Fiery polemicist Eric Zemmour reshapes the French presidential election

Zemmour has frequently been accused of inciting hatred against Muslims and Africans

A town that would rather forget its place in history has been thrust back into the spotlight as the far right poses a growing threat to Emmanuel Macron, five months ahead of French presidential elections.

Civic leaders in Vichy, the elegant spa resort chosen as the seat of Marshal Philippe Petain’s collaborationist war-time government, have traditionally sought to avoid embarrassing reminders.

Seventy-seven years after France’s liberation from Nazi occupation, the town still has no museum dedicated to the Petain years.

As part of its unwanted legacy, “Vichyiste” is widely seen as a pejorative term in France – except on the far right.

But with Mr Macron facing not one but possibly two radically right-wing, populist contenders for the Elysee, attention again focuses more on Vichy’s past than its recent designation as a Unesco World Heritage site.

One of his potential challengers, the commentator and essayist Eric Zemmour, has pointedly revived his argument that Petain’s reputation has been unfairly tarnished.

At odds with the analysis of most historians, he has repeated a claim that the Vichy regime saved French lives by deporting only foreign Jews to the Nazi concentration camps.

He acknowledges that even this supposed policy was “abominable” because it led to the deaths of innocents.

But the assertion adds to his long record of revisionist statements that also include questioning the innocence of Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish army officer wrongly convicted of treason in 1894.

Mr Zemmour, 63, the son of Berber Jews who emigrated to France during Algeria’s war of independence, is no stranger to controversy, having frequently been accused of inciting hatred against Muslims and Africans.

He has no experience of public office and has yet to announce whether he intends to run for the presidency.

But positioning himself as an intellectual version of former US president Donald Trump, he seeks to appeal to nationalistic French voters disenchanted with conventional politicians and mainstream media.

Mr Zemmour rejects the “far right” label commonly attached to him. But he has repeatedly portrayed Petain in a more favourable light than the post-war trial that condemned him to death, a sentence commuted to life imprisonment because of his status as a First World War military hero.

Seven years ago, in a book entitled The Suicide of France: the 40 Years that Defeated France, Mr Zemmour deplored the “guilt over Vichy [that] lies at the very heart of French self-loathing”.

In his more recent comments, on the right-wing French channel CNews in September, he again claimed the wartime regime saved French Jews, an argument for which there appears to be no historical basis.

Despite tantalising uncertainty over his ambitions, Mr Zemmour’s agenda has sent shockwaves through French politics, his explosive personality making him a pivotal figure in the pre-campaign electioneering.

While Mr Macron still leads narrowly in the opinion polls, Mr Zemmour is vying for second place with the more established far-right figure, Marine Le Pen.

Recent surveys still suggest Mr Macron would beat either in a run-off, although less decisively than when he faced Ms Le Pen in 2017 and won 66 per cent of the vote.

The threat to Mr Macron could increase if Mr Zemmour reached the second-round decider and drew votes from the conventional right, which he sees as a natural source of support.

Exploiting voters

Like Ms Le Pen, Mr Zemmour is obsessed with immigration, claiming that this – along with liberal social policies – has damaged French society. But whereas she broadly accepts Muslims who respect republican values, he considers Islam to be incompatible with them.

Exploiting the concerns of conservative voters has won Mr Zemmour support from a significant minority of the French public.

“It is all too easy to label someone extreme right because they raise sensitive subjects,” one middle-class voter told The National. “He is entitled to be heard and is often right.”

A nationwide tour to promote his latest book, France hasn't had its Last Word, has not only generated huge sales – more than 200,000 in its first few weeks since publication – but assumed the appearance of an unannounced campaign tour.

His views have twice brought him convictions and fines for provoking discrimination or hatred of Muslims, although he sees himself as a ”dissident not a delinquent” and has been acquitted on other occasions.

In 2018, he told The Washington Post: “Today, we live in a de facto colonisation from the populations that come from the south of the Mediterranean and who impose – through numbers and, sometimes, with violence – a de facto Sharia.”

In the following year, he provocatively developed his arguments about an alleged ”great replacement” – Muslims and Africans threatening to outnumber indigenous French – at a right-wing rally in Paris, saying France’s young people “deserve to be colonised” if they did not “fight for their liberation”.

He attacked the “Islamic universalism” that he said was transforming French towns and suburbs into “so many Islamic republics where Algerian or Palestinian flags are waved when their football team wins – I mean the team they love, the team of their parents’ country, not the team of their identity or health insurance card”.

That speech also landed him in court. He was fined €10,000 ($11,580) for "insult and incitement to hatred" although the conviction was later overturned because his comments were held to target “not all Africans, immigrants or Muslims but only fractions of these groups”. Prosecutors have launched an appeal.

'Bubble that may well burst'

French political analysts are divided on the likely effects of what BFMTV called, in the title of a documentary shown this week, “a French obsession” with Mr Zemmour.

The programme examined his rise to fame as a combative broadcaster and writer from an unspectacular early career in journalism.

One former editor, Franz-Olivier Giesbert, remembered him returning “a little changed” from an assignment touring France to meet supporters of Ms Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, a veteran of France’s extreme right and co-founder of the movement formerly known as the Front National.

Jacques Reland, a fellow of the London-based think thank, the Global Policy Institute, is unimpressed sensing a “Zemmour bubble that may well burst”.

“He seems to hark back to a golden age for France that never really existed,” he told The National.

“This appeals to older voters, mostly men because he is also a misogynist, with concerns about security driven by right-wing media.

“But the young are not interested in him. He is obsessed with Islam and Arabs and if he stands, he would be torn apart in any debate on the economy and other serious issues as the election approaches.

"Zemmour will not be the next president of France.”

Updated: November 3rd 2021, 8:26 AM
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