Zemmour, the Jews and Democracy

How to characterize “Zemmourism”? The philosopher Gérard Bensussan considers the way in which Eric Zemmour asserts himself as a “Berber-Jew” and a nostalgic of French “israelitism”, questioning the vision of history that underlies the far-right polemicist’s blind nostalgia as well as his adoration of force. In his text for K., he points out what appears to him to be a curious affinity of the candidate of “Reconquête!” with a form of stale Marxism that also deeply impregnates the ideology of the radical left.


Éric Zemmour, first campaign meeting, December 2021, Wikipedia Commons.


Zemmourism, let us say, has made a dramatic eruption onto the French political landscape – whereas it could have been thought to be a simple ideological appendage of Lepenism, a journalistic accessory to a long-standing thought, linked to the old ultranationalist tradition, and revived in the 1970s by Jean-Marie Le Pen. Zemmourism is undoubtedly all of this, and its Maurassian, Barrésian, and even Boulangisto-Déroulédian tendrils no longer need to be shown; they exhibit themselves as the days and statements pass. What is intriguing, however, in this breakthrough, is its “Judeo-Berber” spice, profoundly foreign in this double capacity to currents of French ultranationalism, by nature antisemitic and xenophobic. Éric Zemmour himself never explains his self-affirmation as a Berber Jew (his last name means “olive tree” in Berber); he is content to counterpose it, in the face of certain detractors, as an unexpected ingredient of his political identity, a provocation, a firewall, in any case a useful multifunctional instrument.

To compensate for the incomprehensible incongruity of this strange combination of the exotic and the local, the distant and the rooted, it has been said that he is a “self-hating Jew,” prey to a phenomenon that had been the subject of debate for nearly a century. However, if one refers to Theodor Lessing’s classic work, Jewish Self-Hatred, and to the structural considerations and archetypes described therein, this is not true. Zemmour, on this point as on others, is above all nostalgic for a historical, political and cultural situation in which French Israélites intended to be considered above all as French citizens, of the “Mosaic confession,” as was said in Germany toward the end of the 19th century. French Jews were then anxious to blend into the national landscape, their membership in the national community understood as a birthright,, even if it meant erasing all the differences that could distinguish them from their compatriots, especially in the practice of their religion (in the Algeria of my childhood, we still substituted the terms ‘baptism,’ ‘communion’ and ‘Lent’ for brit milah, bar mitzvah and Yom Kippur, respectively). We were then dealing with what Hermann Broch has called  “over-assimilation,” typical of the Jewish reaction to Emancipation, the other endogenous tendency consisting of a ghettoization replayed on the stage of modernity. This figure of the French Israelite, bourgeois and over-assimilated patriot, mocked by Bernard Lazare, is by no means contemptible. This model finished in the Dreyfus Affair and, more distantly, in Vichy’s program of antisemitic persecution. It therefore ended in failure on the very ground on which it intended to succeed, integration into the nation. It is from this failure that Herzl’s Zionism emerged. Zemmour, who is constantly presented as a history-loving intellectual, is incapable of taking into account historically and therefore politically the entirety of two centuries. This is a history that goes back to the Emancipation obtained by the vote of the Constituent Assembly of 1791 and stabilized by the Great Sanhedrin of 1806. This history cannot be reduced to the declaration of Clermont-Tonnerre, “to refuse them everything as a nation, to grant them everything as individuals,” quoted profusely by Zemmour, who forgets the principle underlying emancipation, “to repair by law what prejudice refuses,” nor to the Napoleonic Grand Sanhedrin, which is certainly not a sole and obligatory model of all integration or assimilation.

The Jews of France have lived through this two hundred year-old history, which has been eventful and capricious, as best they could. They have ended up acquiring and living in a singular situation, a product of this history itself, overdetermined by several waves of antisemitism, by the terrible ordeal of extermination, and then by the return to an undeniable lull in the post-war years and in the wake of the creation of the State of Israel. Fully French, and most often happy to be so, they nevertheless retained a true loyalty to their own memory, an attachment to Israel, which did not diminish their French patriotism. On the contrary, those who have made aliyah often see themselves as representatives of France in the land of their forefathers. It is the recent emergence of Islamism into the political arena that has disturbed this situation, reshuffling the deck and certainly starting a new period in this long history. In any case, the idea of a return to Napoleonic-style assimilation or to the figure of the French Israélite, before the Affair, before Vichy, before Zionism, is a non-starter.

In this at-least partial revision of history, such as Zemmour superimposes, the precondition of a fantasized restoration of French Israélitisme is posed.

Except to erase the historical Israélite by pretending to question in all innocence the innocence of Captain Dreyfus, except to exonerate Pétain for the crimes that definitively taint his status and image, except finally to untie their French patriotism from any attachment uniting Jews to Israel to very different degrees, by reproaching them for the choice of a first name or a place of burial, or by questioning the CRIF as the mouthpiece of a communitarianism of dual allegiance, hostile, in the end, to full national communion.

In this at-least partial revision of history, such as Zemmour superimposes, the precondition of a fantasized restoration of French Israélitisme is posed. On this subject, as on others, the Zemmourian reactive dream is invented through narrative modes of great brutality, of continuous discursive force and violence.

Underneath this external aspect, there is in Zemmourism, and this is a trait that deserves to be noted, a curious (repulsive) affinity with what, from Marxism, deeply impregnates the general ideology of the radical left, its ways of thinking and the structure of its political analyses.  This is particularly true for what immerses them in a pseudo-realism of interests (of classes for the Marxists, of nations for the sovereignists, often both together), in terms of political action or even of the understanding of history in their supposedly deciphered truths. We remember the apocryphal question of Stalin confronted with a criticism of the Soviet Union by the Catholic Church: “The Vatican, how many divisions?” An exemplary Zemmourian question, despite the anachronism, of a naive simplicity, even touching under its childish aspect, entirely linked to the superstitious belief in the only paradigm of power relations as fundamentally and unequivocally determining the course of history, to the point of forming the universal and intangible law.

In this respect, Zemmour’s incantatory de Gaulle is largely a fiction. As for the man of June 18, 1940, Zemmour does not see that he was first and foremost the symbol of “all that in man refuses the low adoration of force” (Simone Weil). Zemmour is caught between this adoration of force, which he expressly claims as the result of an observant and neutral sobriety (from which his Petainism stems), and a projected idealization of the past pushed ahead. Torn between “realism” and nostalgia, implacable historicism and “eternal” values, he desperately seeks a high ground whose defect he incriminates in others, the politicians in particular, while mocking their inauthenticity as soon as he believes he has detected it.

When he criticizes, to the point of offense, Bernard-Henri Lévy for his grand words about Man and the Universal, as so many fine words intended to conceal interests, those of the dominant globalists or the great imperialist powers, he spontaneously recovers the tone and argument of the Marx of On the Jewish Question or of Burke and Joseph de Maistre and the dubious anti-colonialism of Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night.  But one does not see why his discourse on the Nation, the People, France, would not fall under the same treatment, the “deconstruction” (!) with reference to “interests,” the watchword of an invading and simplistic rhetoric, of a poor man’s Marxism become the catechism of the social networks.

A vision of history reduced to its lowest common denominator, neo-Hegelian or meta-Marxist, thus underlies Zemmourian thought – and some journalists believe to discern there is sign of a remarkable historical culture. This is clearly seen in the “clash of civilizations.” A desire for history animates the general picture that Zemmour often presents, driven by the law of conflicting succession of “civilizations” – which is reminiscent of the theory of modes of production as structures of intelligibility linearly cut out of the historical flow. There would thus be an objective historical legality, Gesetzmässigkeit as Marx, Engels and others would say. And this processual objectivity would be governed by the good old dialectical law of qualitative change: “beyond a certain threshold, quantity is transformed into quality.” It was only when Zemmour came on the scene and invoked it very often on all sorts of subjects, but in particular on immigration and the “great replacement,” that I remembered the said “law” that I had once read in the dialectical materialism manuals of the Moscow Editions! And he recently evoked for France a “vaccinal class struggle.” The explanatory concepts of Marxism suit him from an epistemological point of view, one could almost say cognitive, even if, as one suspects, their substantial contents and the socio-political objects they cover have nothing to do (yet one should look more closely) with his politics and his concrete analyses. If Marine Le Pen, for years, has borrowed from the left some of its programmatic references, its social policy, some of its societal approaches, even its “progressivism,” Zemmour, on the other hand, aggressively distances himself from it politically, but culturally he seizes the conceptual instruments bequeathed to him by this tradition of thought, even if it means first emptying them of their meaning and then filling them with new “values” – but that is how all ideological reappropriation works, like National Socialism, as its very name indicates.

Zemmour’s case invites us to a renewed reflection on democracy.

Zemmour does not hide a kind of respect for his competitors in radicalism, whom he often spares (in the gallery of portraits shown in his election launch clip, no Mélenchon!), just as he does with the jihadists and for similar reasons. The millions of deaths of Stalinism or the massacres attributable to armed Islamism are not the main reproach that Zemmour addresses to them nor the angle of attack that he favors. His criticism does not focus on the crimes, he leaves that to the “human rights activists” of all stripes and other democratic beautiful souls. Like the Marxist intellectuals of yesteryear, determined to overcome bourgeois thinkers pitifully attached to formal freedoms, democratic institutions, and legal norms, Zemmour wages ideological war on the rule of law, a smokescreen to moot sovereignty, on the appeased unity of the nation, an ideological garment invented for their sole benefit by cosmopolitan elites, and on the “no-frontier” Europe that prevents national independence. These chimeras and illusions, fatal in his eyes, law, democracy, Europe, are doomed according to him to shatter under the effect of the “class struggle” and the “clash of civilizations,” whose victims are the same individuals and the same social groups – this is the meaning of what is globally called populism. Zemmour is capitalizing electorally on the fallout of the wave of gilet-jaunisme that once struck a portion of French intellectuals, and far beyond. There is at least a notable congruence between what Zemmour says and the watchwords that were those of the social movement of 2018-2020. The brutal and cynical Realpolitiker, fascinated by Trump, Putin and Orban, worshipper of the law of naked balance of power, is logically the same as the detractor of democracy – bourgeois, formal, Europeanist, legalistic – attached to the efficiency of intermediary bodies and the existence of independent jurisdictions.

Zemmour’s case invites us to a renewed reflection on democracy. Democracy, if we understand it as a spirit as much as a regime, rests on the circulation of symbolic forms produced by what Broch, already quoted, analyzed as substitutive conversions. These forms are most often neglected, even despised by the enemies of democracy. The biblical substitution of the ram for Isaac would constitute in this sense a “democratic” action, a first conversion to a form of exchange. This “democratic” renunciation, auspicious and positive, implicates the lucid refusal of total sacrifice, extreme, without concession, for the benefit of a symbolic transaction. The democratic spirit is animated by what I have called elsewhere a “transactional responsibility,” the entry into a difficult process of negotiation, sometimes under the constraint of cruel requirements. It maintains interminably open, in any case, this difference between the transfigured reality and the fecundity of the symbol that substitutes it. Contemporary illiberalism intends, on the contrary, to reduce the symbolic incorporated in institutions and to restore against them a pseudo-real of which it will have previously written the nostalgic story by expelling the sources of heterogeneity, beginning with Judaism.

Zemmour’s program and his repeated remarks threaten a similar Hungarian-style degeneration, which would obviously endanger public liberties – all the more so since the democratic spirit, if we are to believe a few recent polls, is not self-evident today, especially among the youngest, who are significantly challenged in their opinion by other principles that tend to be hegemonic. In such a situation, we see once again that the fate of the Jews – to speak only of them, here – is deeply linked to the durability of democracy.

Gérard Bensussan

Gérard Bensussan is a philosopher and professor emeritus at the University of Strasbourg. He has worked on classical German philosophy and Jewish philosophy. He has published some twenty works.

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