Éric Zemmour: the far-right polemicist’s ideas have a long history in France

Zemmour’s statements about universalism, assimilation and “separatism” have deep roots in the history of the French Republic

Zemmour’s ideas are nothing new. Bertrand Guay/AFP

Éric Zemmour has become a household name in France. Buoyed by repeated appearances on French television news shows, including the conservative channel CNews (often referred to as the French version of Fox News), Zemmour is widely assumed to be considering a run for president in 2022.

A recent poll saw him predicted to reach the second round of voting alongside current president, Emmanuel Macron, out-performing Zemmour’s potential rival on the far-right, Marine Le Pen.

Zemmour has twice been convicted by the French courts for inciting racial hatred. He openly promotes the “Great Replacement” theory – a racist belief, popular on the far-right in Europe, the US and the UK, that white people will soon be “replaced” by non-white, non-European immigrants.

He would have us believe that France’s greatness is built upon its position at the top of a “hierarchy of cultures”. This position turns a blind eye to the horrors of French colonial racism, considering it a necessary price for offering colonised people their moral enlightenment.

Assimilation and separatism

In Zemmour’s view, French life and French values are under threat from Islam. He argues that France is contaminated by “separatism”.

“Separatism” is a loaded term in France. It was once used to describe anti-colonial struggles, particularly those in Algeria and has been the standard accusation thrown at Jewish people since antiquity, and forms the basis of much modern anti-Semitism. But it is also current government policy to root out “separatism” through a new law promoting “respect for the principles of the Republic”.

Zemmour is also an ardent supporter of assimilation of migrants to France. His endorsement of assimilation should not be surprising, particularly when we recall that this word was once used to justify the race-based politics evident in the privileges enjoyed by French colonists, which turned them into a quasi-aristocracy; a race apart.

In fact, American historian Tyler Stovall observed that colonists were more inclined to call themselves “white” or “European” than French. He writes:

“It was in the colonies that understandings of the French national idea first became confused with the racial idea of whiteness.”

Yet upholding assimilationism in Zemmour’s view would also imply the non-assimilation of certain groups. He regularly argues, for example, that Islam is not compatible with the Republic – the opposite of assimilationist politics.

This is also an idea with deep roots – it should be remembered that to obtain French citizenship in 1958, Algerian Muslim women were required to remove their headscarves during inauguration ceremonies. What better way to illustrate that you had to stop being a Muslim woman to become a French one?

False universalism

Zemmour’s pronouncements may be incendiary, but through them we can see that the old idea of a French nation defined in racial terms has had a lasting influence on contemporary debate.

One such idea is that of “universalism”, which holds that the national characteristic of being French supersedes any other identity an individual may have. But if immigrants are asked to defer to French traditions based on an assumption that such traditions are inherently universal, universalism becomes not a form of humanism that embraces diversity, but rather a nationalistic symbol.

This is how Achille Mbembe described the concept in a 2005 article:

“Having long upheld the ‘republican model’ as the perfect vehicle for inclusion and the emergence of individuality, we have ultimately turned the Republic into an imaginary institution, and underestimated its original capacity for brutality, discrimination and exclusion.”

A harsh judgement, perhaps, but French history (long before the establishment of the Republic) attests to this racialised dimension. When it uses national identity as the guiding light of the republican cause, universalism has been seriously misled, to the point of forfeiting all substance.

It is worth noting that this version of universalism can appear in other guises, particularly in anti-cosmopolitanism, which slanders society’s incorrigible utopians and blindsided bleeding hearts. This is precisely the tone adopted by Éric Zemmour.

One might even hypothesise that hiding behind this false universalism is a hatred of the universal, exemplified in the famous quote by Joseph de Maistre in his Considerations on France (1796):

“In my life I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians, and so on. I even know, thanks to Montesquieu, that one can be Persian. But as for man, I declare I’ve never encountered him.”

In much the same way, Zemmour presents us with a fragmented world that offends his own obsession with purity – his simultaneous hatred of intermingling and a fear of sameness.

Three years ago, my colleague and I wrote an article about Zemmour’s place in the public arena in France, and how we should resist his impoverished, black-and-white vernacular. In light of his recent rise, we must continue to do so. There may still be time to change things.

Alain Policar
Chercheur associé en science politique (Cevipof), Sciences Po

* Published in print edition on 19 October 2021

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