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France: Why Eric Zemmour's rhetoric should worry us all

'France's Trump' holds dangerous, divisive views on race and immigration and appears to be gaining favour among sections of the French elite
French far-right media pundit Eric Zemmour (C) arrives at the ILEC conference centre in west London on 19 November 2021, to attend an evening with members of London's French community (AFP)

It is not yet clear whether the recent cancellation of the French far-right figure Eric Zemmour’s event at London’s Royal Institution will necessarily be a blow to his presumed presidential campaign. While it should be welcomed, anti-racists should also be careful not to overstate its significance.

Zemmour’s appearance at the prestigious institution was due to take place on Friday, but was called off by the RI. “Following a process of due diligence the RI has taken the decision to cancel the venue hire event and therefore Mr Zemmour will not be speaking at the RI,” its statement explained.

This might be a sign that an important section of the French elite is sympathetic towards, or even directly supportive of, Zemmour’s presidential hopes

While this can be seen as a victory for those who believe that Zemmour should not be given a platform to air his anti-migrant, anti-Muslim and generally racist views, Zemmour's campaign team may also see it as a win - citing it as proof of the importance of a Zemmour run at the French presidency in 2022. In this way, it could serve as a legitimising exercise for the figure often dubbed "France’s Trump".

Within France, it has become important for many in the establishment to distinguish the two characters from each other at the very time the international commentariat is underlying their important similarities.

This might be a sign that an important section of the French elite is sympathetic towards, or even directly supportive of, Zemmour's presidential hopes.

Admiration for Trump

For example, Gerard Araud, France's ambassador to Washington during Trump's presidency, told AFP: "I believe in the comparison to Trump and also with Boris Johnson. Basically, the Americans want a billionaire, the British someone from Eton and Oxford, and the French want a cultured figure."

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However, Zemmour’s political views and track record place him squarely in the same political camp as Trump, Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro, Italy's Matteo Salvini and many of the other right-wing populists currently in positions of power around the world.

In fact, Zemmour’s admiration for Trump is a matter of public record. He expressed it directly during a TV interview earlier this month, when he said: “He succeeded in bringing together the working classes and the patriotic bourgeoisie. That's what I've been dreaming about… for 20 years."

supporter of the great replacement theory, Zemmour spends his time as a commentator and author spreading the ethno-nationalist false notion that white people "native" to western lands are being “replaced” by a never-ending flood of non-white immigrants

He has described the racially diverse Parisian area of Seine-Saint-Denis, for example, as “no longer France”, adding that it has become “another continent” because of the Arab and African population living there. He has even said that should he ever be elected as president, he would implement a ban on Mohammed as a first name as it is "it is not a French name".

Furthermore, his racist and xenophobic views are so considerable that he has faced several convictions over inciting racial and religious hatred, including after his statement on TV that "jihadists were considered to be good Muslims by all Muslims."

'Thieves, murders, rapists'

Even now, at the very moment he is attempting to rally support from French expats in the UK, he is once again on trial in Paris over charges related to “incitement to hatred or violence” towards a group of people due to their ethnicity, religion, race or nationality.

This is specifically regarding comments he made during a television debate on France's CNews in 2020 when, in reference to children who migrate to France without parents or guardians, he declared: “They’re thieves, they’re murderers, they’re rapists, that’s all they are. We must send them back.”

His lawyer, Olivier Pardo, has argued that the current claims against him are unsubstantiated, stating that “[h]e’s wanted for ‘racial hate’ but as far as I know an unaccompanied minor is neither a race, nor a nation, nor an ethnicity”. 

Zemmour was also not present in court at the start of the trial last week.

French far-right 2022 French presidential election candidate Marine Le Pen (C) poses for 'selfies' with supporters
French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen (C) poses for pictures with supporters in Bayeux, north-western france on 9 November 2021 (AFP)

Moreover, Zemmour is a popular figure of the Fachosphere - a word used to describe the network of far-right internet spaces in France. Like other far-right politicians, Zemmour “is generating more engagement online than any other declared candidate by stirring controversies and making outrageous claims, which social media algorithms amplify,” says Cecile Simmons of the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue.

It is difficult to know how much support the "Eric Zemmour in London" event - which can only be assumed to be his presidential campaign rally (although he has yet to officially confirm his candidacy) - was expected to garner.

MEE reached out to Zemmour for comment, and sent questions to his Twitter account, but his team did not reply to our request as this article went to print.

It has been reported that Zemmour's team found the RI’s decision to cancel his appearance “incomprehensible”. They stated that over 300 people had already registered to attend and that they are looking to legally challenge the venue over the “scandalous” move.

Zemmour’s team even questioned whether it was an attempt to “completely sabotage the moment” and that a space privately hired should not be making decisions over whether he “has the right to address people or not”.

Cultivation of international ties

Cue the accusations of Zemmour’s freedom of speech being under threat. In fact, the commotion surrounding the cancellation, and the extra attention it is generating for him, would make for a much more plausible motive for the trip in the first place. A few hundred overseas French voters do not seem worthy of all the energy and time.

He has pushed the debate even further to the right, despite Marine Le Pen and her National Rally party’s already remarkable achievements on that front

As things currently stand, it appears unlikely that Zemmour, if nominated, could win next year's presidential race against Emmanuel Macron.

In reality, Macron has already normalised and shown a commitment to so many of the toxic anti-migrant, anti-Muslim views peddled by the likes of Zemmour and Marine Le Pen. From the targeting of Muslims through the so-called separatism crackdown that has forced the closure of mosques and Muslim organisations, to the drastic reduction in the number of visas that will be distributed to North Africans, his term has been defined by a further shift towards the politics of the far-right.

Ultimately, it is the impact that Zemmour’s rhetoric could have on the political debates both during the campaign and in the future that should worry us all. This is where he represents the most immediate danger to the communities he is attacking.

He has pushed the debate even further to the right, despite Le Pen and her National Rally party’s already remarkable achievements on that front. Attacks on migrants, Muslims and minorities, as well as the rolling back of civil liberties, have defined this election already, with barely any challenge coming from the political centre. These issues will continue to be the focus of debate in the years to come.

In this context, cancelling Zemmour’s appearances might be the right thing to do. But it is only a very small step towards turning the tide of reaction that threatens to swallow us whole.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Malia Bouattia
Malia Bouattia is an activist, the former president of the National Union of Students, co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network and presenter/panelist on British Muslim TV's Women Like Us.