocative right-wing writer — no, never a fascist and, as a Jew, no anti-Semite either — stands consistently at third place in the polls ahead of April’s presidential elections. In the wake of the Ukraine war, Éric Zemmour — until late February a loud Putin admirer — has a microscopically small chance of progress to the second round of voting on 24 April. Probably, his rival Marine Le Pen will carry the hard-Right’s standard into the run-off. If so, she will suffer a steamroller defeat at the hands of Emmanuel Macron — with, as in 2017, an ominously high toll of abstentions.

Although destined to fail, Zemmour’s campaign has proved his ability to convert decades of mordant fringe polemics into a sustained grip on 12-15% of the electorate. The ideas-driven reactionary nationalism voiced by Brasillach and his collaborationist peers did not die in the chilly courtyard of the Montrouge fort. Zemmour, by the way, has sought to exonerate the Vichy regime and its figurehead, Marshal Pétain. He has argued that it worked to protect French Jews while sending their non-citizen co-religionists to the death camps.

You can hardly sanction ideas more sternly than by shooting their champions. In France, though, mystic and militant nationalism is the repressed that always returns. Far-Right activism with a literary or philosophical tinge has coloured French politics at least since the Dreyfus Affair convulsed the country in the 1890s. Zemmour merely fronts the latest edition of a well-thumbed publication.

Its features do change. Notably, hostility to Muslim migration has neatly filled the yawning space occupied for so long by anti-Semitism. Still, the editorial line robustly endures. Alien powers have corrupted the true genius of France, abetted by a traitorous liberal and cosmopolitan elite. Formal citizenship granted as an empty, bureaucratic right has supplanted the affinities of blood, soil, language and culture that should define the nation. French identity itself is in grave peril. Behind the changing face of the enemy within — Jews, Protestants and Freemasons a century ago, Muslims and other non-white incomers now — stands the omnipotent malice of global finance. In France, hard-Right and far-Left may enjoy tearing each other apart. They can readily agree a truce on the demonic iniquity of “Anglo-Saxon” capitalism.

Le Grand Remplacement, a 2011 polemic by the prolific novelist-turned-activist Renaud Camus, functions almost as the Communist Manifesto for this newest wave of the nativist Right — and a rhetorical cornerstone of Zemmour’s campaign. Long ago, Camus was a scandalous gay icon thanks to outspoken fiction such as Tricks (published with a preface by Roland Barthes). Recently, he has seen his nebulous theory that a top-down strategy of “replacement” aims to substitute the native-born French population with an alien army of non-white, non-Christian incomers go viral, and go global. It reached the American alt-Right by the time of the fatal Charlottesville riots of 2017. A few weeks back,  Zemmour’s centre-right rival Valérie Pécresse uttered the trigger phrase during a stump speech.

Read Le Grand Remplacement, though, and you soon grasp that its allure lies not in reasoning or evidence — beyond the gut feelings of the author — but in the impact of a few key images. It displays the craft of a rhetorician of visceral, subjective experience. But for Camus, race has now replaced sex as the transmission-belt of fear and desire. Camus is haunted (obsessed, indeed) by the figure a veiled woman on a TV chat show. Despite “speaking our language badly, knowing nothing of our culture and, more seriously, overflowing with vindictiveness and animosity, not to say hate, towards our history and our civilisation”, she can sit there and say pleasantly that “I’m as French as you are” (my translation). “If this woman is right,” Camus continues, “being French is nothing: it’s a mockery, a failed joke gone sad, a rubber-stamp on an official document”. He declines to mention the colonial history, with its incorporation of overseas possessions as parts of France itself, that the “I’m as French as you” claim legitimately reflects.

Camus, like his imitators, longs to reclaim an uncomplicated sense of national pride. He speaks in the plangent, self-pitying terms that run like a streak of bitter tears through the language of the French right. “I’ve a nostalgia,” he frankly admits, “for a simple, self-evident belonging, which isn’t perpetually forced to interrogate itself.” These days, however, being French has to be “as ‘problematic’, as ambiguous, as being Belgian”. Self-evidently, no fate could be worse than a Belgian’s…

Camus’s imagery revives a crucial ideological distinction between the “pays legal” of abstract, bloodless state rules and the “pays réel” of authentic identity and belonging. That polarity has driven the cultural right in France ever since Charles Maurras headed the Action Française movement at the turn of the 20th century. This deep flow of what we might call French Powellism (Camus himself has introduced a translation of Powell’s “Rivers of blood” speech) long preceded modern Fascism. It merged with the Fascist mainstream in the Vichy era, and paid the price after the Liberation. Tried in Lyon, the elderly Maurras escaped the firing squad in 1945 but got a life sentence for his collaborationist record.

Famously, Maurras cried as he stepped down from the court: “It’s the revenge of Dreyfus.” Yet the revenge proved incomplete. After the Purge, the Maurras current of ideas resumed its winding but still-influential course. De Gaulle’s shrewd and robust formula for a presidential monarchy managed both to channel and neutralise it. Nativist thought retreated to the noisy margins of “New Right” philosophy and journalism until Jean-Marie Le Pen and his clan brought France-for-the-French activism back into the electoral spotlight. Le Pen senior has honoured both Brasillach himself — and the Resistance fighters who sought his execution.

The great French gloom of the Noughties, its “declinist” spirit exported globally thanks to the morose satires of Michel Houellebecq, cleared plenty of space not just for the prix fixe populism of Le Pen. It boosted the more upmarket gourmet menu on offer from Renaud Camus, Zemmour and the media-friendly philosopher, Alain Finkielkraut. So Zemmour’s political ascent drew fuel from decades of renewed attacks on multicultural modernity.

Older reactionaries often claimed to be saving the inclusive revolutionary ideals of 1789 from later deviations. In spite of his roots in a Jewish Algerian family, Zemmour has changed course. He has sailed on the tide of nativist feeling as it turned from civic towards ethnic nationalism. His 2022 manifesto scorns the idea of a hybrid, hyphenated or cross-cultural national identity. It insists that “if it is possible to assimilate individuals, it is not possible to assimilate peoples”. In this perspective, multiculturalism can never speak French. In his superbly lucid study of cross-Channel cultural habits, How the French Think, Sudhir Hazareesingh notes that Finkielkraut and his comrades show “how far the declinist obsession has pushed French thought away from its Rousseauist and republican heritage”. Once more, blood, not paper, counts above all.

For sure, the national populism of Le Pen père exploited working-class fears about non-European — above all, North African — migration. As does that of Le Pen fille. Yet a strain of republican universalism marked their movements. I recall, in the early Nineties, reporting on a Front National rally in Nice and noticing the genuine cheers that greeted his local Maghrebian, Caribbean and Indo-Chinese supporters as Le Pen welcomed them on stage. Stooges, maybe — but the inclusive optics mattered.

Zemmour, in contrast, has stirred up the ancient soup of salon prejudice that nourished Maurras, Brasillach and their ilk. Don’t dismiss his appeal as a mere side-show of the plebeian resentment felt in left-behind provincial towns. Posh racism, gussied up in intellectual fashion, has lurked in the background of French cultural life since the anti-Dreyfusard heyday of Maurras and his colleague Maurice Barrès. Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu supplies an acidly witty running commentary on the rise and fall of anti-Dreyfus opinion, as the wrongly convicted Captain slowly wins his freedom.

In the aristocratic salons of Paris, being chic and well-born means sharing the reflexes of the xenophobic right. “Personally, you know that I have no racial prejudice,” burbles Proust’s super-snobbish Duc de Guermantes in The Guermantes Way, “all that sort of thing seems to me out of date… but damn it all, when one goes by the name of ‘Marquis de Saint-Loup’ one isn’t a Dreyfusard; what more can I say?” Proust shows too how smart folk will cast off once-universal prejudices like last season’s hats once they become socially embarrassing. At the work’s close, we learn that “Dreyfusism was now integrated in a scheme of respectable and familiar things. As for asking oneself whether intrinsically it was good or bad, the idea no more entered anybody’s head, now when it was accepted, than in the past when it was condemned. It was no longer shocking and that was all that mattered.”

Zemmour and his confrères have dipped into the nativist soup that long ago nourished the anti-Dreyfusards. They have carefully extracted its now-unpalatable ingredients (anti-Semitism above all) and brought it back to a rolling boil. Since the age of Voltaire, French life has cultivated such licensed agents provocateurs on the edges of political respectability. They have duly let off fireworks from both ends of the spectrum. Blood-and-soil mavericks of the Renaud Camus or Zemmour stripe have counterparts on the left in the diehard Trotskyists and Maoists — such as veteran thinker-activist Alain Badiou — who still cast a spell. These opposites can attract, or even merge. In the 2017 election Alain de Benoist, a pillar of “New Right” philosophy since the Sixties, supported the unsinkable old-Left survivor Jean-Luc Mélenchon — the French Tony Benn, still running hard in 2022. Zemmour himself has spoken with affection of the old PCF (Communist Party) and its stalwart defence of – native-born – workers’ rights.

The theological politics of rupture and upheaval, and a contempt for liberalism, especially in its “Anglo-Saxon” guise, may solder the far ends of French thought into a sort of fraternal enmity. Their battle of ideas has, since the Revolution, often played out like an intimate civil war. Foreigners may miss this antagonistic kinship. By some weird twist of cultural and institutional history, the so-called “French theory” that came to dominate Anglo-American humanities faculties from the Seventies was imported as a unified body of progressive doctrine. Yet it had roots on the Right as well as Left. Richard Wolin’s analysis The Seduction of Unreason brilliantly lays bare the “subterranean affinities” that knotted both ends. Mainstays of the US-UK “theory” curriculum such as Maurice Blanchot and Georges Bataille had close links with what Wolin calls the “Left fascism” of the Thirties, and the cultural arms of the Vichy regime.

The defeat of 1940, and the four ensuing years of humiliation and compromise, transformed a long-standing elite game of poses and provocations into a blood-sport with actual corpses on the ground. Brasillach, the ultimate paper tiger, joined them. The war in Algeria, and its fall-out in France, did for a while prolong the real-world lethality of these ideological disputes. Then De Gaulle, and the modernised prosperity he fostered, made sure that the extremist entertainers of French culture could once again fire freely – and fire only blanks.

Zemmour, the latest heir to this tradition of high-minded outrageousness, may well fade from view after the first round of voting on 1o April. Sooner or later, another firebrand of the cerebral, nativist Right will fill his shoes. However, the genius of the De Gaulle’s republican monarchy is that the system will eventually install another effective Macron-style president: one more “technocratic” ruler whom apocalyptic right and left will agree to detest.

According to travel writer Sylvain Tesson, France is a paradise inhabited by people who think they live in hell. It can sometimes feel that way. In a country of high-quality public services and world-class social infrastructure where productivity now runs (according to Britain’s Office for National Statistics) 18% higher than in the UK, crybaby ideologues will again lament that la France profonde remains the prisoner of multi-cultural traitors and Anglo-Saxon capitalists. Back in London, meanwhile, I can pay my bus fares to the RATP (Régie autonome des transports parisiens, owner of London United and London Sovereign) and my fuel bills to Eléctricité de France. As Robert Brasillach might say, Vive la France quand même!

Boyd Tonkin is a journalist, editor, and literary and music critic, and author recently of The 100 Best Novels in Translation.


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Spencer Dugdale
Spencer Dugdale
2 years ago

No go areas, lawless banlieu, beheaded priest and a teacher, the Bataclan, Nice, almost daily attacks on Jews by muslims. A paradise indeed.

Jacob Mason
Jacob Mason
2 years ago

An interesting article and I appreciate the historical comparisons.

There seems a general lack of engaging in the merits of Zemmour’s positions though. This is rather a collection of allusions the author thinks apt.

Particularly with regard to mass immigration, I find the author’s treatment and comparison to anti-Semitism extremely unconvincing.

Last edited 2 years ago by Jacob Mason
Sean Meister
Sean Meister
2 years ago

One thing that this article misses about Zemmour’s platform (and to be honest most commenters) is the organic nature that “New Right” policies have become mainstream. The author here suggests it’s a refinement of decades of Pro-Vichy narrative distilled down, with the anti-Semitism removed, that seems to have the French public won over.

Alternatively, just like in every Western country where we are now seeing “New Right” policies becoming endorsed more frequently, the citizens of these countries are more-and-more coming face-to-face with the reality that such policies warned of only a few decades ago. Visit Paris, Marseille or Lyon and say what you see. Many French people are and it undoubtedly leads them straight to Zemmour.

“New Right” politics are a lesson in simplicity and reality. This is why you often find the opposition in such pains to explain it away in convoluted fashions blaming it on all manner of things other than it first appears. Zemmour was never going to win but it represents a fundamental shift in France. One can’t help but feel this rift is only going to worsen.

Elizabeth dSJ
Elizabeth dSJ
2 years ago

A malicious article rooted in precisely the cosmopolitan animus to ethnic French that the author scoffs at as a conspiracy theory.
The claim that le Grand Remplacement is not rooted in evidence is outrageous. The fact over a third of births in France are to people of non-European ancestry is all the proof one needs that Camus’ warnings are on target.
Tonkin’s invocation of the pre-1945 past is meant employ guilt by association to prevent resistance to an existential threat in the present. Tellingly he praises Mélenchon who waxes about France becoming racially creolized. Tonkin is just another anti-European cosmopolitan.

Yendi Dial
Yendi Dial
2 years ago
Reply to  Elizabeth dSJ

Thank you Elizabeth, this article is nul!, he has never met those who have joined Reconquete vastly young (Less than 35 years old), of all colours of skin, and religion (including muslim), reminds me of Freddy Sayers: “I was surprised at just how forceful and angry he was”.
Really? Well, that implies that you don’t have a clue about what has been happening in France for the last 30+ years.
Zemmour is not the one being ‘divisive’ and ‘inflammatory’: Others have created the divisions and inflammation and they now hypocritically condemned Zemmour for clearly identifying the disaster they have created.

János Klein
János Klein
2 years ago
Reply to  Yendi Dial

Spot on. Incidentally, the author cites unfavourably – or maligns Alain Finkielkraut on two occasions, without really explaining why.