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Trump’s Apprentice?

In France, TV talk-show provocateur Éric Zemmour eyes the presidency

Last week, Éric Zemmour, the TV talk-show star and former Le Figaro columnist who is being touted as a challenger to France’s president Emmanuel Macron, paid a visit to the Parisian suburb of Drancy. Now, as anyone who has paid any attention to France in the past knows, the French put their undesirable citizens in ghettoes outside the city. It is a strategic move; out there, these immigrants and Muslims are unlikely to interfere with the Emilys in Paris who are living their dream—or with the “real” French, that is, those who are white.

In recent years, however, some of the French have come up with uses for those they have banished. Zemmour is one such Frenchman. How he plans to use Muslims became obvious in a video of his visit to Drancy. In it, Zemmour, small and slight as he is, argues passionately with a Muslim woman. Again and again, Zemmour urges her to take off her veil and prove that she is “liberated.” “Hijab is not what makes religion,” she tells him, “just like wearing a tie does not make you intelligent.” Toward the end of their confrontation, she takes off her headscarf to prove her point about choice. “I am going to remove it,” she says, “does this mean you will start respecting me?”

The answer is no. Zemmour, touted as one of the most central figures in French television, did not come to Drancy to learn how he could better respect Muslim women. He came to create controversy, and to film a theatrical video of him confronting a Muslim woman. The incident served its purpose. A friend in France told me that the video had been playing on a loop on French television for the last week. The French love being aghast; it saves them from having to acknowledge their own transgressive desire to accost Muslim women, which Zemmour is now acting out.

Since Zemmour appeared as a possible presidential candidate, his television background and penchant for the outrageous and provocative has drawn comparisons with the obvious American analogue. Writing in The Atlantic, Yasmeen Serhan worried that this could be France’s version of Trump. Zemmour is a right-wing pundit adept at producing the punchy television moments that the French media seems to crave, and he presents journalists with a conundrum: cover him and enlarge his stature, or ignore him and miss what could be the nation’s biggest story. Zemmour himself enjoys the comparison to Trump; in a recent interview with the New York Times, he noted that the cover of his latest book, La France n’a pas dit son dernier mot (France Has Not Said its Last Word Yet), was influenced by Trump’s 2015 campaign tract Great Again—both feature their resolute authors posing in front of a billowing national flag.  

Racist societies appear to have a particular penchant for the “good immigrant” who can confirm that they aren’t really racist after all.

Zemmour, however, is not Trump and has the capacity to forge his own kind of appeal. Unlike Trump, he does not come from money but from an Algerian Jewish family that migrated to France. He has only his skill for controversy and provocation, while Trump had a multi-billion-dollar fortune that funded his presidential campaign. And yet, despite the lack of a visible line of cash, Zemmour may cater to white French guilt in ways that could be very beneficial to him.

Racist societies appear to have a particular penchant for the “good immigrant” who can confirm that they aren’t really racist after all. Zemmour, given his Jewish and immigrant roots, can do just this—prove that the French state’s exclusionary tactics are not about being racist, anti-immigrant, or even Islamophobic. They’re simply a truthful assessment of the facts at hand.

Nor can Zemmour’s invocation of decline and nostalgia be pinned just to Trump. Zemmour rose to punditry long before the Trump train had properly begun to claim rural white America’s hearts and to deaden their brains. In his blockbuster book Le suicide français (The French Suicide), Zemmour presented an analysis of decline that pinned blame on political decisions and formulations from the 1970s. This emphatic affirmation of French decline rails against just about everyone. Alexander Stille, who reviewed it for The New Yorker, describes the book’s central theme as “the end of a traditional hierarchical society in which men were men and women were subordinate, gays were in the closet, and France was a world power.”

This nostalgia for women who shut up and put out runs throughout the book. Stille recounts how “Zemmour bemoans the abrogation of old laws that made it illegal for women to open bank accounts without their husband’s permission.” Elsewhere, Zemmour cites the 1973 film Elle Court, Elle Court la Banlieue: “When the young bus driver slips a concupiscent hand on a charming female backside, the young woman does not sue for sexual harassment,” he writes. “Trust reigns.” The idea that overt sexual harassment is not an issue because women trust bus drivers as men who have their best interests at heart is, just as Zemmour intends it, provocative and absurd.

With presidential intentions dangling before him, Zemmour seems to have raised France up from the dead. Though in 2014 he decried the French state’s suicide, he now asserts that France has not said its last word after all. The possibility of becoming a world power again must be kept alive if he is to entice voters into his fold, voters who look to Charles de Gaulle and Napoleon as the emblems of lost French greatness. He has to lure them along with the possibilities of once again realizing a Muslim-free, misogynistic, homophobic French utopia.

There are always immigrants who decide that their best shot at any kind of success is to align as closely as possible to white racial privilege. For Zemmour, this appears to have been a winning bet, using his own Jewishness to make anti-Semitic comments (he tried to defend the Vichy Regime that allowed thousands of Jews to be slaughtered in World War II), and using his immigrant background to caricature migrants who have not assimilated enough. In his quest to be more white than white, Zemmour appears to have internalized the white mind and its peculiar desires better than anyone else. This all suggests more than the Trumpian megalomaniacal drive for power that happened to intersect his successful stint on television.

Zemmour is Trump with a plan, Trump with a level of political acuity that goes past the provocations of a white fatcat with money. Unlike Trump, who did and said what he wanted because no one had ever denied him, Zemmour is a man who seems to have created a brand for the very purpose of attending to the guilt and insecurities of a white French population that knows that the days of flaunting their racial and other forms of privilege are very likely over. Into their crestfallen hearts he enters, presenting the possibility of a revival of the good old days, when women could not open bank accounts, and bus drivers could grab their asses without worrying about reprisals. He interrogates Muslim women on the streets, gets their headscarves off; he saves French patriots from feeling guilt about the Jews massacred by the Vichy Regime, and from guilt over ghettoizing Muslims and labeling them all terrorists. In Zemmour’s promised France, resurrected from the brink of death, the white man still rules—over his woman, over the annoying leftists, over most of the world. The single question that remains is whether French nationalists can ignore that the man who is selling a purified France is born of Jewish immigrants.