“The Tragedy of Eric Zemmour” (The Times of Israel, 3 April 2022)

France has had two Jewish heads of government: Léon Blum between 1936 and 1937, and Pierre Mendès-France between 1954 and 1955 (Michel Debré, who served as prime minister between 1959 and 1962, had a Jewish father but not a Jewish mother; Laurent Fabius, who served between 1984 and 1986, is of Jewish descent but his family converted to Catholicism and he was raised as a Catholic). Though their Jewishness was a matter of controversy at the time, especially for Léon Blum, a Jewish prime minister would not raise eyebrows in France today. Being head of state is a different matter, however. In Europe, heads of state (whether hereditary monarchs or elected presidents) incarnate the nation. In France, they inherit the mantle of kings and emperors. Since the establishment of the Fifth Republic by Charles de Gaulle in 1958, French presidents have often been described as “Republican monarchs” because of their extended powers. By running for president, Eric Zemmour is setting a precedent of the first Jew vying for what the French call “la fonction suprême” (the supreme function).

One could have expected Catholics, monarchists, and ultra-conservatives object to a Jew claiming the virtual crown of French kings. After all, when Léon Blum became premier in June 1936, monarchist parliamentarian Xavier Vallat complained that “For the first time, this Gallo-Roman land is going to be governed by a Jew.” Yet the very opposite has happened with Zemmour, who has gathered the support of France’s most conservative figures. Zemmour’s maiden speech as candidate on 5 December 2021 was preceded by public endorsements. Among them was ultra-conservative politician and author Paul-Marie Coûteaux, who declared that Eric Zemmour shall “incarnate ‘the king’s second body’, the immemorial and immortal body of France” and become in effect “King of France.”

Anticipating the bewilderment of his audience, given Zemmour’s Jewishness, Coûteaux explained that Zemmour’s authentic love for France has granted him access to the Catholic anointment of French Kings: “This transubstantiation, which was once called ‘the king’s two bodies’, is a moral matter, and, like every moral matter in a Christian land, is a question of love. Yes, Zemmour is a love story, an unshakable love for this country.”

Coûteaux’s speech was altogether bizarre and telling. The Catholic and monarchist right, which eight decades ago vilified Léon Blum as a “Talmudist” unfit to rule over a “nation of peasants” (in Xavier Vallat’s words), is willing today to anoint an Algerian Jew because he has proven his indefectible love for France and because such love is needed to protect an old Christian nation from Islamization (whose main source, incidentally, is Zemmour’s native Algeria). Coûteaux is not an isolated and iconoclastic case. Zemmour has also been endorsed by Philippe de Villiers, a prominent Catholic and monarchist politician. France’s Catholic right is not endorsing Zemmour simply because his intellect and debating skills far surpass those of Marine Le Pen. Something deeper is at stake.

One of Zemmour’s leitmotivs is that France is not a race but a Catholic nation, and that immigrants must assimilate (and not merely integrate) into that nation by learning its language, by adopting its culture, by identifying with its history, and by keeping religious observance to the private sphere. Zemmour proudly reminds his audiences that he did just that as a “Berberian Jew,” and that today’s immigrants can and must do the same. Zemmour often quotes, and fully endorses, the famous formula of Count Stanislas de Clermont-Tonnerre who said during a debate at the French national assembly in 1789 that Jews “should be granted everything as individuals but nothing as a nation.” This formula was turned into policy by Napoléon Bonaparte in 1806 following the resolutions of the “Grand Sanhedrin.” Zemmour continues to endorse this policy of “replacing Jerusalem with Paris.”

Unlike Bruno Kreisky (a former Austrian chancellor who, despite having Jewish parents, said he had no connection whatsoever with Judaism), Zemmour openly identifies as a Jew. His wife is Jewish (so is his mistress…), he celebrates Jewish holidays, and he occasionally attends an Orthodox synagogue. Yet his identification as a Jew is solely religious and not national. His religious allegiance is to Judaism, but his national allegiance is to France. Hence is he not a Zionist.

When Zemmour advocates the preservation of French civilization, he sounds genuine because he has embraced that civilization. When he says that immigrants should give French names to their children, he cannot be accused of nativism since his family did just that after immigrating from Algeria. “Racism,” Zemmour explained in his abovementioned speech, means “claiming that those who are different from us are inferior because they are different, and that you can only be French if you descend from Clovis. How could I possibly believe that, me, a little Berberian Jew who came from the other side of the Mediterranean?” As an admirer of Bonaparte, Zemmour can think of another Mediterranean foreigner who fell in love with France and became its leader. Yet Zemmour owes his popularity among French nationalists not only to his assimilationist ideology, but also to his description of France as the “New Israel.”

In his book Destin français (“French destiny”), Zemmour has a chapter named “Saint-Louis, the Jewish king.” In it, he claims that, since the Carolingian dynasty, the Franks considered themselves the new chosen people and that the French monarchy took from the Hebrew Bible both its rituals (such as the king’s ointment) and its concepts (such as the chosen people and the divine source of power). For Zemmour, there is no contradiction between his religious allegiance to Judaism and his national allegiance to France, because “For centuries Israel was France’s model.” Moreover, Zemmour writes in this chapter, “It is no coincidence that Israel has been hated for decades by France’s post-Christian and post-colonial Left which, after having venerated Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s China … has subjugated itself to Islam as the ultimate banner against nations … Israel is the mirror of a France they hate.”

Zemmour’s 2014 book Le suicide français (“The French Suicide”) was his first bestseller and made him a household name. The book dedicates eight pages out of 527 to the different historical perspectives on the Vichy regime. Those few pages are actually about US historian Robert Paxton, whose book Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, 1940-1944 (published in English in 1972 and in French in 1973) challenged traditional French historiography on Vichy. Zemmour dedicates 1.5 percent of his book to Paxton as part of his general thesis, which is that the French radical left failed to overthrow de Gaulle in May 1968 but managed to undo his legacy over the next forty years by way of systematic “deconstruction” in academia, the media, the judiciary, and the high civil service. According to Zemmour, the French left enthusiastically embraced Paxton because his book was a perfect fit for the “deconstruction” of French history.

Zemmour challenges Paxton’s thesis that the Vichy government was eager to collaborate with Germany. Until Paxton, the consensus among French historians was that Vichy had played a double-game to try and preserve the French people. Although Paxton challenges this thesis, he himself admits that three quarters of France’s Jews survived the Holocaust –as opposed to a quarter of Dutch Jews for example. Paxton claims that 75% of France’s Jews survived thanks to French civil society. Until Paxton, Zemmour explains, many historians agreed that Vichy’s double-game had played a role in preserving French Jews. Such was the opinion of French historian Robert Aron and of US historian Raul Hilberg (both of whom were Jewish).

In recent years, Paxton’s thesis has been challenged by Alain Michel, a Franco-Israeli historian and Conservative rabbi mentioned by Zemmour in his book. Michel holds a Ph.D. in history but he is not a history professor, and his 2011 book Vichy et la Shoah (“Vichy and the Shoah”) was published by an obscure publishing house. Michel claims that the Vichy government traded foreign Jews, or recently naturalized ones, to preserve “French Israelites.” In any case, all Zemmour does in Le suicide français is to confront Paxton’s thesis with that of three Jewish historians who claim that Vichy’s double-game did play a role in preserving some French Jews, in spite of Vichy’s antisemitic policies.

In his book Destin français (2018), Zemmour elaborates further on the distinction between French and foreign Jews (or recently naturalized ones) under the Vichy government. This distinction was sometimes advocated by Jews themselves. Zemmour quotes a letter from Jacques Helbronner, then president of the Consistoire (the institution established by Bonaparte in 1808 to administer Jewish worship and congregations in France) to Marshall Philippe Pétain. In it, Helbronner blamed the “invasion” of France by foreign Jews for understandably reviving an antisemitism now directed at “old French family of the Israelite religion.” Pétain promised Helbronner that he would distinguish between Jews “rooted” in France, especially war veterans, and recent Jewish immigrants.

There is, of course, a political motivation behind Zemmour’s efforts to posthumously reconcile the respective legacies of de Gaulle and Pétain. His aim is to unify the French right, which was split by the Algerian war. In the 1980s, President Mitterrand had cynically encouraged the ascendency of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s “national front” by changing the electoral law (he briefly replaced a first-past-the post system with proportional voting in 1986). While Mitterrand had no problem allying with the Communists, he branded Le Pen as illegitimate – thus undermining the right’s electoral prospects. Zemmour is trying to end this divide, which implies wooing the right that had welcomed Pétain in 1940, had opposed de Gaulle in 1962, and had raised the anti-immigration banner in the 1980s.

Zemmour’s efforts to legitimize the hitherto illegitimate right, however, have led him to murky waters. In his recent book La France n’a pas dit son dernier mot (“France hasn’t said its last word”), Zemmour laments the fact that the three Jewish children murdered by an Islamist terrorist in March 2012 in the city of Toulouse were buried in Israel and not in France. According to Zemmour, the parents and grandparents of the murdered children (the Sandler family) felt a stronger affiliation to Israel than to France, something Zemmour regrets. This statement was extremely insensitive toward the Sandler family and its tragedy. Zemmour could have argued that a growing number of French Jews prefer Israel to France for their burial by using official statistics and while leaving the Sandler family alone (Zemmour has since then called Samuel Sandler to apologize).

Another indication of how far Zemmour is ready to go to “kosherize” the deep right was his recent statement on the Dreyfus Affair. This legal and political drama tore France apart over a century ago, setting secularists against Catholics, republicans against monarchists, and advocates of principled justice against defenders of raison d’État. Zemmour recently declared that we shall never know the whole truth about the Dreyfus Affair, that it is not entirely clear whether Dreyfus was guilty or innocent, and that anyways Dreyfus had been accused not much as a Jew but as a German (Dreyfus was a native of Alsace, which Bismarck had annexed to the German Reich in 1871).

Zemmour seems to be aiming at army officers, 40% of which believe that Dreyfus was not innocent. Yet by casting doubt, out of cynical political calculation, on Dreyfus’ innocence as well as on the fact that Dreyfus was framed because he was Jewish, Zemmour is crossing a red line. That Dreyfus was innocent and that his false accusation was motivated by antisemitism is not a matter of debate among historians. Even Jean-Marie Le Pen, known for his provocative and outrageous statements (he once described the Holocaust as “a detail” of World War II) has not tried to “reopen” the Dreyfus Affair

Hence is Zemmour accused by his opponents of absolving the antisemitic right with the seal of a Jew. Except that, in recent years, Jews in France have been attacked and murdered for being Jewish by Islamists, not by neo-Nazis or Vichy nostalgists. The gruesome list includes the barbarous murders of Sébastien Sellam in 2003, of Ilan Halimi in 2006, of the children of Toulouse’s Jewish school in 2012, of the customers of a kosher supermarket in Paris in 2015, of Sarah Halimi in 2017, and of Mireille Knoll in 2018.

While Zemmour is embraced by France’s most conservative figures, despite being open about his Jewishness, it is the French left that singles him out as a Jew (even as a Zionist). On 18 September 2021, Zemmour was heckled by “antifa” activists (a far-left movement) who yelled at him: “Zemmour, Zionist, go back to your country!” On 29 October 2021, far-left presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélanchon said in a TV interview that Zemmour’s ideas were influenced by what he described as Judaism’s intrinsic conservatism and strong attachment to a particular identity. On 13 February 2022, environmentalist candidate Yannick Jadot accused Eric Zemmour of being “the antisemites’ useful Jew” (“Juif de service” in French).

Like Saint-Louis, Zemmour aspires to become France’s Jewish King. As he wrote in his book Destin français, “Israel is the mirror of a France they [the French left] hate.” But so is Zemmour himself. Hence the tragedy of Eric Zemmour. He may have achieved the tour de force of anointing “a little Berberian Jew” (to quote his own words) as the candidate of French Catholics and archconservatives. Yet Zemmour is still singled out as a Jew no matter how French he claims to be, thus replicating the lethal illusion of assimilated French Jews (such as Alfred Dreyfus) who sincerely believed that their love for France was mutual. It never was and never will be, as Theodor Herzl realized in Paris. And, incidentally, there is no more need for Zemmour to “replace Jerusalem with Paris”: Jerusalem has been rebuilt, while in Paris Jews are still singled out.

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