Zemmour, Stuntman

What does the Zemmour French phenomenon obscure? The growing popularity of the nationalist standard-bearer deserves to be put back in its true place: that of the conflict of identities that has been allowed to swell for at least two decades, where none of the positions in the battle has the legitimacy which it claims. Bruno Karsenti and Danny Trom excavate the terrain on which this mirror-image confrontation has arisen: Eric Zemmour’s nationalism is ultimately reducible to the same kind of identitarianism he purports to hate. He is nothing more than the result of what he denounces. The fact that he is Jewish serves as an aggravating factor in his case, for at least two reasons: because he feeds and reinforces precisely the situation that has favored the rise of antisemitism. And because he blocks out that which, in the Jewish experience, could contribute to the forging of another path that might lead to a common political horizon for the nations of Europe. 



Editor’s Note: France finds itself at the start of what promises to be a contentious presidential election, as Emmanuel Macron prepares to announce his bid for a second term. Aside from ongoing concerns about the public health crisis, French express growing reservations about immigration and integration, and fret over a society said to be fracturing. Eric Zemmour, a far-right firebrand ubiquitous on the airwaves, is mulling a run for the presidency and has just published his latest book La France n’a pas dit son dernier mot (France Has Not Said Its Last Word). Zemmour whets the asperities of French society, and couples far-right invective with absurd historical claims, such as a defense of Philippe Petain, the head of the collaborationist Vichy Regime. Zemmour’s stance draws even more consternation, as he is Jewish, the son of Algerian Jews arriving in France as part of the decolonization process. Danny Trom and Bruno Karsenti examine Zemmour’s role in French society, and what it reveals about the state of both national and Jewish identity. Readers curious to learn more about Zemmour are encouraged to consult Robert Zaretsky’s recent piece in the Forward on the matter. – Daniel Solomon


At the beginning of September, it seems that Éric Zemmour, with the publication of his latest book and the prolonged suspense around his possible candidacy for the presidential election, has managed to compete with the death of Jean-Paul Belmondo for French media attention. Very distant at first glance, the two men have one thing in common: the practice of stuntman without understudy, at their own risk. “For real,”, they accomplish something quite perilous in the eyes of the general public. They free themselves from the constraints of their respective times to display the sort of bravado that never fails to seduce large sections of the public.

The comparison does not go any further. It is not only that the grace of one is completely lacking in the other. It is especially that the constraints are quite different between the France of the Sixties and that of today. Let us remember: Belmondo, in his early days, was the emblem of a country achieving a comfortable normalcy. The New Wave illustrated and accompanied wonderfully the democratization of the right to dream, to ironize, to stroll, to consume, to exhale outside the straitjacket of what was to be called in post-Marxist circles the ideological state apparatus. His jovial smile, devoid of any ulterior motive, free of all seriousness, attested to the fact that France was turning the page from the post-war era, an era that was that of his already-famous father, but who had been ostracized for having maintained questionable relations with the occupying forces.

A France out of Breath

If the smile of Belmondo in Breathless contrasts so strongly with the grin of Zemmour on C-News [Editor’s Note: France’s cable channel equivalent of Fox News], it is because the latter appears in a France that is also out of breath, but this time for completely different reasons. Times have changed. The exhilaration of palpable freedom, the shedding of the burden of the past and the confident adjustment of the Republic to the environment of a pacified Europe, has been followed by a furious effort at restoration, to extricate oneself from the present. Hence the perceptible stiffness of the acrobatics of the neo-reactionaries. Their main goal is to adapt France to the generalized climate of nationalist tension that has taken hold of Europe. To do this, they do not resort to the breezy and the care-free, but on the contrary to transfigured memory, that is to say, to continuity re-established by all means, even if it means gussying up the worst episodes of national history – starting, in this case, with Vichy and colonial-era crimes.

Zemmour is nothing more than a symptom, we hear from all sides. No doubt, but of what? It is rare that we get a clear answer to this question. If he joins the disparate cohort of tribunes of systematic opposition to the “system” from the right, he is distinguished by the fact that he draws from the inexhaustible wellsprings of a typically-French legitimism, an always-possible exit from republicanism when the nationalist vertigo takes over. From one conflation to the next, the difference between Gaullist and Gallic elided, de Gaulle likened to Louis XIV, the French Revolution reabsorbed in the Napoleonic Empire, Petain as Papon, all these figures inserted in a lineage going back to Clovis, etc…No holds barred, no factual limits to the whims of pugilist bon mot. But is this what really matters? To insist on denouncing a discourse which, like any discourse of this nature, only draws its strength from the polemics it triggers, and especially to look for more consistency than it has, one misses the essential point. What is significant about the Zemmour phenomenon, what it refers to as a symptom of its pathology, is simply the space it occupies and in which, however lacking in levity, it moves with astonishing ease.

Jean Arp, Dance, 1925 © wikiart


There lies the novelty. This space, in fact, is not as old as it seems. In the heyday of the National Front in the 1990s and 2000s, it was the scandal of “separation” that was favored. The issue, on the right of the right, was to draw a selective dividing line, to sort out the past in order to bring out the buried truths and the missed alternatives that the republican doxa would strive to suppress. Very different is the continuist strategy, willingly encompassing. The intention is to reach out to the widest possible audience, with the only criterion being the story of the uninterrupted triumph of the “real France” and the “real homeland” (pays réel). It is within this framework that Maurassian integral nationalism comes back to the forefront, in spite of everything that could taint it (for example, antisemitism), and by taking care to endorse it just enough to get what one wishes of it. “Commemorating is not celebrating,” the polemicist tells us, to reassure and calm the waters. Understand: there is no stunt without risk, even without a little damage. But look at what is gained: the social integrity restored in space and time, the continuous and full identity, without scoriae or rupture, of a national society proud of itself. For this kind of operation to become possible, conditions were needed that the National Front did not yet enjoy at the time of Le Pen père, and from which it is not certain that the National Rally, busy with its liberal shape-shift, will be able to draw the fruits as ably as Zemmour. The preconditions for Zemmour’s moment: the oppositional construction and the deregulated conflict of collective identities within the different national communities in Europe.

The Identity Question

This is the environment for the amateur stuntman Zemmour: the squarely political question of identities and their modern construction, a question that has been carefully avoided, abandoned for many years. Every nation presupposes integration. But we no longer know what this word means, the gap having widened between, on the one hand, a fiction of unity always predetermined on one side – “France,” the real one, the one that Zemmour never stops saying he loves -, and, on the other hand, a constellation of individuals who are left to imagine, in their isolation, what their political existence might mean. On both sides, the movement has been lost, frozen in the same identity, whose only sign is the opposite. What is neglected is this: integration is a work not on, but in the collectives of belonging of which all nations are made in the course of their history, and from which all draw the only real consistency, necessarily evolving and changing, that they can take on. This demanding conception, rarely explicit and not always conscious, has long exerted its attraction in European politics, whether in the states it brings together or on the continental scale. However, it is hardly discernible today.

On the side of the ruling classes as well as the intellectuals, a tacit agreement has been reached not to deal with the contradictions in which the competing claims to identity have gradually become entangled, within nations on the one hand, and on the European scale on the other. As if the task, which admittedly requires a certain amount of self-examination and a good dose of sociological and historical lucidity, were too difficult to take on. As if it were preferable not to touch a topic where the tensions inherited from the past and the fractures of the present weigh too heavily, and to leave individuals to grapple with questions about the meaning they can give, from their particular position and according to their affiliations, to their political identity. Zemmour prospers on this deficiency, which has become increasingly apparent over the last two decades: the failure to take into account social history and the transformations of collective identities, the blank check given to their partiality and the free rein given to their confrontations. It is because of our inability to inscribe them in a common political horizon in France and in Europe that we find ourselves in this situation. Paralyzed, dominated by fear, we have refused to substantially rebuild such a horizon, and we have allowed the vacuum to settle in. In this French and European desert, it is inevitable that we will reach the point where any gesticulation that provides a national identity of filler can find favor with the public, at least with those who are most ready to give in to the sirens of reaction.

Kurt Schwitters, The Clown, 1947 © wikiart

Yet it is in this same desert that antisemitism has been allowed to grow. Or rather, it is because of the same blindness, the same failure to see and to regulate, that violence against Jews has multiplied, often arousing saddened reprobation, but never the causal diagnosis, and even less the corrective policy which should have been implemented.

As for the Jews themselves, let us recognize that they are well-placed to perceive today the nature and the acuteness of the problem. Or rather, it should be said that in their own experience, provided they pay serious attention, lie the resources for making a correct diagnosis.  With regard to questions of identity, they are in a curious situation, singularly out of step as often happens to them. In a short period of time, their status has changed significantly. Until recently, they represented a good prism, even an obligatory case, to approach this type of question: it was considered that they embodied, in the variety of their figures, a privileged point of view to understand the way in which individual and collective identity could be constituted in the modern period. Whoever questioned the identity of the moderns had to go through the emancipation and integration of the Jews who, however individualized and nationalized they were, remained Jewish in different ways. At the same time, the extent of the threats and murderous persecutions to which this collective was exposed was taken into account, a persecutory violence which had indeed come down on it with unprecedented intensity, since it took the radical turn of a policy of extermination. In short, Jewish identity, with its paradoxes and variations, but also through the crime that had targeted it and struck it, took its place at the foundation of the questioning, common to all and rekindled in post-war Europe, about particular identities and their persistence within States.  Today, this is no longer the case. For the Jews appear rather as a troublesome phenomenon, an obstacle to the new identity claims that are emerging. From being a witness to be scrutinized and listened to, they have become putative rivals to be feared, and often blamed and castigated.

The Jewish Lesson

Thus, at the turn of the millennium, Jews found themselves caught up in a competitive game which they rightly considered did not concern them, but which they realized was affecting them all the same, the impact taking the form of invective and aggression. The nascent irritation with them quickly turned into new violence, with the spikes that we know. To this, Jews reacted very differently, as is appropriate for such a disparate and fragmented subgroup. The range of attitudes and options has been very wide, but two extremes can be discerned: on the one hand, there is the choice of departure, either to other places less marked by hostility, or to the Jewish state, the shelter available to post-Holocaust Jews when the situation deteriorates anywhere. On the other hand, there is the nationalist one-upmanship, the emphasis on a unique anchorage, the absolutization of national identity as the only legitimate medium of identification. Obviously, it is this position that Zemmour, as a convinced Maurassian who everyone knows is Jewish, pushes to the point of absurdity.

Between these two poles, a long span stretches. The great majority of Jews are currently distributed along it. No one is without reaction, but no one reacts in the same way, no point on the line, it must be remembered, expressing any tendency which would apply to all. What can be said, however, is that, in the obligation to react, a certain reflection takes shape, and coalesces little by little, like a precious knowledge resulting from their historical experience. In the constellation, a reference point emerges, likely to provide an orientation. For the most reflective (whether they remain in Europe or not), it is the resumption of the questioning of modern collective identity through the prism of the historical experience of European Jewry that proves to be the best option. The still confused common knowledge that emerges concerns the dialectic that was inaugurated by the intersection of the political adventure of Europe and that of the Jews, made up of compositions, interpolations and mutual consolidation according to place and time. Certainly, no system is offered here as a turnkey solution, but it is clear that the reflective work to which Jews are urgently called by their very position – a work which has barely begun – should contribute to proposing ways of filling the void.

Considered in a general way, the present situation, in which Zemmour participates in maintaining, is the following: the Jews are caught in a pincer movement between, on the one hand, a populist left that does not forget to be anti-Semitic in the name of principles that can be alternatively republican or non-republican, but that are in both cases badly digested, and on the other hand, an equally populist right that is once again looking for its bearings, discreetly or openly, on the side of the Vichy heritage and the whitewashing of that past. This is a costly operation but one believes that it could ultimately be salutary. The tighter the pincer, the worse the situation becomes, from all points of view. But the pincer also has the effect that those caught in it experience their own vitality.

Pablo Picasso, Head of a Man with a Hat, 1912 © wikiart

It seems that we have reached the point where the Jews cannot help but see where they stand collectively. They wonder where the barycenter of a viable existence for them in Europe lies. From their present discomfort, they realize that they have something very specific to teach about the contemporary drift of identity issues. Jews possess a tether to the ridge where the French Republic currently sits precariously. Absent that cord, it is true, the fall may well be inevitable.

Bruno Karsenti and Danny Trom

Translated from the French by Daniel Solomon

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