Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Éric Zemmour is the most important media personality in France today. He is also the most controversial. So, in February 2021, when he hinted on television that he was considering running for president, he sent shock waves through France’s chattering classes. Despite widespread denunciation, and even without formally declaring, polls showed that Zemmour could win between 13 and 17 percent of the vote. In the free-for-all first round of the French presidential elections, this would be an impressive performance for a rookie politician without a party behind him. The fact that a journalist now appears to command a political base twice the size of France’s Socialist Party demonstrates how the conventions and assumptions governing French politics have ­broken down.

Zemmour was born in 1958 in the Montreuil suburb of Paris to a family of Algerian Jews, who had fled Algérie française during its violent final years. After finishing university, he gravitated toward political journalism. The first book-length essays he wrote were critical treatments of Prime Minister Édouard Balladur and President Jacques Chirac, the chief representatives of the Gaullist right in the 1990s and 2000s. He also challenged the ascent of judicial review, which was artificially grafted onto the constitution of the Fifth Republic in the 1970s and expanded thereafter with much fanfare. Zemmour became a sensation in 2014 with his runaway bestseller Le ­Suicide français, which indicted the generation of May 1968 for their failures. The members of that generation, he argued, were progressives attempting to escape their own history. In his follow-up 2018 book, Destin français, he argued that their goal was impossible: “The same causes produce the same effects. The same laws impose themselves across generations. History has its revenge.”

Zemmour is controversial because he denounces dreams of Muslim integration. The soixante-huitards dreamt of a multicultural, harmonious society incorporating two very different civilizations: European and Islamic. Ironically, they imitated the defenders of Algérie française, who believed that that colony marked the advent of a benign future in which the French would coexist peacefully with North African Muslims. According to Zemmour, General de Gaulle was more realistic. He understood the history of each civilization. They were too different to share the same political order. As the Arabs and North Africans rediscovered Islam, the conflicts with the French became more violent. So, de Gaulle surrendered Algeria to the Muslims, in order to spare mainland France from a war between civilizations. He bought France time. Yet progressives, in search of their benign future, squandered de Gaulle’s legacy. They imported this civilizational conflict into every major city in France. They brought the future “back to Charlemagne and the 1683 siege of Vienna.” Citing René Girard, Zemmour argues that we are entering a time where “Charles Martel and the Crusades will be closer to us than the French Revolution and the Industrialisation of the Second Empire.” France’s destiny is to rediscover the wars of religion.

Though this diagnosis is the source of ­Zemmour’s notoriety, the key to unlocking his thinking lies in his critique of progressivism. On September 28, 2019, Zemmour gave the keynote speech at the Convention de la Droite, organized to reorient the French right in the face of its electoral failure in 2017 and its persistent factionalism. Zemmour opened by accusing the participants: “You are not really serious.” The right is frivolous, not really in search of an alternative to progressivism. It does not properly understand progressivism’s goal: revolution, a revolution that can “tolerate no obstacle, no delay, no qualms.” To achieve revolution, progressivism has entered into a new version of the Molotov-­Ribbentrop pact with Islam. That is the alliance arrayed against the French people; that is what the right is up against.

Zemmour’s speech brought down the house. His star rose higher, and in October 2019, he joined Face à l’info, the primetime news talk and debate show on CNews hosted by Christine Kelly, an accomplished Guadeloupean journalist. Mixing punditry with highbrow discussions of French history and culture, Face à l’info is a potent brew. The show’s readiness to debate a wide range of topics (as well as the readiness of many progressives to join the debate) makes it at once fresh, informative, and entertaining. Together, Zemmour and Kelly tripled the ratings for the show. It now receives almost a million viewers per episode.

Sometimes Zemmour is compared to Tucker Carlson, because both are talented, provocative media personalities (and rumors of presidential bids circulate around both). However, there are important differences in how each approaches the news cycle. Carlson uses the day’s events as a springboard to discuss his abiding theme: elite failure. His preferred form of rhetoric is a monologue that excoriates America’s leadership class, especially those at the helm of the American conservative movement. By contrast, Zemmour recasts the daily news cycle in terms of historical trends. His abiding theme is how France’s present woes mark a conscious departure from the past greatness of France. His preferred form of rhetoric is fencing with the representatives of France’s progressive elites over how France’s past should guide the present. He scores his hits when he exposes their dislike for their own nation.

For example, Zemmour recently debated the progressive politician Aurélien Taché over whether to commemorate the bicentennial of the death of ­Napoleon. Zemmour was for, Taché against. Taché, propelled by his dislike of Napoleon, was enticed to justify the English side in the Revolutionary Wars and condemn the French side, rooting for the defeat of his own country. With Taché caught as an anti-patriot, Zemmour struck: “Monsieur Taché, submission is your destiny.”

The viewers grasp the contemporary implications. The stakes in these historical disputations are high, for the underlying issue is whether contemporary France should resist or submit to what Roger ­Scruton called the “culture of repudiation.” Moreover, ­Zemmour grasps that the culture of repudiation targets patriotism and love of country, and his resistance to the effort to negate the national heritage is the source of his popularity.

Zemmour has been targeted by the most powerful elements within the French state and society. He has been convicted three times under France’s expansive hate-speech laws. Activists have attacked him in the street. CNews also endures a steady assault, as corporations pull their advertisements in a bid to cancel Zemmour and Kelly. France’s regulatory bodies survey the show for any breach. This March, one agency fined CNews 200,000 euros for “incitement to hatred” and “violence,” based on Zemmour’s remarks.

The fights Zemmour picks over France’s history take him into the thorniest territory of national pride and guilt: the question of what Vichy should mean to the contemporary French. Since the end of the Second World War, French elites have undergone a U-turn in their stance toward the Vichy regime. For decades after the war, following the line set by de Gaulle in the Appeal of 18 June, elites maintained that Vichy was wholly illegitimate. France was not the Vichy regime; the real France had been in London. This position, which implied that all the French had participated in the Resistance, was a salutary myth for rebuilding the country after the war, but it was not true.

During the seventies, elite opinion swung in the opposite direction. Pieces of popular history, such as The Sorrow and the Pity, minimized de Gaulle and the Resistance. The new narrative insisted that France was the Vichy regime, that the French supported Vichy, and that contemporary France should bear the guilt for Vichy’s collaboration. Starting in the 1990s, under Chirac, French politicians would habitually come forward to offer apologies for ­Vichy’s collaboration with Nazi Germany. Vichy came to be regarded as a mere extension of the Nazi regime. As such, it is supposed to exemplify a perennial fascist, authoritarian temptation in the French identity, for which the French must continually do penance. Taché is typical. In his debate with Zemmour, he claimed that Louis XIV, Napoleon, the suppression of the Commune, and Marshal Pétain all represented this same impulse.

This view, too, is false. Besides the egregious anachronism of redescribing all of French history in terms of a mid-twentieth-century ideology, this myth misunderstands the France of the 1940s. Far from simply a Nazi front, the Vichy regime was a multifaceted phenomenon. Perhaps the easiest way to demonstrate the regime’s complications is to follow the path of Julian Jackson in his monumental France: The Dark Years and enumerate pro-­Pétainiste Frenchmen who joined the Resistance.

Yet Zemmour has fearlessly—even recklessly—dived into the most controversial question of Vichy’s dynamic: its relationship to the Holocaust. One of the regime’s many paradoxes is that though it assisted in deporting foreign Jews to Germany, it obstructed German efforts to deport French Jews. The result was that 88 to 95 percent of French Jews were saved from the camps. Did the regime intend this? Or was it a consequence of the French people’s refusal to ­cooperate with the Germans? In print and on television, Zemmour argued the former: Pétain a sauvé les Juifs français! Zemmour’s foes pounced on this to accuse him formally of “contesting a crime against humanity” (illegal in France). After the ensuing trial, which brought forth a number of historians as witnesses, Zemmour was acquitted in February.

Zemmour picks these fights in order to challenge the “doxa” that enshrines a narrative of national guilt, which threatens to condemn, discard, and erase the past. “From Clovis to Pétain to Bugeaud,” he counters, “I take everything up.” He insists that his desire to commemorate everything in France’s past does not mean that he aims to celebrate everything in France’s past. Yet he is relentless in challenging the narratives of France’s history that are used to incite national guilt, even over the most delicate episodes. Zemmour never allows remorse to have the last word.

Zemmour is most successful on the cultural battlefield when he reveals how French progressives hawk revisionist history. Progressives reinterpret the French Revolution in terms of contemporary values such as egalitarianism and feminism. The Jacobins are to be praised for their egalitarian ideals (even if they went too far with the Terror). Minor actors such as Olympe de Gouges are portrayed as feminist protagonists at the vanguard of the Revolution.

Every generation must contend with revisionist histories of the Revolution; in the sixties and seventies, the revisionist history was ostensibly Marxist. The historian of the French Revolution François Furet, who had come of age in communist circles but later abandoned them, took this revisionist history to task. His great achievement was to demonstrate how this revisionism misunderstood the Revolution and was caught in a contradiction. Marxists sought to denigrate the early Revolution as bourgeois and elevate the latter Jacobin Revolution as the true Revolution, but they conveniently ignored the fact that the Jacobins were likewise bourgeois. Either Marxists should follow through with their theory and denigrate the whole revolution as bourgeois; or they should admit that their elevation of the Jacobins was part of a neo-Jacobin political agenda, which fetishized revolution as the universal liberator of society and the only real source for political legitimacy. Since most followed the latter path, these “Marxists” were not sober historians but neo-Jacobin activists.

Zemmour is a twenty-first-century mass-media version of François Furet, exposing a similar contradiction in the strand of the French left now dominant. Their historical errors are legion. In recasting the Revolution as feminist, for example, progressive historical revisionism conveniently omits the fact that much of the spirit of the Revolution was a reaction against the elevated role women played under the monarchy. In the salons and the royal court, women in the ancien régime exercised an unprecedented degree of intellectual and political power. As part of the campaign to purify France and banish the social remnants of the monarchy, the Jacobins sought to consign women to the domestic sphere. The fanatical determination to try and condemn Marie ­Antoinette was motivated in part by the conviction that her very womanhood was a sign of contradiction to the Revolution. Her public, sometimes flamboyant life defied the Jacobin ideal of femininity. To ram this point home to the Jacobin jury, the prosecution attacked her in the domestic sphere, arguing that she was a negligent mother who sexually abused her children. And it is not difficult to show that characters such as Olympe de Gouges do not merit their world-­historical status. She was guillotined under the Terror and was of such little importance that Robespierre did not know of her execution.

Progressives should either follow their ­theory through, admit that the Revolution was not “­progressive,” and denigrate it; or they should admit that in elevating a highly selective version of the Revolution, they are partisan idealogues. Yet this time they are not neo-Jacobins, but conventional American progressives. French progressives trade on the prestige of the Revolution to ape an egalitarian agenda set in the United States. Their ideology is a foreign import.

The French are catching onto this trick and losing patience with it. Zemmour’s rise coincides with a paradigm shift in French society: the increased willingness of those in the public square to criticize the left. The longstanding custom in French public life was that when it came to social and cultural matters, the left was exempt from criticism. Any criticism of leftist ideals was held to be immoral. The progressive left, however, bet big on a multicultural experiment; with almost daily Islamist attacks in France, their thesis has been very visibly falsified. This is why Macron’s government, reading the public mood, now repeatedly attacks American identity politics and the left’s tendency to excuse Islamists (islamo-gauchisme). A few years ago, this was an argument only Zemmour and a few bravados would have dared to make. Moreover, the political failures to secure public safety have called into question the judicial arrangements which, in the name of securing ever-expanding notions of “the rights of man,” have fragmented the state’s powers.

In one sense, the paradigm shift seems to entail a sharp turn to the right. Zemmour’s critiques of judicial activism and his preference for an energetic executive, coupled with his admiration for the way Napoleon and de Gaulle countered the fragmentation of the French state, would seem to align him with Gaullism, Bonapartism, or even with the more traditional, monarchical strands on the French right. His enemies call him an anti-Enlightenment reactionary and tie him to the most influential twentieth-century strand of the French right, Action française.

Yet the shift is subtler than that, as the sources for Zemmour’s own views indicate. Zemmour’s interpretation of French history breaks from the customary interpretation of the French right. Take, for instance, how Zemmour understands Napoleon. In Destin français, Zemmour regards him as a prophet of the kind of legitimacy and power that would come to constitute modern Europe: legitimacy on the basis of national glory and democratic plebiscite; and power on the basis of a proto-European project. Napoleon governed the same territorial space that would come together in the Treaty of Rome in 1957. Napoleon’s tragedy was that, despite his prophetic deeds, he did not grasp his own prescience. Instead of contenting himself with democratic legitimacy, he set out on a quixotic pursuit of monarchical legitimacy. And he was too generous to his opponents, failing to make full use of his military victories to break the old powers of Europe. The old powers subsequently used the new legitimizing principles to break Napoleon. Having defeated the Europe of monarchs, he was defeated by the Europe of nations.

There is a touch of Hegelian progressivism about this interpretation, wherein Zemmour praises ­Napoleon because he inaugurated modernity. Despite his reputation as an anti-Enlightenment reactionary, Zemmour admires the Code Civil, often viewed as a product of Enlightenment rationalism. Zemmour’s account of Napoleon comes dangerously close to collapsing into Whiggish history—a liberal history—but for one intriguing feature.

For Zemmour, the Napoleonic era discloses two different ways of ordering the Earth, two different ways of ordering modernity. From the collapse of the peace of Amiens to the Continental System to the battle of Waterloo, Napoleon’s grand strategy attempted to unite Europe to defeat the British. This struggle was not simply another saga in France’s battle with perfidious Albion. It was the struggle between two different politico-economic systems. On the one hand stood Smith, laissez-faire, and free trade. On the other stood Colbert, economic dirigisme, and protectionism. In short, the struggle between the English and Napoleon was the struggle between the forces of globalization and those opposed to it.

Napoleon represented the achievements of the pre-globalized, pre-liberal world. His reign was not just the last opportunity for France to be a great power; it was the last opportunity to dispel the temptation of globalization. He lost, and the era of globalization came. This era is not, Zemmour insists, an era of peaceful international cooperation. Globalization masks hegemony. In the nineteenth century, globalization meant English hegemony. In the twentieth century, the baton was passed to the United States. We now live in the era of globalized American hegemony—though this era is ending, as Zemmour argues that the determination of the American deep state to turn President Trump into a four-year “prisoner of the White House” has effectively passed the baton to China.

Concerning Napoleon, the right in France has taken a different view. For Jacques Bainville, the most important historian connected with Action française, ­Napoleon’s tragedy was classical: a case study in hubris, then nemesis. At first, his ambitions and efforts to bend Europe to his will met with stunning success. But he pushed too far, into Spain and Russia. Completely defeated, he left France weaker and smaller than when he had started. De Gaulle agreed. Napoleon may have been a genius, but he was a cautionary tale in the political history of France. Napoleon demonstrated immoderation rather than the mesure proper to statesmen. Unlike Zemmour, moreover, de Gaulle sympathized with economic liberals and gave some key portfolios in his government.

Action française, for its part, may share Zemmour’s hostility to economic liberalism and its way of ordering the Earth, but it likewise interpreted Napoleon as a cautionary tale. It regarded Napoleon’s immoderate statecraft as a departure from the moderate statecraft exercised by the kings of France. Constructed on the basis of the Revolution rather than royalism, the ­Napoleonic system lacked the natural and institutional checks that the monarchy had provided. The ultimate lesson was about the dangers of regime change predicated on the theoretical basis of the French Revolution.

Zemmour’s preference for a strong executive that defends the people against entrenched judicial and political interests draws from the Bonapartist tradition of how best to exercise the powers of the state. Since the late nineteenth century, this resolution to the problem of political power is a tradition on the right. But in repeating republican admiration for Napoleon, ­Zemmour has more in common with the views of the republican left than with those of the right. His national history is a version of the reconciling left-­nationalism that triumphed under the Third Republic. This form of nationalism celebrates the greatest achievements of royalists, republicans, and Bonapartists, for whatever their disagreements, they were all Frenchmen united by love of country. ­Zemmour is certainly a nationalist, but nationalism is a promiscuous creed.

Zemmour defends the left-nationalism of the Republic because he himself is a perfect product of its most important achievement, republican national education. As Danièle Masson argues in her monograph Éric Zemmour: itinéraire d’un insoumis, ­Zemmour is a success story for France’s left-republican program of national assimilation. Although he grew up in a refugee family of Algerian Jews, he did not view himself as an outsider. He permitted France’s story to become his own story. Zemmour defends the republican ideal: a France that proudly teaches that a plurality of religions and races can share in France’s history and join the national family. They can all be united in spirit with the same ancestors, nos ancêtres les Gaulois. They can all become French.

Zemmour’s popularity evinces the enduring attraction of a political tradition that twenty-first-century progressives declare cannot and should not exist: a nationalism of the left. This is a nationalism that regards the nation as the primary form of solidarity and aspires to organize state and society in a way that restrains and tames economic power. It gives an individual of humble and foreign origins, such as Zemmour, a dignity through citizenship by allowing him to participate in a common national history—rather than through a quixotic search for dignity by means of a racialized ideology of ­oppressor-oppressed.

The rise of Zemmour points to the struggle between progressivism and left-nationalism, a struggle overlooked in the more acute conflict between Europe and Islam. For decades, progressives had the upper hand. They pushed the political tradition of left-nationalism aside, driving its representatives out of influential positions in politics and culture. In the Anglo-American world they have almost ­completely succeeded. But Zemmour has bucked the trend. He indicts progressivism for its attempt to liquidate left-republican nationalism. On behalf of that version of nationalism, inflected with the Bonapartist resolution to the problem of political power, he is at the forefront of what is possibly the most potent counterrevolutionary strategy available in the West. The nationalism of the left remains a viable political tradition. When tapped, it draws support from unexpected quarters and destabilizes established alignments. In spite of the efforts to marginalize this political tradition, its spirit endures. As with ­Zemmour, submission is not its destiny. 

Nathan Pinkoski is a research fellow and director of academic programs at the Zephyr Institute.

Photo by Esby via Creative Commons. Image cropped.