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French Playboy is no mouthpiece for the hard-Right

Playboy pin-up and Right-wing polemicist Jean Messiha. Credit: Getty

February 16, 2024 - 10:00am

French lifestyle magazines have always been political. That’s why presidents appear on their front covers during the long August holiday, showing off their chest hair or worse, as they frolic on Riviera beaches with an equally scantily clad wife or girlfriend. 

Heads of state realise how important it is to get the key messages across: they are virile and glamorous, and if you share their views (and of course vote for them) you too could one day be living the same leisured dream.

Odd, then, that Playboy —  the veteran erotic glossy that is euphemistically referred to as a magazine de charm in France — is now being criticised for running too much hard-Right politics in between its images of buxom nudes. A long interview with Jean Messiha, an Egyptian-French polemicist, is said to indicate an unacceptable lurch towards extremist populism.

Messiha, a former advisor to presidential hopeful Marine Le Pen and now supporting the even more reactionary Éric Zemmour, is certainly controversial on law and order. Last year he helped raise more than €1.5 million for the family of a policeman charged with shooting dead a teenage joy rider. The victim, Nahel Merzouk, was from an ethnic minority immigrant background, and his death triggered weeks of rioting as thousands protested against discriminatory policing.  

The fundraising was controversial but — as it involved those who vote for both Le Pen and Zemmour — support for it was broad and loud. Suggesting that their most prominent mouthpieces, such as Messiha, have no place in middle-market magazine journalism, let alone the wider media, is patently absurd.  

Libération, the Left-wing Paris daily, appears to be Playboy’s strongest critic, claiming in an editorial that “freeing extreme-right speech” was some kind of Gallic “taboo” that Playboy was trying to break. 

Libé was actually founded by Jean-Paul Sartre, the existentialist philosopher and writer who never stopped breaking taboos, not least of all ones concerning his own country. He criticised everyone and everything, from petty bourgeoise morality to long-standing French government economic and foreign policy. Needless to say, Sartre granted a wonderful interview to Playboy in May 1965 — one full of wise quotes, including: “My duty as an intellectual is to think, to think without restriction, even at the risk of blundering.”

The truth is that Playboy, which was founded in Chicago in 1953 before international editions emerged in countries such as France, has always run controversial pieces. Statesmen interviewed by its journalists over the years have ranged from the late Martin Luther King Jr. to Donald Trump.  

Those complaining about imbalance might also note that French politician Marlène Schiappa was a government minister when she posed on the cover of Playboy last year. The pictures and accompanying interview helped ensure the magazine’s early editions sold out within hours, with its monthly sales shooting from 30,000 to 100,000. Schiappa is also a feminist author, and by no means of the Right — extreme or otherwise.

Like all market-driven publications, Playboy follows the zeitgeist. Its editors are well aware that parties such as Le Pen’s Rassemblement National are doing extremely well in the opinion polls, and considerable gains are expected in European Parliament elections in June. This is all to the detriment of Schiappa’s former boss, President Emmanuel Macron, whose own Renaissance party is floundering badly. 

All publications and broadcast outlets are in some way political, and they naturally strive to reflect public opinion. You don’t have to be Jean-Paul Sartre to accept such universal truths, and that’s why criticism of Playboy editors for doing their job is so short-sighted.


Peter Allen is a journalist and author based in Paris.

peterallenparis

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UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
4 months ago

When films and publications have diverse characters and themes to appeal to as broad a base as possible or to a particular segment that likes those things: “omg woke. stop ruining my cartoons!”
When films and publications feature hard-right stuff: “well it’s just market forces. no problem here.”

Catherine Conroy
Catherine Conroy
4 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Nobody minds diverse characters in movies, it’s just the bad acting, poor scripts and pushing a message over a good story. As a woman, I find the portrayal of ‘strong female characters’ ridiculous. They have no journey and no personality other than they are strong and are serious bosses now. Tiresome.
Very few films feature hard-right stuff, that would certainly be interesting. As for publications, they go where the money is. If featuring people you don’t like makes them sell more copies then so be it.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
4 months ago

I just don’t want to be lectured to. I enjoy strong female characters as well, but the sheer volume of butt-kicking female assassins has become a bit annoying.

El Uro
El Uro
4 months ago

As a woman, I find the portrayal of ‘strong female characters’ ridiculous. They have no journey and no personality other than they are strong and are serious bosses no

Too flat to be women

Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
4 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

You still don’t get it, do you. These labels – hard right, populist – that you and your ilk attach to people whose opinions you don’t like are so absurdly out of date and meaningless as to become caricatural.
There is going to be a wave of ‘hard-right, populist’ governments returned across Europe this year (spoiler alert – it’s already started in Holland) so get used to it. It’s called democracy.
This is absolutely the last time I’m going to feed the troll.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
4 months ago
Reply to  Rocky Martiano

You only object to the use of the term because it brings up associations you would rather not contemplate.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
4 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Rather the reverse: that those with nothing but slurs to offer use such terms for that purpose, and that purpose only, hence why they’ve become meaningless. It’s actually your fault!

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
4 months ago
Reply to  Rocky Martiano

Don’t tell them how ridiculous they appear. All of the humour woukd disappear.

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
4 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

What people object to is not a diverse approach to anything; rather the obviously transparent box-ticking and shoe-horning of particular favoured groups into every bit of content (see black female face count on BBC website) in the name of some mysterious quota or theory of ‘justice’, never mind the fact that the content overall gets a free quality pass when it is often just plain awful.

Even members of the favoured groups are frequently opposed to this nonsense as it it patronising, treats them all as if they belong to an homogeneous blob with the same opinions and makes everyone else assume after a while that they didn’t get there on their own merits.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
4 months ago
Reply to  Mike Downing

The soft bigotry of low expectations.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
4 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

When you see people who disagree with you as caricatures rather than individuals, a comment like that makes sense. Oh, you’re also going to need more straw for the army you’re building.
By any definition, I am the embodiment of diversity, an ethnically ambiguous-looking man who can pass for a dozen different things. But I also find it tedious when works are remade so that certain groups can be shoehorned into the production.
When the movie on Harriet Tubman comes out featuring a white woman – because diversity – it will be as ridiculous as a black Cleopatra or hispanic Snow White.

B Emery
B Emery
4 months ago

“My duty as an intellectual is to think, to think without restriction, even at the risk of blundering.”

That’s brilliant. I’m going to read about this man.

Peter Principle
Peter Principle
4 months ago
Reply to  B Emery

Start with Sartre’s “Being and Nothingness”. In Part 1, Chapter 1, his notion of “concrete nothingness” presciently anticipates the RAAC problem in UK schools. In Chapter 2, on “Bad Faith”, his notion that “nothingness is a state of mind in which we can become anything … that we desire” presciently anticipates Woke arguments about transitioning. In Part 3, Chapter 1, (“The look”) to “look at oneself as an object” presciently anticipates selfies and the content of Inernet influencers. [That’s enough phenomenological ontology. Ed.]
But whichever book you start with, you should end up with Nausea.

Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
4 months ago

You would have to go back a long time – before the internet – to find an example of Playboy making anybody hard – whether centre, left, or right. 🙂

Peter Principle
Peter Principle
4 months ago

The article describes Éric Zemmour as “reactionary” and M. Zemmour has indeed described himself as such (“Je suis nostalgique et réactionnaire”). A “reactionary” is one who opposes social and political change. M. Zemmour, however, campaigns for huge social and political change in France. He argues that if the French people don’t embrace change, they will be swept away by “history” (which I take to be a euphemism for mass migration). So I would say he is “radical right”, not reactionary.