The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Éric Zemmour draws comparisons to Trump as he upends French presidential election

French far-right media pundit Éric Zemmour talks to the press as he arrives at an event to promote his new book in Nice, France, on Sept. 18. (Valery Hache/AFP/Getty Images)

NANTES, France — Less than six months before the French presidential election, far-right provocateur Éric Zemmour has yet to announce his candidacy. But the possibility that he may run has already upended the race, alarming moderate contenders and far-right competitor Marine Le Pen alike.

Zemmour is a political commentator known for his treatises on the decline of France. He has contributed to the normalization of views that used to be seen as beyond the realm of decency. He has also been convicted of provoking racial hatred against Muslims — and is on trial again this week for describing unaccompanied child migrants as “thieves,” “killers” and “rapists.”

In recent polls of voting intention, President Emmanuel Macron leads the race, but with only about a quarter of the vote. Zemmour, meanwhile, has come close to matching Le Pen’s support, with numbers hovering in the midteens. Analysts caution that these early numbers can be volatile. But if Zemmour maintains or builds on his position, that could give him a shot at reaching the second round of the elections, facing off against Macron.

For now, Zemmour is skipping the hate-speech trial against him and instead touring the country with de facto campaign rallies, framed as a promotion of his latest book.

Arriving at an event in the western city of Nantes, he was cheered by about 1,700 people. Some wore “Zemmour 2022” T-shirts and jumped up from their seats as he came into view.

“Daily life in Nantes has changed,” he said, referring to recent shootings in the city.

“No, we don’t want to live with this,” he said, raising his voice and drawing enthusiastic applause in a city that in past elections has been a bastion against the far right.

While Zemmour took off his slick suit jacket and nonchalantly sat down on a bar stool onstage, far-left protesters attempted to storm the venue, pushing carts from a nearby shopping center into police cars, ripping Zemmour posters off walls and seeking refuge behind a McDonald’s playground after police officers targeted them with tear gas. Smoke hovered around the site.

Such physical and ideological clashes could portend a tense period in the country’s politics.

Zemmour’s opponents fear he is using similar strategies — and tapping into the same sentiments — that helped Donald Trump win the U.S. presidency. He feeds the 24/7 news cycle with a constant stream of provocations: demanding a ban on foreign-sounding first names, complaining of an “invasion” by migrants, blaming “Islamic colonization” for crime that makes life in some parts of France “unlivable,” and demanding that the country be returned to past glory. Recently, he pointed a rifle at journalists at a security fair and said, “The fun’s over.”

But unlike Trump and Le Pen, Zemmour also presents himself as an intellectual. Speaking elegantly, he quotes — and misquotes — poets, scientists and former leaders, weaving fragments of history into his long monologues that lay out a dark and at times contradictory worldview.

“It’s like Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again,’ ” said Patrick Weil, a French historian and critic of Zemmour. “He’s manipulating the French history.”

Weil cited Zemmour’s account that the leader of the Nazi-era Vichy regime protected French Jews. And the 76,000 Jews deported to concentration camps? Those were foreign Jews who had been living in France, sacrificed to save the French ones, Zemmour asserts.

It is true that Jews from elsewhere in Europe had sought refuge in France. But there is plentiful evidence that the Vichy government made a point to apply antisemitic laws to all Jews regardless of citizenship and willingly collaborated in arrests and deportations. Vichy leader Philippe Pétain is not among those recognized for saving Jews.

Le Pen’s party also has a history of Holocaust revisionism, which has made the party unsupportable for a segment of French voters. But in part because Zemmour is himself Jewish — his parents moved from Algeria to the Parisian suburbs before the colony’s war of independence — he has succeeded in making once-fringe opinions more acceptable.

Zemmour did not respond to an interview request.

When he last spoke with The Washington Post, in 2018, he warned of a coming “civil war” between “those who do not wish to abandon the identity of France, which is to say its Christian, and White, identity,” and those who accept “the Islamization of France.”

A historian Zemmour likes to quote, Simon Epstein, recently accused Zemmour of having a “preference for excessive and false” claims, adding that Zemmour had attributed conclusions to him “that are his and not mine.”

Zemmour’s rise in the polls has taken even some close observers of French politics by surprise.

“A few months ago, one would have hardly been able to imagine that there might be a political space for people who would be even more radical than Le Pen,” said Tristan Guerra, a researcher at Sciences Po Grenoble.

Pierre Mathiot, director of the Institute of Political Studies in Lille, said Zemmour has gotten a boost from Le Pen’s attempt to rehabilitate her party, which has disgruntled some of her core voters. Zemmour has benefited, too, from “a real lack of leadership” within the mainstream right.

Mathiot cautioned that Zemmour has struggled to build a network of advisers and political allies, which could curb his ambitions.

Some competitors also hope he will fade in the polls once he is forced to put forward specific electoral promises on a range of issues.

Legal scrutiny could pose further problems; Zemmour’s lawyer unsuccessfully tried to postpone the hate-speech trial until after the election.

But the booming applause at Zemmour’s events is an indication that Trump-style discourse, presented in an intellectual shell, could still prove a powerful formula in France.

“Zemmour has political positions that are a lot more radical than Le Pen’s, but at the same time, he attracts a lot more support from the traditional right-wing spectrum,” Mathiot said.

A recent analysis by the left-leaning Jean-Jaurès Foundation found that every fourth Zemmour supporter who is likely to participate in next year’s elections once voted for François Fillon, a more mainstream presidential candidate and former French prime minister. In a potential runoff with Macron, Zemmour could win as much as 45 percent of the vote, according to some polls.

The noncandidate’s latest book, titled “France Hasn’t Said Its Last Word,” sold more than 160,000 copies in the first three weeks after it was published. (By comparison, former president François Hollande’s book was considered a success after selling 100,000 copies in three weeks in 2018.)

No other likely or confirmed candidate had more interactions on Facebook in October than Zemmour, whose momentum is aided by a small army of young supporters, operating as “Génération Z.”

“Our big advantage is that we’ve understood how politics functions on the Internet,” said Matthieu Louves, 26, a pro-Zemmour activist who is still also affiliated with the center-right Republicans party.

Louves said he has long been struck by Zemmour’s “ability to put France’s problems into words, without caring about left-wing morality.”

Zemmour has suspended his column in the right-leaning Le Figaro newspaper. He also had to give up a show on CNews — described by some as France’s Fox News — to comply with regulations about media access for political figures.

But like Trump, he has had an outsize presence in political coverage. In September, French broadcasters mentioned him more than twice as many times as Le Pen.

There’s a sense that broadcasters may be both feeding into and thriving on the interest in Zemmour. In an open letter last month, more than 150 French journalists urged their colleagues to stop being “complicit in hatred.”

At the event in Nantes, people appeared ready to discount the things that might be deemed most objectionable about Zemmour.

Cecile Herisse, a 76-year-old retiree, said she likes Zemmour “a lot,” even though she disagreed with one of his key proposals: to halt legal migration to France.

Romain, 35, who spoke on the condition that only his first name be used, citing privacy reasons, said he tends to align with the left on social and economic issues, but he could see voting for Zemmour to restrict immigration and to limit the influence of “political correctness” on French discourse.

Sitting on a bike outside the venue, an 18-year-old who would only give his first name, Thibauld, said he had come to protest Zemmour but could understand some of his appeal.

“We used to be very powerful, and now it’s hard for people to accept that we’re just another small country,” he said.

“But France is a multicultural country full of energy,” he said. “That should be the guiding principle.”