‘Without France the EU is dead’: Eric Zemmour wants to smash Emmanuel Macron – and Brussels too
Harry de Quetteville meets the Right-wing TV pundit who has transformed France’s presidential election campaignByHarry de Quetteville19 November 2021 • 8:31pm
He arrives late, immaculate in a dark blue suit, besieged by his own social media teams, a member of his entourage stepping forward to straighten his already straight tie, this firebrand of French politics, this man they call “Z”, like the mask-wearing hero of old school TV shows.
But unlike Zorro, Eric Zemmour, journalist turned star turned insurgent candidate for next year’s French presidential election, is only too pleased to reveal his true identity: as the saviour not of the damsel in distress, but of the nation, in what he frames as a clash of civilisations between France and Islam, the latter of which he fears will “brutally crush” his native land.
“It’s about life and death for France,” he says. “About a people being replaced by another people, another civilisation.”
It’s a clash that has all the more resonance because, unlike the Le Pen dynasty – Jean-Marie and now Marine – who campaigned on similar themes with the National Front, Zemmour, 63, has roots in North Africa himself. His family arrived from Algeria in 1952. But they were Jewish, not Arab – a distinction that now serves twin political purposes: insulation from charges of anti-Semitism frequently levelled at the Le Pens; and as living example: one community determined to integrate, he claims, the other, in his words, not only resistant, but actively dangerous to the French body politic, driving a “Great Replacement” of the native population, with ever-larger Islamic diasporas “who impose their morals, their laws, their beliefs, their names, with a colonialising logic.”
“The numbers are awful,” he says, about migration – both legal and clandestine. Addressing it would be his number one priority, he insists. First, he says, by making France far less welcoming to immigrants who arrive legally (400,000 of them each year, he claims, though the number is fiercely disputed). “I would scrap family immigration,” says, “you have to take away all these rights they have over the state. It’s up to the state to decide who gets to come.” Asylum would be granted to “maximum a few people each year”. Illegal immigration, he says, is a “merry-go-round at the end of which they get regularised anyway.” Such changes would be put to the French people in a referendum, he promises.
As for illegal immigration, he would happily build a wall if need be, he says, echoing Donald Trump, the man he is most often compared to, though in truth with his diminutive frame, nasal voice and evident craft and calculation he is another beast altogether to the statuesque ex-president. “I congratulate Poland on wanting to build a wall,” he says. “If necessary I would close our borders with Italy, or Spain, whatever the Schengen Treaty says.”
‘Without France, the EU is dead’
What about objections from Brussels? “Without France the EU is dead.” Brussels, he says, will bend to his will, and the will of France. Britain’s trouble in extracting concessions was that we weren’t in the euro or Schengen area, making our departure painful, but not fatal. So he fully expects to be able to “send them home” – immigrants who he has frequently blamed for “theivery, rape, killings”. It is a phrase which has a catchy ring to it in French “vols, viols, assassinats”, and is an example of Zemmour, who had a brief career in advertising, always being able find a memorable slogan – even if, as in this case as in a dozen others, it lands him before French judges on charges of inciting hatred.
He doesn’t care. In fact, like our own prime minister who, a Brussels correspondent for this newspaper, once declared that he grew addicted to outraging people (“chucking these rocks over the garden wall.. I listened to this amazing crash from the greenhouse next door”), Zemmour too admits to being thrilled by controversy. In his recent book he describes being written off as “an extreme right polemicist” after broadcasting the regular political TV show which, since 2019, has made his name. Far from being downhearted, the criticism was an important triumph. “In our team, the mood was euphoric.”
Scandal brings attention and popularity. So it’s hard to be sure sometimes if he’s serious, this bookish figure, who professes his love and deep knowledge of French history, when he makes such astonishingly bold promises: pull France out of Nato (“it’s pointless now, just there to serve the allies of the US. France isn’t America’s lapdog”); disregard the European Court on Human Rights (“I don’t want to leave the EU, but they can’t do without us.”) France under his leadership would become “a non-aligned country, as we used to say in the Cold War”.
What is sure is that, fuelled by such rhetoric, he has, from nowhere, emerged since the summer to become a chief rival to Emmanuel Macron ahead of next April’s presidential election.
Indeed, the only moment in our interview in the Ned Hotel opposite the Bank of England where he is momentarily lost for words is when I ask if he would be happy to repeat his thesis that Marshal Petain, First World War hero turned collaborationist, “protected French Jews” in the Second World War. Suddenly he minces his words. He was talking about a historical analysis, he says, not necessarily his own. Can he see that some other Jews might be horrified? “Yes, but I’ve talked to them.” Chucking political rocks, it’s clear, can have negative career consequences too.
Soon he’s swinging back on to what he views as safer political territory, Islamist terror attacks. When I point out that the Great Replacement theory motivated Berton Tarrant, who killed 51 Muslims in Christchurch in 2019, Zemmour responds: “There’s been one [extreme right terror attack]. One. We always talk about the same one; how many attacks in the name of Allahu Akbar have there been? How many killed?”
He wants to supercharge French industry, and lower taxes. But it says a lot for the details of the rest of his political programme that possibly the best known is a desire to raise speed limits of France’s roads. Zemmour’s pro-motorist stance is a naked pitch to the Yellow Vest fuel-tax protesters who so tormented Macron in the early days of his presidency.
But there is impeccable logic to the move. He will need a wide coalition of supporters to stand a chance of winning. He thinks he can stitch together the French Catholic traditional Right with the working classes (“mon public de sans-culottes” as he calls them), much as Boris Johnson has done here.
Even if he can’t, it is astonishing to remark how overtly conservative France now is. Twenty years ago, the political scene in France was still overshadowed by Socalist President Francois Mitterrand, and the country’s cultural discourse was framed by the cobblestone hurlers of 1968. No longer. The Left is in free fall. The Socialist Party candidate, Anne Hidalgo, is currently on 7 per cent.
Which leaves Macron, who stitched together the centre right and left, against Marine Le Pen or Zemmour, who hope to beat him by stitching together the fringes. Though “we’ve moved beyond Left and Right now,” Zemmour says. The battle today, is instead nationalism against universalism – chiefly the supranational edicts of globalisation and Islam.
He says the numbers are there to win, points to polls saying that more than 60 per cent of French people reject multiculturalism. The polls he doesn’t point to are the ones that say that Macron would beat him handsomely, 58 to 42 per cent. “This is the beginning,” he says. “No one in history has done what I’ve done in the last few months.”
Just the prospect of reaching such Olympian political heights brings an impish grin to his face, as if he can’t believe it’s happening to him. In fact, though he talks of his “opponents” for next year, the only identity that Z keeps well masked is that of presidential candidate. For all the hoop-la surrounding his campaign, he has not officially announced he is standing. That is, the whispers say, to come in a fortnight’s time, at a rally in Paris, presuming he has the cash and the political backing – he needs the support of 500 elected mayors, not easy to gather. “Do you have them,” I ask. “No,” he says. Frank as ever.
But even if he does stand, you might ask, what’s the point? Just to become another fringe candidate battered by the mainstream. That was the fate of Jean-Marie le Pen in 2002 and last time, in 2017, of his daughter Marine. Zemmour insists he can do better, certainly than Le Pen fille who was humiliated in tv debates against Macron. She was “lamentable,” Zemmour notes and “humiliated us all.” Voting Le Pen this time, he says, is “voting for Macron.”
Naturally, this populist intellectual, this orator, this TV evangelist of Judeo-Christian French civilisation in what he sees as the nation state’s Darwinian fight to the death, thinks he can do far better if he gets the chance. “It could well be a decisive night,” he says of that televised debate next year.
A subscriber to the great man theory of history, he wants then to inflict a humiliation of his own, against Macron, a man who has referred to himself as Jupiter and held court at Versailles and led an astonishing come-from-nowhere campaign himself to win last time around. Truly, the two men, for all their ideological differences, have much in common. Disrupters both. But the globalist, corporatist eroder of national sovereignty, as Zemmour paints Macron, has had his day. Now, he notes: “It’s my turn.”