Zemmour: Tactical ‘Lashon Hara’ Made in France

How, in a few months, could an extreme right-wing Jewish leader create a large movement of support for him? And why can a number of French Jews consider voting for the nationalism embodied by this presidential candidate? A few days before the first round of the election, the editors of K. look back at a phenomenon that is seen as an affront to the Jewish experience.

 

Éric Zemmour, during a meeting in Toulon, on March 6, 2022. (c) Wikipedia Commons

 

Whatever the outcome of the first round of the presidential elections, it brought about an aberration. In a few months, a Jewish leader from the extreme right has emerged, and he has inspired a broad movement of support in his favor, contributing in the end to a very significant increase in the ranks of this electorate. For many years now, from one election to the next, the risk of the far right coming to power has increased. This time, the tendency is more striking than ever, and this is due to the mobilization around the candidacy of a Jew.

Everyone feels that this is clearly an aberration in view of what constitutes the core of Jewish identity, except perhaps for the patent antisemites who have always known that the “war of the races” is the fault of the Jews and are not surprised that it is a Jew who is the one who is creating a rift. For anyone else, a figure like this is shocking, even unbearable. Sometimes, during this presidential campaign that is coming to an end, he has been called a “token Jew for anti-Semites” – an idea that does not make the enigma disappear, but only testifies to the mental derangement it provokes.

Zemmour’s decline in the polls, since it would have meant a new rise of the extreme right, does not diminish the urgency of the question: how did such an aberration become possible?  At first glance, it is clear that it has two faces. On the one hand, it consists of a deviation of Jewish consciousness, and on the other hand of a singular evolution of the French extreme right. The two can overlap, which is probably the most surprising thing about it. That is the way it is. Zemmour has succeeded in capturing whole swathes of reactionary opinion, among whom are obviously antisemites, but also, undoubtedly, voters for whom the anti-Muslim opinion is most important. Among the latter, it is obvious that there are Jews. In their eyes, the aberration from the Jewish point of view has thus been neutralized by other, more powerful motivations. This pathology is no less significant for deciphering the general political situation in France than the evolution of the extreme right. To understand their convergence, we must start from the singularity of the character: that of Zemmour, an assimilated Jew who is outrageously nationalistic and who declares himself to be perfectly integrated. 

Completely French?

Zemmour never stops insisting that he is French, that he is giving back to France its pride and its splendor, which he believes it has lost. If he says he is Jewish, it is in order to show that he does not say it. This emphatic discourse on the non-discourse reveals in fact, if one listens carefully, something of essential importance. For it is a discourse that today all the reactionary movements want to hear.

The right and the extreme right have changed. The change has been ongoing for quite some time by the Rassemblement National, which is more and more open to diversity. However, Zemmour has introduced an additional element of appreciable significance. According to the new terms, it is no longer a question of aiming at the disappearance of particular identities, but rather of displaying their subordination. During the campaign, a slip of the tongue by Zemmour made this clear. The ” skull cap”, outside the synagogue, does not remain on the head, but ” in the head “, he ventured to say when evoking an episode of his biography. Is this bad? Not at all. For the matter no longer raises suspicions of duplicity, provided that “in the head” there are only personal preferences or tastes, free access particularities that actually no one cares about anymore. From now on, both the right and left-wing completely recognize this personal touch to the individual, if it is contained where it should be. Or rather: everyone agrees to bury the individual difference in the indifference with which it is embraced. It is at this price that it even acquires more and more credit. 

The distinguishing feature of the nationalist right, however, is the weight it gives to national identity. Whatever one’s tastes and preferences, national identity must be brandished as proudly as possible, as the truly defining dimension of one’s identity. France must be one single entity, a block without cracks, capable as such of founding this defining element of ourselves. The “great replacement” calls for at least a reaction aimed at this degree of absolute. In short, integration must be paid for with a guarantee of plenitude. One assimilates, not in the sense that one’s particular identity as a Jew (or a Muslim, or a Breton, or a Cambodian Buddhist) disappears, but in the sense that, however different one may be, one incorporates this France en bloc as the only thing that really counts. Rather than assimilating to it, one assimilates it, without any residue or hesitation, to such an extent that one can say that it is France that takes priority and will always take priority over the other aspects of who one is.

It is therefore understandable that the Jewish figure Zemmour is not only compatible with the evolution of the extreme right, but is called for by it, well suited to an evolution that requires a profile of this nature. This evolution requires a clearly marked particularity, which maintains itself by abolishing itself, that is, by subordinating itself until the intensification of what it subordinates itself to is reached to the maximum. As strange as it may seem, the right-wing’s interest in Zemmour is positive. Through him, France is experiencing its own elevation. She succeeds in doing so because in this case national heroism can be adorned with the most precious of virtues: that of sacrifice, of the exhibition of the gesture by which adherence to France is maximized, on the background of the acceptance of differences that are in themselves indifferent, but useful in their very subjection. It is this delight for subjection that has strengthened the ranks of the extreme right voters. These 10% who currently remain in favor of Zemmour, and who will inevitably add up in the second round of the presidential election to the 20% who already voted for Marine Le Pen in 2017, are followers of an old nationalist slogan from the 1930s, a slogan that Zemmour has ingeniously reinvented by adapting it to contemporary liberal societies: “You are nothing, your nation is everything” they said then in Germany; “You are who you want, but your nation is everything” is the slogan proposed, not without success, by the new candidate. 

Jewish integration

As for the Jews, what do they read into this staging? And first of all, who are we talking about when we say “the Jews”?

In France, they have diverse origins, the history of the twentieth century, in successive waves, having made this European country an exceptionally rich area of migratory flows, a welcoming land for many groups. It is safe to suspect that, in this very composite group, few people take the “fundamentalist” version of integration literally. It is even more certain that it is on the side of those who have the deepest experience of the ” skull cap in the head “, i.e. on the side of republican integration , that Zemmour’s discourse provokes the strongest reluctance. This was immediately confirmed by the disapproving statements of the community’s major representative institutions and their spokespersons, for whom republicanism has remained the background doctrine for almost two centuries.

Most Jews know that Zemmour is an aberration. But, at the same time, it is an aberration of which the Jews, in all their diversity, are able to draw the genealogy easier and better than others, because it echoes an important part of their experience during the last two decades.

This trajectory is worthy of being described here. Traditionally, the republican pact has primarily involved a protection clause. This is what explains why reintegrating Vichy into the glorious history of the nation, as Zemmour has endeavored to do out of “integralism,” is tantamount to pure and simple negationism for the Jews. In the French system, they are nationalized, and thus integrated into the nation as individuals. But this has not prevented them from continuing to consider themselves as a consistent group. In fact, it is as such that the republican pact protects them. They can continue to say “we Jews” in a way that is not contradictory to the “we French” to which they belong. This composition of identities was the real gain, repeatedly torn apart – the “infamous decree”, the Dreyfus Affair – until the ordeal of Vichy and the participation of the State in the extermination enterprise.

This French Jewish experience supports a wide variety of subjective positions while keeping them within the same framework, that of the French model of integration. But Zemmour goes beyond this framework. He shatters it, both by his emphatic way of speaking about France, and by his distorted way of speaking about being Jewish. And above all by his way of targeting a minority in particular; the Muslims of France.

Disorientation

He goes beyond it, but not without sending a silent message to the Jews: you are no longer protected within this framework, and by continuing to invoke it as you do, you are erasing something that you constantly highlight each time a new antisemitic aggression occurs: that the republican state is in the process of breaking the pact, that it is failing precisely on the point that concerns you, the Jews. That you are being targeted by a violence arising from society, a violence on which the State has lost its grip, because, satisfied with a very formal condemnation of antisemitism, it neglects at the same time to seek to understand what antisemitism means nowadays. He refuses to really fight it, because he refuses to see it as it is.

But what is it, precisely? What is it made of, and by what means does it lead to the acts that we have seen, intensified since the beginning of the 2000s, up to and including anti-Semitic murder? In relying on the justified feeling of danger that the Jews experience, Zemmour does not explain it any better than those he accuses of failing. Pretending to be realistic, he sets up one more blind spot. The ground of multiple frustrations on which contemporary anti-Semitism flourishes, whose actual promoters and agents of choice often think of themselves as oppressed minorities, is of no more interest to the fundamental nationalist than to the others, who compose the great majority of French opinion today, even though they say they are concerned about the rise of antisemitism.

The fact that certain segments of disoriented Jewish opinion are attracted to Zemmour is a reality. But that does not diminish the aberration that he is in any way. This reality, on the contrary, is entirely part of the aberration. What explains it, in fact, is the gridlock of the French situation: the more the republican principles remain intact and are waved around, the more their practical implications become ineffective, and the more any coherent and meaningful discourse on the protection of minorities becomes remote. For this discourse, in this case, must take on one task: to identify and recognize the specific character of contemporary antisemitism, together with all the ideological and social fabric that it forms, and to provide by this diagnosis the means to confront it.

Does this mean that the Jews caught up in Zemmour’s zone of attraction are joining the first face of the phenomenon, the one in which the right-wing is looking for nationalist compensation and a cheap boost of pride and vitality through the self-abolition of the super-integrated? No. For the segment in question, what drives it, maintains its own point of view. What matters to it is the desire to restore the strength of the protective state and its power to act. The fact that this is paid for by a purification of the nation and a denial of what really characterizes the successful integration of the Jews in the course of their history, is what these misguided Jews completely lose sight of, as subjugated as they are by the first promise they believe they hear in the confident words of the aberrant figure. In other words, what they fail to see is that if Zemmour were to win, there would simply be nothing left to protect, neither Jews, nor Muslims, nor any minority, all of whom are doomed to sacrifice themselves on the altar of the mythical nation.

Not one Jewish voice for Zemmour

As to whether Zemmour, as an integrated Jew, is entirely convinced by this subjugation of which he is the trigger, no one can say. There are mental splits that remain unfathomable, and, fortunately, they are also the least interesting. Judging by the energy he spends again and again, let’s bet that this will not prevent him from voting for himself in the end. Unless he misses a ballot, it is highly likely that he will not miss his own vote. But there is also reason to hope that it will be the only Jewish vote he gets in the end – provided that he has succeeded in making it obvious to everyone how his discourse and his position, while echoing in Jewish experience, directly contravene what the Jewish fact in France represents, and what it implies in terms of general politics. 

This exposure could hardly be expected from the institutions representing the community. There is not much to hold against them in this respect. Because of historical inertia, they cannot do much more than remind us of the republican pact, cry out and protest against its failures, and demand that surveillance, protection and repression should be reinforced. This is a lot and at the same time it’s not much. In any case, it is too little to respond to the phenomenon, and above all to identify the other path, the only one that is viable and likely to get us out of the dead end where we are trapped.

In this respect, French Jewish consciousness is at a turning point, and it is perhaps the one and only virtue of the present situation that it makes clear what this turning point consists of, at a time when the defeat of Zemmour, following the upheaval that he provoked, now risks making us forget it. What the Jewish consciousness is called upon to acknowledge could be stated in the following manner: the Jews of France are a national minority, just like the Muslims of France.  What distinguishes the Jews, however, is that they have an ancient and extended experience of integration, and that, furthermore, this experience is quite specific: it concerns a minority that is structurally a minority, that is to say a group that has always conceived its minority condition as a defining feature of what it is. This committed them to a complex and fragile arrangement in which the frontal and exclusive relationship between the two propositions, “we Jews” and “we French”, was overcome in syntheses and positive formations of identities.

For a long time, the only thing one wanted to retain from this process was the most abstract republican outcome, that of a supposedly homogeneous citizenship, leaving all the other things firmly hidden in one’s head. But the reality was quite different, even when the public expression of differences was as minimal as possible (and there was no longer any kippah or skullcap to show). What was at stake in the Jewish experience was the integrating potential of France insofar as it could be applied to consistent groups, which did not have to consider themselves abolished in their own history in order for their members to participate effectively in the life of the nation and its real development.

In this respect, the Jews represented a kind of essential benchmark for showing that at the heart of the process of national integration, properly understood, was first and foremost the respect and protection of minorities, of their security as well as of their rights – their right to security being in this case the first of these rights.

Zemmour, by attacking the Muslims of France, undermines this process, and directly affects the Jewish experience. In fact, he affects it twice.

First of all, by removing its deepest and most effective justification, which lies in a singular formula of integration, which has never been fully explained, but which is instructive for everyone because of its singularity. Far from allowing the expression of a policy aimed at protection that is currently lacking, he undermines its foundations. In this respect, we should point out that the Jews are always at the Muslims’ side when a discourse arises that targets the latter, threatening them with expulsion or relegation if they do not submit to the nationalist constraint of imaginary self-abolition. For when this discourse is said, even though it does not name them, considering that it is the minority which is being targeted, it cannot fail to target them in the first place, however integrated they may be.

But Zemmour also affects the Jewish experience in another way: he destroys any possibility of dealing with contemporary anti-Semitism as a disruption of the relationship between majority and minorities within nation-states, where this time it is the “structurally integrated minority”, in other words the Jews, who are at the very heart of the trap. In a society where groups lack a common horizon to project their expectations of justice and articulate their political experience, Jews are the prime targets of all the frustrations accumulated at different points in the social space. Faced with this generalized shortfall, they are deprived of any support. It is clear that today the public authorities are unable to decipher the tensions which arise from this situation, and to understand why it is precisely the Jews who are the habitual outlets. But they would certainly be no less so if they were guided by the new nationalist ideology that Zemmour embodies, and which the extreme right as well as the center-right have already largely adopted.


The Editors

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