Virtually no other Jew in the history of the France—at the very least in the last 60 years—has come as close to the country’s presidency as Eric Zemmour. Despite a complete lack of political experience, the right-wing journalist, author, and television personality has consistently placed among the top five candidates for next week’s election. And while he is unlikely to win, his outrageous public persona and his peculiar relationship with Judaism are worth closer study, reflecting as they do some of the complexities and cross-pressures of 21st-century French Jewish identity.
Only a few months ago, Zemmour was jockeying for second place with Marine Le Pen, a veteran politician who has led France’s far-right National Rally party for a decade and whose father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, led the party for nearly 40 years. Le Pen has since overtaken Zemmour in the race, but Zemmour’s early surge surprised many. Zemmour is something of an enigma: on the one hand, he publicly defends the conduct of France’s Nazi-aligned Vichy government, casts doubt on the innocence of Alfred Dreyfus, disdains Zionism, and extols the “unequalled splendor” of France’s Catholic heritage. In all this, and in his stridently anti-immigrant and anti-Islam stances, he has broken with many established Jewish institutions in France. He has even been called an anti-Semite by France’s chief rabbi. On the other hand, Zemmour observes Shabbat, keeps a kosher home, frequently attends synagogue, and seems to have cultivated a vision for a particularly Francophile version of Judaism, of which he sees himself as the prime representative. Where does such a man come from, and what does he mean?
Let us start with his own beginnings. Eric Zemmour was born in 1958 into a family of immigrants from French Algeria. His parents fled to France shortly before the Algerian Revolution along with their parents and siblings, all of whom were traditionally observant Jews. Raised first in a modest Paris suburb, and later a modest neighborhood within Paris, Zemmour attended two private Jewish day schools from first grade through secondary school. He then matriculated to the Paris Institute of Political Studies (commonly known as Sciences Po Paris or simply Sciences Po), France’s premier college for the political, administrative, and journalistic elite. As a youth, Zemmour proudly donned a star of David around his neck, which is especially notable given the widespread social stigma in France against wearing religious symbols in public; he also played HaTikvah at his twentieth birthday party.
Also while at Sciences Po, however, Zemmour became acutely aware of the obstacles to his social ambitions. As the French journalist and editor Etienne Girard has documented in his recent biography of Zemmour, Le Radicalisé, Zemmour’s status as a Sephardi Jew and the child of relatively poor immigrants rendered him an outsider to the higher, and whiter, classes of French society that dominated intellectual life in the 1970s (Zemmour graduated in 1979). Despite being generally acknowledged as a brilliant student, Zemmour twice failed to pass an oral entrance exam to join the École Nationale d’Administration (ENA), a highly exclusive training ground for the future political elite. He was crushed by this failure; as Girard notes, Zemmour seems to have attributed the rejection to his family background and his attendant lack of training in upper-class social codes. In Girard’s view, these experiences created or exacerbated an intense fear of not belonging, along with a fervent wish to assimilate into France’s uppermost circles.
Following his rejection from ENA, Zemmour briefly pursued a career in advertising before moving into political journalism, eventually landing a column in the conservative daily Le Figaro in 1996. By the mid-2000s, Zemmour began gaining greater notoriety with the publication of a series of controversial, bestselling books—mostly on the nation’s decline, which he argues is fueled by the loss of traditional French and Christian values, the immigration of Muslim Africans bent on a “reverse colonization” of France, the rise of feminism and a corresponding loss of virility, and the general replacement of Western culture with multiculturalism. These views struck a chord, and Zemmour became a frequent presence on political television; in 2019, he began hosting a nightly show on the right-wing CNews channel, something of the Fox News of France. His growing fame appears to have fueled his decision to run for president. (He gave up both his Le Figaro column and his CNews show upon launching his presidential campaign in 2021.)
Yet for all his fervency, Zemmour wasn’t always on the right. In the 1981 and 1988 presidential elections, he voted for François Mitterrand, who famously reinvigorated France’s Socialist Party and helped to unite France’s political left. Zemmour claims that he began moving away from the left after becoming disillusioned with the Socialist Party’s abandonment of its assimilationist immigration policy. But he continues to admire Mitterrand’s zeal and political acuity, and likes to call himself the “Mitterrand of the right.” Indeed, one of Zemmour’s key political goals is to unify and strengthen France’s fractured political right just as Mitterand did for the left. He views this task as essential to the right’s—and the country’s—political future. Partly in pursuit of this ambition, Zemmour has, as we’ll see a bit later, also dismissed or undermined important Jewish concerns.
Zemmour’s early conflicts regarding his public and private identities are perhaps most clearly and intimately on display in his three novels, none of which sold as well as his non-fiction books and all of which feature Jewish protagonists struggling to reconcile their Judaism and civic roles. His first, The Red Dandy, was published in 1999 and features the historical figure Ferdinand Lassalle, the German-Jewish jurist and philosopher who launched Germany’s social-democratic movement. In the story, Lassalle is forced to conceal his Jewish identity and ally himself with anti-Semites, yet he is never able to rid himself of his attachment to Judaism and feels like a perpetual outsider.
Zemmour’s later novels, Little Brother and The Other, feature melancholy main characters who more closely mirror Zemmour; both are Jewish journalists from the banlieues, the low-income suburbs outside Paris that are largely populated by immigrants—Zemmour’s childhood town of Drancy among them. They struggle to adapt to the social classes they must navigate within their profession and feel the need to conceal or sacrifice elements of their Jewish identities in doing so. Little Brother’s storyline even focuses on an anti-Semitic murder, directly inspired by the real murder of a young Jew in 2003, Sébastien Selam, who was killed by a former primary-school classmate of Moroccan descent. These books offer clues to Zemmour’s own ideological journey. But to grasp that trajectory more fully, one must also contend with the challenges unique to French Jewry, and those facing France as a whole.
It is no longer controversial to state that Jews in France are at a crossroads. For decades, they have been directly and brutally targeted by radical Islamists, while a more recent string of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories has been attributed to the populist “Yellow Vest” movement protesting President Emmanuel Macron’s neoliberal administration. France is still home to the largest Jewish community outside of Israel or the United States (roughly half a million Jews reside there), but over 10 percent of the French-Jewish community immigrated to Israel between 2000 and 2017. The largest movement of French Jewry in recent years, though, has been from one low-income banlieue to another, mostly in an attempt to escape hostile Muslim neighbors.
In that time, traditional political parties seem to have failed to integrate those immigrants or quell the social tensions they’ve posed. Some leaders on the political left—particularly environmentalists belonging to France’s Greens party as well as members of the populist, left-wing France Unbowed party—have forged a kind of unholy alliance with radical Islam, partly in hopes of wooing new French citizens from Muslim countries. In 2021, for example, Strasbourg’s left-wing mayor and city council agreed to subsidize the construction of a mosque affiliated with Turkey’s radical Milli Gorus Islamic Confederation movement. These positions run counter to the left’s historical fervor for a culture of ever-increasing secularism.
The political right in France is similarly splintered and confused. While there is broad agreement among right-leaning groups about the need to temper the influence of radical Islam, the far right has also long flirted with or outright embraced neo-Nazi positions. (Jean-Marie Le Pen’s anti-Semitism, for example, is notorious.) In other words, some of the political leaders who most forcefully oppose Muslim immigration are also hostile to Jewish communities. The center-right party The Republicans does not have the same history of anti-Semitism as the Le Pens’ National Rally, but its political force in national politics has diminished in the past ten years. Furthermore, a significant faction of the party has grown ideologically closer to the far right. For these and other reasons, many Jews in France have struggled to find a political home.
Zemmour wants to make their choice clearer—he wants Jews to commit to the right. But making the choice clearer has required putting Judaism into a very strange and very French box.
Zemmour seems to believe that the key to French-Jewish survival lies in the kind of assimilation that wholly embraces France’s cultural heritage, which he views as inseparable from France’s Catholic roots. In an interview, he argued that “to become French, one must become infused with Catholicism,” defining himself as “a man of the Old Testament who has received the culture of the New Testament.” In December 2021, Zemmour delivered a rather astonishing Christmas address in which he paid lengthy tribute to Christianity in general and to French Catholicism in particular, urging all French citizens to celebrate the day together.
When asked how someone who so embraces Christianity can maintain a Jewish identity, Zemmour makes a distinction between culture and faith, emphasizing the vital importance of sustaining France’s Christian culture even among those who do not believe in Christianity’s religious tenets. Here he looks to none other than Napoleon. In their recent book Zemmour and Us, the filmmaker Jonathan Hayoun and the psychoanalyst Judith Cohen-Solal highlight Zemmour’s positive view of Napoleon’s efforts to integrate Jews into French culture by “Christianizing” French Judaism. In his perceived need to Christianize Jews—in part by revoking the equal citizenship they had been granted during the Revolution a few years before—Napoleon was influenced by notable anti-Semites such as the philosopher and politician Louis de Bonald, who pleaded to Napoleon that “Jews could not be citizens under Christianity without becoming Christians.”
French Jews, of course, have tended to resist such ideas. And so, in addition to viewing Islam as a thoroughgoing threat to French culture, Zemmour sees elements of Judaism—or at least trends within the Jewish world—as similarly threatening. At times he has criticized French Jews in the same shocking tone with which he criticizes Muslims. In his latest book, he describes a group of French-Jewish children who were killed in a 2012 terrorist attack and buried in Israel as “foreigners above all and wanting to remain so beyond death.” He later reiterated this stance, in one interview asserting that the children “did not belong to France,” and in a separate television appearance questioning “if these people are French.” Unsurprisingly, these and other comments have been met with fierce backlash from France’s Jewish community. As noted earlier, the French chief rabbi Haim Korsia accused him of being an anti-Semite, a characterization that Zemmour called “grotesque.”
Zemmour is especially critical of what he sees as a growing insularity among French Jewry. This insularity is particularly present in poorer suburbs, where those Jews who remain live a segregated existence; it is also illustrated in the widespread move of Jewish students from public to private schools. Their tendency toward increased isolation from the broader French society is largely understood as a response to anti-Semitism, which has worsened under both right- and left-leaning governments; many Jews feel an increased need to stick together. But Zemmour has linked this inclination to the rise of Israel instead. In his 2018 book, The French Destiny, Zemmour argues that the Six-Day War represented a turning point for Jewish assimilation into French society; after Israel won, he claims, “Jewish schools stowed away their French patriotism to become torchbearers of Zionist activism in France.” While there’s little empirical evidence to support this, Zemmour seized on the idea seemingly in order to push the French-Jewish community to embrace his new version of Judaism: one in which there is no room for dual loyalty and in which allegiance to France and French identity trumps all religious obligation or attachment.
Zemmour is therefore not anti-Israel but intensely and actively uninterested in it. Even while members of Zemmour’s family have made aliyah, he has reportedly never visited them, nor accompanied his wife, a Tunisian-Jewish lawyer named Mylène Chichportich, on any of her trips there. And despite his pervasive commentary on most French and international events of the past twenty years, Zemmour has spoken relatively little about the Jewish state. In The French Destiny, Zemmour explains his lack of interest in Israel as a logical conclusion of choosing to remain in France. He frequently cites the French-Jewish philosopher Raymond Aron, who remarked in his 1981 book, Le Spectateur Engagé, “Jews [now] have the liberty to elect to be Jews in the Diaspora. They can also choose to be Jews in Israel, but if they choose to be Jews in France and as such French citizens, then they must respect that their nation is France and not Israel.”
Along these lines, Zemmour is also known to cite a famous pronouncement by the French Revolution-era politician Stanislas de Clermont-Tonnerre: “Jews must be refused everything as a nation but given everything as individuals.” This is commonly understood to imply that, while Jews as individuals should be given complete rights as citizens, the practice of Judaism should play no role in their public identities and France should not acknowledge their communal attachments. Clermont-Tonnerre’s actual meaning is disputed, but Zemmour has embraced the popular interpretation and frequently invokes it to criticize Jews for being too openly Jewish—thus elevating a privately religious understanding of Judaism over a public or national one.
Finally, Zemmour is notorious for citing a phrase that Napoleon reportedly used in an address to France’s Jewish community, in which he urged them to “consider Paris as Jerusalem.” In Zemmour’s telling, this implies that French Jews ought to abandon the hope of one day returning to their homeland as a Jewish nation, in exchange for being accepted as part of the French nation. To Zemmour, the commitment to France and one’s French identity must transcend all competing claims.
Understanding Zemmour’s own journey toward conceptualizing an “ideal” French Judaism also clarifies his position on Islam, and his claims as to why Islam is incompatible with France. Zemmour accepts the premise that France’s culture is Christian while recognizing that French society is no longer structured by Christian religious law. As such, Christianity as a religion has evolved to become a part of French national identity. This stands in contrast with the all-encompassing politico-civilizational ideals inherent in Judaism or Islam. In Zemmour’s view, to the extent that Jews have relinquished their attachment to this politico-civilizational vision, they have become integrated French citizens. And while Jewish attachments to Zionism and tendencies toward isolation may constitute threats to this integration, he nonetheless sees Jewish assimilation into French life as a model to be emulated and strengthened—and seems to view his own life as a prime example of this. In doing so, he has sought to draw a distinction between the successful integration of French Jews into France’s national culture—casting them as a “model minority”—and the comparative failure of Muslim immigrants to assimilate into French life.
Zemmour appears to believe that Muslims ought to follow the Jewish roadmap in forging their own French identity, even if the process is painful. “If Muslims are content to live their faith, they can be French,” he says. “If they follow a politico-civilizational system they cannot.” Zemmour doubts that Islam is capable of being anything other than an all-encompassing system. “What Napoleon required of Jews, Islam has never been able to achieve in its history,” he argues.
Zemmour’s unflinchingly harsh approach to the issue of Muslim immigration and integration has undeniably struck a chord. A string of Islamist-linked terror attacks continues to haunt the country—most notably the fatal shootings at the headquarters of the magazine Charlie Hebdo in January 2015, as well as the series of attacks across Paris on the night of November 15, 2015, in which 130 people were killed. There is also a low-grade thrum of higher criminality and insecurity in poor “high-priority” areas that are home to immigrant populations from largely Muslim countries; though Muslims are less than 15 percent of the total population, they make up around 60 percent of France’s prisoners, according to parliamentary reports. And while in recent years, Zemmour has been repeatedly charged, convicted, and fined for violating France’s hate-speech laws due to his anti-Muslim screeds, it is clear that they, and his nostalgic appeals to preserve the best of French culture in the face of creeping multiculturalism, resonate with many.
Beyond the perceived long-term threat to French culture, radical Islam poses an immediate danger to Jews in France. Over the course of decades, attacks on Jews have become almost routine; as noted, the neighborhood in which Zemmour spent his childhood, and many others like it, have become unsafe for Jewish residents. There is an appeal to some of France’s Jews here, in the space left open by the established parties’ failure to protect them.
To take one recent example, on April 4th, only six days before the first round of the presidential election, Zemmour broke the news that a handicapped Jewish man named Jeremy Cohen had been killed—hit by a tram in an attempt to escape an anti-Semitic lynch mob in the poor northern suburb of Bobigny. Prior to Zemmour’s public statement on the matter, the incident had been classified as a simple traffic accident. The tragedy encapsulates the hostility and real danger facing Jews in high-immigrant suburbs. In a primetime TV interview, Zemmour—in a sober tone unlike his usual combative demeanor—explained that he had only learned the true circumstances of Cohen’s death because Cohen’s father had personally contacted him. (After Zemmour’s announcement, previously stifled video evidence came out showing how Cohen died.) He went on to assert that what gave profound meaning to his candidacy was the desire to protect “these sorts of people, to protect the French and ensure that France returns to its once peaceful state.” Zemmour’s response might indicate that the plight of French Jews may loom larger in his mind, and play a greater role in his ambitions, than he is willing to admit publicly.
Indeed, Zemmour has bet that the right wing in France, if sufficiently committed to weeding out radical Islam, can allow for greater security for Jews and the country as a whole. But the right, he thinks, can win elections only if it is unified, which will require its centrists to come together with its hardliners. In Zemmour’s view, this will entail some ideological sacrifices—sacrifices that cut to the heart of how French Jews understand their country’s history.
The right in France is split, broadly speaking, into two factions. First, there are the center-right members of The Republicans, a party founded by former president Nicolas Sarkozy, the roots of which originate in the Union of Democrats for the Republic and which is now led by the veteran politician and former farmers’ union representative Christian Jacob. The party is guided by republican principles and is deeply inspired by the late president and World War II hero Charles de Gaulle, particularly de Gaulle’s emphasis on national sovereignty and unity. Various other far-right groups tend to assemble under the umbrella of the National Rally party, which was founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen and is now led by his daughter Marine, who has run for president three times. (If very recent polls are to be trusted, she is in striking distance of winning the presidency over Macron, in part because, some claim, Zemmour has made her seem more moderate.) National Rally stresses protectionism, law and order, and the dangers of immigration, among other things. It also includes some of France’s most virulent anti-Semites.
Importantly, in his 2014 book The French Suicide, Zemmour played to this group by defending Philippe Pétain, the celebrated World War I general who ran France’s Vichy government during the German occupation in World War II. Drawing from the work of the French-Israeli historian Alain Michel, Zemmour argues that Pétain sacrificed foreign Jews who were in France during the war in order to save French Jews. In other words, Zemmour claims, Pétain fulfilled his duty and protected French citizens, Jewish or otherwise.
This explanation runs counter to the accepted reading of Pétain’s actions by most historians, in which Pétain was personally responsible for persecuting Jews within Vichy France. And considering that thousands of Jews naturalized after 1927 were stripped of their French citizenship in 1940, Zemmour’s account is, at best, extremely reductive. Girard suggests that Zemmour’s attempt to rehabilitate Pétain can be attributed to Zemmour’s belief that the Nazi collaborator has become a convenient tool of the left with which to attack the right. In other words, he thinks that French conservatism’s historical connection to Vichy France has been used to divide and demoralize right-leaning groups. “The memory of 1940 haunts us, terrorizes us, and paralyses us,” Zemmour wrote in a 1995 essay. “The right does not dare be to the right. The taste for order is [considered automatically] fascist, and the love of country nationalist.”
Among other things, this means that the right must stop allowing the left to wield the specter of Jewish refugees during the Holocaust to prevent today’s leaders from deporting Arab and African migrants—who, Zemmour believes, jeopardize the French future and the French character in a way Jewish refugees never did. In short, Zemmour is determined to reconcile two very different branches of the French right: The Republicans, who are guided by the memory of French Resistance hero Charles de Gaulle; and the right-wing coalition of the National Rally, which includes people who would welcome a rehabilitated Petain. This is a daunting feat, no doubt, and one which requires a fair amount of intellectual inconsistency and historical revisionism. Of course, Zemmour’s efforts on this score have also outraged many in the Jewish community, who are not eager to gloss over Pétain’s actions.
Notwithstanding all this, through his vision of a singularly French Judaism, Zemmour is hoping that Jews can definitively enter the right’s tent as well—even if it means ceding some ground to historically anti-Semitic right-wing groups. This vision seems to have emerged via a combination of his own elitist ambitions and a complicated realpolitik. If Jews adhere to white Christian norms, at least in public, he seems to believe, they will be safer under a right-wing coalition than in a country ruled by left-wingers who sympathize with radical Islam—or even by centrists who don’t take the threat of Islamist terror seriously.
In particular, Zemmour seems to think that if Jews follow him into becoming active participants on the far right, they will, by virtue of numbers and increased power, be able to tamp down the anti-Semitic elements typified by the Le Pens. The price for this increased security will be giving up some of what it means to be Jewish in the process. To Zemmour the exchange seems worthwhile. Whether and how much the rest of France’s Jews agree with Zemmour’s judgment, and with his virulent attitude, remains a question, one that cannot be precisely judged, as France’s ban on statistics that indicate religious affiliation means that polling firms are not legally allowed to see how an ethnic or religious group votes.