Despite their common history, these men have different visions for their country
For months, exasperated Parisians have waged an online battle against City Hall under the hashtag #saccageparis (#wreckingparis). They complain, with telling pictures, that under Socialist Mayor Anne Hidalgo the city has become a hell of concrete bollards, unswept streets, entire squares given up to crack addicts and dealers, overflowing rubbish bins, massacred street furniture (including decapitated or even sawn-off historic lamp posts on Place de la Concorde), dried-up crabgrass in untended parks, street lights held together by duct tape and concrete blocks, over one thousand trees torn off every year, and much more.
The most recent voice condemning the sorry state of the City of Lights has come from an unlikely corner. “Paris has become an unbearable rubbish-bin,” thundered the star television presenter and personal friend of Brigitte and Emmanuel Macron, Stéphane Bern, in an interview to the most-read Parisian tabloid, Le Parisien, announcing that he was leaving the city for good.
It takes a lot to lose Stéphane Bern, France’s most emollient, twinkly-eyed, gently loquacious celebrity host. He is equally at ease chronicling the sentimental travails of Prince Albert and Princess Charlene of Monaco, or retracing the costly parties and art-purchasing of Gilded Age American robber barons in his peak-rated “Secrets d’Histoire” documentaries (full disclosure: I took part in one in 2013). Bern, 58, has perfected a kind of smiling, ideal-son-in-law personality. In short, there is no-one more agreeable in France.
Curiously, Bern’s television fame and passion for popular history has much in common with the abrasive, controversial would-be presidential candidate Éric Zemmour, 62. Both are the sons of displaced Jewish families (French-Algerian for Zemmour, Polish for Bern); both are self-taught historians (Zemmour flunked the examination to the elite government school ENA; Bern flunked entrance into Sciences-Po). And both believe in the very French notion of “assimilation”, versus “integration”: it’s Bern who says (to the Left-wing daily Libération in 2016):
(Where Zemmour wants to send them back, Bern believes that immigrants could help revive depopulated French regions.)
In many ways, this latest controversy illustrates the battle for the soul of France. Both Bern and Zemmour have for France, her history and her heritage, the misty-eyed love of a Joseph Roth, the Galician exile, for the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They both reject what the French call the Anglo-Saxon model in which identity politics reigns supreme.
Both are hugely popular in France, a country whose best-loved personalities have for decades regularly been headed by similar French figures: the tennis player Yannick Noah, the popular singer Jean-Jacques Goldman, the former Justice minister, European Parliament president and Auschwitz survivor Simone Veil; the actor Omar Sy.
Éric Zemmour is speaking tonight to the French of London, officially on a book tour; in reality seeking approval (and funds) for his almost certain presidential run. Bern will not vote for him. But it is ironic that the object of #saccageparis’s ire, the woman who booted Stéphane Bern out of Paris, the Spanish-born Mayor Hidalgo, is another of those French citizens who thank the Republic for having given their refugee parents shelter; and themselves their best life. Yet above all else, what is clear is that, as Zemmour’s latest book’s title proclaims, “France Hasn’t Yet Said Her Last Word”.