Éric Zemmour knows how to attract attention. In the press and on television, the far-right French intellectual rails against feminism and Muslim immigration, portraying his country as a nation in decline from the loss of traditional Christian values—though he’s Jewish—even espousing the anti-Semitic “great replacement” conspiracy theory. After recent polling showed Zemmour could be a serious contender in next year’s presidential race, major media outlets in Europe and the United States wrote about his prospects—and his obvious similarities to a certain former U.S. president. Could he be, as The Independent put it, “Le Trump”? The bigger question in Zemmour’s rise is what says about France. The New York Times reports that “France has grown more conservative in recent years.” The BBC explains that “French politics has shifted to the right.” The Guardian even sees this national transformation accelerating, editorializing that “on immigration and cultural questions, France appears to be moving rightwards at a fast clip.” Is this what’s going on?

Marc Weitzmann is a French journalist and the author of Hate: The Rising Tide of Anti-Semitism in France (and What It Means for Us). Weitzmann doesn’t agree that his country is shifting to the right. He believes that right and left are outdated political categories. Weitzmann does see a growing reactionary politics that spans the ideological spectrum in France, though—a yearning for lost traditions and a bygone way of life; and he sees President Emmanuel Macron, a technocratic businessman and embodiment of modernity, as having failed to communicate his agenda or deal with national-security issues following a series of terrorist attacks, creating an opening for Zemmour. Weitzmann says that France faces a national climate of fear and pessimism as well as the same “general crisis of identity” afflicting many countries around the world: “What is it to be American? What is it to be French? What does that mean today, as we’re all trapped by this global and technological way of speaking and thinking? What happens to our national characters?”


Graham Vyse: How do you see what’s happening in French political life?

Marc Weitzmann: First of all, I don't think France has shifted to the right. France has always been to the right, culturally speaking. There’s been a long tradition of anti-modernism.

The seeds of Zemmour’s current discourse were planted during the ‘90s. Because of globalization, because America seemed at that time to be the sole empire left in the world, because capitalism and liberalism were supposed to be everywhere, the general atmosphere was that we couldn’t have glorious heroes any longer. Napoléon, Robespierre, de Gaulle—all that was gone. From now on, we’d only have technocrats as leaders.

Vyse: One of those technocrats, Macron, won the presidency in 2017 after creating his own centrist party, but the perception in the media is that he’s shifted to the right lately. Is that true?

Weitzmann: He hasn’t shifted to the right—not exactly—and his party wasn’t centrist. He appeared as though he was the man who’d destroyed the political landscape and created something new. In fact, he hadn’t destroyed anything. He just took an opportunity because the system had exploded. The classical political system in France was probably destroyed in the ‘90s. By the early 2000s, no political party could claim to be really strong in this country. All leaders were weak.

Matt Seymour

Macron was always center-right politically, and he hasn’t changed. The new thing he brought was openly being a technocrat and not being ashamed of it. He embodies this new business culture. To a lot of the French, we have a businessman in power, not a president, which is very foreign—and not only a businessman, but a banker. The fact that he comes from Rothschild & Co. is a very bad sign for certain popular opinion, because it’s a bank but also because, mythologically speaking, it drives back to the anti-Semitic propaganda of the early 20th century—the Rothschilds controlling the world. In the anti-Macron demonstrations of the gilets jaunes [yellow-vests], you had a Macron puppet represented with the big nose and big hands of Jewish caricatures and the word “Rothschilds.” Now you have the face of this Jewish guy, Zemmour, who looks like an anti-Semitic caricature from the 1940s, with rhetoric that reminds you of fascism in France—and you have this weak technocrat, Macron, accused of being sold to the Jews and international finance.

Vyse: You’re challenging some of the premises I see in The New York Times and other mainstream U.S. media. Their narrative seems to be that Macron has moved to the right when it comes to national security, fighting Islamist violence, and some cultural issues at a moment when he’s about to face an electoral challenge from the right, either in the form of Marine Le Pen—who ran against him unsuccessfully last time—or Zemmour.

Macron was always center-right politically, and he hasn’t changed. The new thing he brought was openly being a technocrat and not being ashamed of it. He embodies this new business culture. To a lot of the French, we have a businessman in power, not a president, which is very foreign—and not only a businessman, but a banker.

Weitzmann: The way the U.S. press has covered Macron’s politics toward Muslims is somewhere between incompetence and insanity. Macron, like most French politicians, hasn't been clear about what he wants to do with Islamism, the Muslim community, or migrants in France. It’s this lack of clarity that’s the problem, more than anything else. He went from a conception of open laïcité [French secularism]—that there's really nothing wrong with what's going on with Muslims in France—to a position that’s much firmer, especially after a teacher was decapitated last year.

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