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Éric Zemmour and the Revenge of Vichy
By Ian Buruma

The French celebrity journalist and far-right firebrand is roiling the 2022 presidential election campaign, even without announcing his candidacy. Although Zemmour's worldview has typified French reactionary thinking since 1789 and animated the pro-Nazi Vichy regime, the fact that he is a Sephardic Jew is not as odd as it may seem.

The French journalist, television celebrity, and possible presidential candidate Éric Zemmour is having great success with his extreme reactionary views. Zemmour has suggested that Muslims must choose between their religion and France, that the deportation of Muslim immigrants is feasible, and that non-French first names should be banned. He hates “cosmopolitans” and believes that liberalism is destroying French family life.

Zemmour has been sentenced twice already for racial discrimination and inciting hatred. His book, The French Suicide, published in 2014, sold more than a half-million copies in France. Polls suggest that he might get as much as 16% of the vote in next year’s presidential election.

Zemmour’s way of thinking stems from a tradition going back to the French Revolution of 1789. Catholic conservatives and right-wing intellectuals, who hated the secular republic that emerged from the revolution, have long fulminated against liberals, cosmopolitans, immigrants, and other enemies of their idea of a society based on ethnic purity, obedience to the church, and family values. They were almost invariably anti-Semitic. When Jewish army Captain Alfred Dreyfus was falsely accused of betraying his country in the notorious scandal of the 1890s, they were on the side of Dreyfus’s accusers.

Germany’s invasion of France in 1940 gave reactionaries of this kind the chance to form a French puppet-government in Vichy. Zemmour has had kind things to say about the Vichy regime. He also has expressed some doubt about the innocence of Dreyfus.

None of these views would be surprising if they came from a far-right agitator like Jean-Marie Le Pen. But Zemmour is the son of Sephardic Jewish immigrants from Algeria who lived among the Muslim Berbers. Because of the French reluctance to make ethnic or religious distinctions between citizens, Zemmour’s background is often ignored. But it might help to explain why he arrived at his extreme opinions.

There is of course no reason why a Jewish person should not hold conservative views. And many Jews are passionately patriotic about their countries. But nativism among Jews in the diaspora is exceedingly rare, for obvious reasons. (Israel is a somewhat different story.) Hostility to immigrants and insistence on national purity have never done Jews any good. This is perhaps the main reason why American Jews, for example, unlike prosperous members of other minorities, such as the Irish, Italians, and increasingly Latinos, still consistently vote for Democrats.

For a long time, many diaspora Jews have been keen to assimilate and become indistinguishable from the majority population. As with other minorities, this is often a matter of class: relative prosperity loosens the ties to traditional faiths and customs. But even the most ardent French, British, or American Jewish patriots tend to support their societies’ openness and oppose anti-immigrant bigotry.

In France, such patriots would be mostly on the side of universal human rights and other French republican values. This would apply, for example, to the well-known philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, the son of a Polish father who survived Auschwitz. Finkielkraut fears the dangers of Islam no less than Zemmour, but he is not a nativist. The Islamic threat, in his view, is to the liberal, secular, republican ideas that Zemmour deplores.

So, what drives Zemmour? How can a Jew become an anti-Dreyfusard, as it were? Perhaps the memories of the Nazi genocide and the Vichy regime’s complicity have faded so much that even a Jewish intellectual can flirt with nativist reaction without any sense of shame or fear. Or maybe he believes that stirring up French hostility to Muslims will deflect potential aggression against Jews. Many French Jews, especially the mostly Sephardic Jews living in poor neighborhoods, live in genuine fear of Muslim anti-Semitism.

Zemmour is an extreme assimilationist. He cannot stop talking about his ardent love of France. Again, there is nothing unusual about that. But his family roots among the Berbers are a complicating factor. Zemmour’s attitudes are not unique to France, or to Sephardic Jews. In the Netherlands, for example, one thing some of the most fervent opponents of Muslim immigration have in common is a family history in Indonesia, the former Dutch East Indies.

Geert Wilders, leader of the anti-immigrant Party for Freedom, is partly Eurasian. So are some other prominent figures in Dutch far-right politics who have an obsession with Islam. Racial hierarchies in the former colonies were complex. Eurasians in Indonesia, especially those with a Dutch education, were not just keen to be thought of as Europeans, but were fearful of being identified as Asians – let alone Muslims. Many Algerian Jews were just as eager to identify as French, and living among Muslims could easily result in hostility.

Muslims in Europe not only are resented, but some Eurasians in Holland or Jews in France are terrified of being associated with them. The closest parallel might be the attitude of certain assimilated Western European Jews before the war to poor Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. But that was more a matter of snobbery than hatred. And fellow Ashkenazi Jews were not feared.

Zemmour’s hostility to Muslims has made him popular with some French Jews who have been shocked by recent acts of Islamist violence – including the murder of a rabbi and three children in Toulouse, the stabbing of an elderly Jewish woman in Paris, and other incidents.

But Zemmour also has given license to bigotry among Gentiles. Le Pen himself put this succinctly in a recent interview with Le Monde. Because Zemmour is a Jew, Le Pen said, nobody could accuse him of being a Nazi, and “that gives him great freedom.” By extension, it gives more freedom to people who think like Le Pen.

Ian Buruma is the author of numerous books, including Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance, Year Zero: A History of 1945, A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir, and, most recently, The Churchill Complex: The Curse of Being Special, From Winston and FDR to Trump and Brexit.
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