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In order to understand Éric Zemmour’s meteoric rise in the French presidential race, we must start from the 1980s, when the political spectrum began shifting to the right, and even the far-right. Invoking “realism,” the Left started running after the Right, while the Right chased the Far Right. This is why xenophobia and racism are no longer a dividing line—they have become the common denominator for governmental politics. However, something else happened in the 2010s. The National Rally changed course under its new leader: Marine Le Pen devised a strategy of “de-demonization.” It was inspired by the Dutch Far Right that had come to prominence in the previous decade: xenophobia and islamophobia were not only to be framed in nationalist terms, they were now justified in the name of the Republic, the principle of laïcité, and women’s rights. We have thus witnessed a double movement: government parties have drawn closer to far-right racism, which in return has taken steps in their direction—Le Pen has ostensibly repudiated her father’s blatant antisemitism. This conjunction has opened a political space for “re-demonization,” with the return of old-fashioned fascist themes in neofascist garb, including explicit antisemitism, though with a twist: Zemmour himself happens to be Jewish.
This perverse situation offers at least one advantage. We cannot be told that we have to pick our battles either against antisemitism or against racism: it is clear that there is no choice—we have to fight both. We can go even further: since Zemmour embodies equal opportunity bigotry (against Muslims and Jews, refugees and racial minorities, but also women and sexual minorities), we have to fight each of these battles at the same time. This does not imply that there is no difference between racism and antisemitism: while the two overlap, they have different histories. But it is useless to pit one against the other. This is not just an academic point. In the early 2000s, Pierre-André Taguieff started denouncing a “new Judeophobia.” According to this historian of racism, under the guise of their support for the Palestinian cause, segments of the Left and supporters of Islamic fundamentalism have forged an unholy alliance based on antisemitism, thus equated with anti-Zionism. This has grown into a culturalist argument incriminating French Arabs, and more generally, racial minorities. While they are indisputably the victims of everyday racism, as a group, they are also suspected—and even accused—of being guilty of antisemitism.
But this ideological argument has recently been echoed in the attacks by the French government against so-called academic “islamo-leftism”—with the help of Taguieff himself. Of course, there is considerable confusion in the polemic launched against gender studies and gender-inclusive language; the word race and the concept of intersectionality; postcolonial studies and decoloniality; “woke culture” and “cancel culture.” However, the common denominator in this hodgepodge is critical thought, at a time when contemporary social movements draw inspiration from new academic fields. The virulent denunciation of minority studies thus undermines minority mobilizations: President Macron first denounced “the racialization of the social question” in June, 2020, precisely when the Adama Traoré committee, echoing Black Lives Matter, organized the first major demonstration in Paris at the end of the COVID-19 lockdown. In October, after the beheading of the French high school teacher Samuel Paty, Minister of National Education Jean-Michel Blanquer went so far as to accuse “islamo-leftists” of “intellectual complicity with terrorism”—thereby inciting threats against academics.
Such an accusation carries even more weight in the context of terrorist attacks against Jews on French soil—from Mohamed Merah murdering three children in the Jewish school Ozar Hatorah in Toulouse in 2012, to the assassination by Amedy Coulibaly of four customers at the Hyper Cacher store in Paris in 2015. While these terrorist acts were carried out in the name of Islam, they were repeatedly denounced by Muslim religious authorities, who insisted that these acts of violence were incompatible with their faith. Moreover, no connection to terrorist attacks has ever been established, in France or elsewhere, with left-wing ideologies, nor with academics of any kind. The most definite intellectual claim by a terrorist was in Christchurch, New Zealand, where Brenton Tarrant killed 51 people in a mosque: the white supremacist borrowed the title of his manifesto, “The Great Replacement,” from an openly racist French writer, Renaud Camus. The campaign against “islamo-leftism” in academia must thus be put into perspective.
Has antisemitism moved from the Far Right to the Far-Left? At the heart of the thesis called “new antisemitism” is the idea that prejudice against Jews is of a different nature to racist prejudices against migrants, Arabs, or Muslims, for instance. But the annual survey of racism, antisemitism, and xenophobia conducted by the official commission of Human Rights contradicts this hypothesis, finding that “there is a statistical correlation between antisemitic and xenophobic” attitudes—and in fact, “this correlation is stronger than that with the image of Israel or the Palestinian conflict.” In a nutshell: “Those who reject Jews also reject Muslims, foreigners, and migrants.” This is confirmed by the French political scientist Nonna Mayer, who argues that far from replacing the old version, “the new antisemitism remains marginal; anti-Jewish fantasies are still structured by old stereotypes that associate Jews with money and power.” The focus on this “new” antisemitism serves to obliterate the return of the “old” in today’s neofascist context.
Zemmour is not only xenophobic and islamophobic (in January 2022, he was convicted for the third time for “inciting racist hatred”) and explicitly homophobic and sexist (multiple accusations of sexual aggression were revealed in 2021); he goes so far as to play with antisemitic rhetoric. Historian Robert Paxton’s Vichy France notwithstanding, Zemmour argues that Marshal Pétain “sacrificed foreign Jews to save French Jews.” This “revisionism” (the French term only carries negative connotations) serves to justify his efforts to contest war criminal Maurice Papon’s “ideological trial,” and to protest President Jacques Chirac’s 1995 speech, which finally acknowledged the responsibility of the French State in the 1942 Vel d’Hiv roundup, claiming, “Such penance has been very damaging to us.” Unsurprisingly, this presidential candidate wants to abolish the 1972 law against racism and the 1990 law against Holocaust denial that has exposed him to prosecution.
In 2014, Zemmour went so far as to invoke a racial argument to predict the defeat of the German soccer team in the final rounds of the World Cup after the team started including citizens of Turkish origin: “Germany won when it only comprised blond dolichocephalic players.” The point is not so much that, once again, the Germans won the World Cup, but that Zemmour, a journalist, could revive a vocabulary coined by Georges Vacher de Lapouge in his 1899 book L’Aryen, whose scientific racism was to inspire Nazi ideology. What is even more remarkable is that no one seemed to notice, or to care. Similarly, when Zemmour compared the minister of education to “Doctor Mengele” on account of his recommendation to facilitate the inclusion of transgender students in public schools, Blanquer proved astonishingly merciful—refusing to take seriously such an “exaggeration.” Public indulgence has encouraged Zemmour to criticize the families of Merah’s victims for choosing to bury their children in Israel: “I don’t know whether these people are French,” he remarked. “They are foreigners first.”
Can Zemmour hope to escape accusations of antisemitism simply because he is Jewish? That is Jean-Marie Le Pen’s provocative declaration: “The only difference between Éric and me is that he is Jewish. That makes it hard to call him a fascist or a Nazi. It gives him a greater freedom.” The old leader obviously enjoys this “re-demonization” that rehabilitates his old strategy discarded by his daughter: Zemmour “will soon have Lucifer’s tail and cloven hooves too!” Indeed, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leftist leader of La France Insoumise, at first refused to acknowledge Zemmour’s antisemitism: “An antisemitic Jew? That’s news to me!” (Under pressure, he eventually had to publicly change his mind.)But Jewish figures are not so blind. Zemmour is being sued by an association of Jewish students. The Chief Rabbi, Haïm Korsia, has made it clear: “Antisemitic? Certainly. Racist? Obviously.” (He even feigned to wonder: “Is he Jewish?”) In response, Zemmour called him a “court Jew”. The formerly “new” philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy accused him of committing “an offense against the name Jew,” and even “a desecration of his name”. Zemmour fought back, calling him a “traitor” and using an explicitly antisemitic vocabulary: “cosmopolitan” and “anti-French.” François Kalifat, the chair of CRIF (a body that is supposed to represent the Jewish community), can thus draw the political conclusion “Not a single Jewish vote!”
Of course, there are exceptions. Another media philosopher, Alain Finkielkraut, proves remarkably indulgent, writing that“to his credit, Zemmour puts words” on the “existential anxiety” of the French who fear the threat of these “lost territories of the Republic—the working-class, largely non-white suburbs that are the constant target of this phrase’s reactionary rhetoric. This Jewish philosopher thus feels close to the antisemitic presidential candidate: “The newspapers that stigmatize him, and us, are the same that ignore the daily attacks against the police, the violence that keeps erupting in the projects.” The definition of this common enemy (the new, racialized “dangerous classes”) thus explains this paradoxical tolerance for antisemitism—provided that it be directed primarily against migrants, Muslims, and minorities. This I have called (ironically) “antisemitism for a good cause.”
In his essay “Black Skin, White Masks,” Frantz Fanon quoted his philosophy teacher in Martinique: “Whenever you hear anyone abuse the Jews, pay attention, he is talking about you.” In other words, “an anti-Semite is inevitably anti-Negro.” This argument is “reversible,” as writer Cloé Korman puts it in an essay: “Any racist enterprise is a threat to the Jews.” This is the lesson that we must urgently draw from Zemmour’s resistible rise. People get accustomed to the xenophobic and racist discourse distilled every day in the public sphere. Provocation now requires a poison that feels stronger for having long been banned from legitimate political discourse. Today, the return of open antisemitism in French politics is the final stage of racism. Playing one against the other makes no sense. We must fight against both.
This text was first published in French on November 21, 2021, on the website of L’Obs.
Éric Fassin is a professor of sociology at Paris 8 University and senior member of the Institut Universitaire de France.