PARIS — Éric Zemmour was dressed for battle. Wearing a gray suit, a brown Hermès belt and chocolate suede loafers to match, he scrolled through the cyber artillery directed his way.
Days earlier, Zemmour, a provocative columnist for Le Figaro and a household name in France, had launched a grenade during an interview on a prime-time Sunday show. He told host Hapsatou Sy, a black woman, that it was a shame her parents had not given her a Christian name. “Your name is an insult to France,” he said. And so began another round of the debate about French national identity.
In his television appearances, radio segments and columns, Zemmour’s aim is partly to scandalize and partly to normalize. Although the French far right lacks political power, it is in some ways winning the battle of ideas, thanks largely to Zemmour. People listen to the man in the slick gray suit.
These days, he is preaching about French decline, as he did in his 2014 bestseller, “French Suicide.” But in a new bestseller published last month, “French Destiny,” he also blends unapologetic Islamophobia with once unimaginable historical revisionism.
“Today, we live in a de facto colonization from the populations that come from the south of the Mediterranean and who impose — through numbers and, sometimes, with violence — a de facto sharia,” Zemmour said in an interview at Le Figaro’s Paris headquarters.
He anticipates a “new 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.”
Strictly speaking, Zemmour belongs to the “populations that come from the south of the Mediterranean.” He was born in the Paris suburbs in 1958, the son of Berber Jews who arrived in France during the Algerian War, already as French citizens.
In some ways, his views are consistent with those of the “pied-noirs,” the class of Europeans exiled from Algeria, who tended to become politically conservative, suspicious of Muslims and deeply resentful of Charles de Gaulle for having given up the fight. Zemmour takes particular pleasure in attacking the deceased general and president, who, as he writes, “performed euthanasia under anesthesia” on a weakened nation.
At the same time, Zemmour echoes the ahistoric views of Jean-Marie Le Pen, father of the French far-right. (Le Pen’s memoir, published earlier this year, was also a bestseller.)
Like Le Pen, Zemmour offers an emphatic defense of France’s Vichy government in World War II, a regime that openly collaborated with Nazi Germany in arresting and deporting 76,000 French and foreign-born Jews. Vichy leader Philippe Pétain, in Zemmour’s telling, was “double-dealing,” trying to save the country, and French Jews, behind the scenes. Zemmour once told an audience in Paris’s Grand Synagogue that “the word ‘deportation’ in 1942 did not mean ‘deported to Auschwitz.’ It meant those deported to Eastern Europe.”
Meanwhile, he blames contemporary anti-Semitism entirely on Arabs. “It’s simple, if I dare to say it,” he told The Washington Post. “Anti-Semitism was reborn in France with the arrival of the populations from Muslim territories, where anti-Semitism — if you like — is cultural.”
Shortly after making that remark, Zemmour asked whether he could review his comments, which were also recorded, before publication, a practice not uncommon in French media. When told no, he balked. France has strict hate speech laws, and others, notably historian Georges Bensoussan, have recently been taken to court over similar comments about Muslims. Zemmour — who was convicted of inciting racial hatred for saying on public television in 2011 that employers had a right to refuse blacks and Arabs — was not sure that things would go his way in a repeat scenario. “If I go to prison because of this, you can bring me oranges,” he said at the end of the interview.
Even while he courts controversy, Zemmour has managed to make formerly extreme views more mainstream. He writes, after all, in the pages of France’s most bourgeois newspaper and is a constant voice on RTL, one of the country’s most respected radio channels.
“The classic, conservative bourgeoisie can say to themselves, this is a good Jew: He says that Vichy wasn’t so bad, and that Muslims are even worse than people say usually,” said Dominique Moïsi, a political scientist whose father survived Auschwitz.
Zemmour’s rhetoric plays into lingering anxieties over migration and a deadly spate of terrorist violence that began in 2015. His reception also benefits from public disenchantment with President Emmanuel Macron, whose pro-business agenda has earned him the moniker of “president for the rich.”
Historians, meanwhile, worry about how widespread Zemmour’s image of the past has become. Zemmour is the first to admit that his work is not always based on hard evidence. As he put it: “I don’t consider myself a professional historian in the sense that I don’t go to the archives to exhume new pieces, et cetera.” At the same time, he does have a theory of history: “All historians are revisionists,” he said.
For Laurent Joly, author of a new study of Vichy’s anti-Semitism published this month, Zemmour’s popularity is a troubling sign of a reading public uninterested in the truth.
“More and more, the place of the historian is disputed and what is authoritative in the eyes of the general public is now a Zemmour, against a backdrop of growing historical ignorance, intellectual regression and a crisis of values,” Joly said.
For the moment, Zemmour is everywhere: smiling on book covers, ranting in the pages of prestigious newspapers and telling minorities to change their names on camera.
“What shocks me most,” said Daniel Schneidermann, a French media analyst, “is the general confusion, which allows his discourse to be one among the others.”