For the Figaro journalist and TV commentator Eric Zemmour, whose Le Suicide français has been topping the bestseller lists in France, France is ‘the sick man of Europe’. The land of liberty was once admired by the whole world. Then came May ’68, feminism, immigration, consumerism and homosexuality. On the surface, nothing has changed; espressos are still being plonked down on zinc counters, and ‘the legs of Parisian women still turn heads’. But ‘the soul has gone’. Gays and Muslims are taking over, and France is ‘dissolving in the icy waters of individualism and self-hatred’.
The blurb calls Le Suicide français an ‘analyse’, but there is nothing analytical about it. Society, according to Zemmour, is a mass of self-righteous fools who must be held in check by powerful men. All social change, other than natural degeneration, is the result of laws passed by politicians. The more those politicians resemble Napoleon or de Gaulle, the healthier society will be.
The tale begins (like Sarkozy’s autobiography) with the funeral of General de Gaulle. ‘Here ended the series of providential French men initiated a century and a half before by Bonaparte, a national speciality like Camembert or Gevrey-Chambertin.’ ‘Providentiel’ is the term conventionally applied to French leaders who plotted or carried out coups d’état for the good of the patrie.
This ‘big cheese’ view of French history provides the filling of an interminable, half-baked baguette of indigestible prejudice. Criticism of Zemmour’s book in France has focussed on his dismissive remarks about the Vichy régime: instead of indulging in an orgy of self-castigation, France should congratulate itself on having saved so many Jews. There are many other inflammatory and unsupported statements. He suggests, falsely, that the Muslim boys whose death sparked the Paris riots of 2005 had committed a burglary. He insults ‘minorities’, pressure groups, left-wing journalists, Americans (‘capricious, insatiable and lacking self-control’), his compatriots (indistinguishable from Americans), and the Dutch referee who enabled the flaxen-haired, disciplined Germans to defeat the creative and impetuous French in the 1982 World Cup semi-final in Seville.
The underlying problem, says Zemmour, is women — not the ones whose legs turn heads but the ones who go out to work. Because of feminism (repeatedly referred to as ‘the burning of bras’), abortion and contraception were legalised, ignoring the fact that ‘while there may be unwanted pregnancies, no pregnancy is ever undesired’. The normal ‘complexities of private life’ were mistaken for ‘violence against women’. The emasculation of the patrie was confirmed by the rise of homosexuals — ‘evolution’s answer to the population explosion?’
For Zemmour, the dominant male is the pillar of civilisation. If a man be not legally superior to his wife, he will not be ‘sexually reassured’, and the wife will end up hating him. For a woman to admire her husband, she must be dominated. Only then can she ‘give herself without shame’. This explains why ‘women still marry men who are better qualified and better paid than themselves’. In the old days, before the de-trousering of French society, women could understand ‘a sexuality different from their own’. They were happy to see their husbands run off to the brothel or a mistress, and ‘a concupiscent hand passed over a charming female bottom’ did not result in a sexual harassment complaint.
Perhaps the book itself is a symptom of the sickness it describes, but then so is the fact that this pantomime polemic is being taken so seriously in France. In some countries, the mind of Eric Zemmour would belong to the realm of light entertainment. He might be fêted as a blimpish anachronism, the hilariously pontificating author of a ‘Why everything is merde’. As a political thinker in the Jeremy Clarkson league, he might still pursue a career in television.
This kind of pseudo-analytical ranting is not automatically subject to ridicule in France. Xenophobic, misogynistic and homophobic views are not infrequently aired in what might otherwise be called polite company, and Zemmour’s opinions are not particularly outlandish. Some of his jibes at Euro-bureaucracy, ideologically tendentious legislation and slavish veneration of May ’68 are even quite defensible. There is, however, something odd about the 530-page ensemble.
No one has this many ridiculous prejudices, or, if they do, they don’t usually form such a coherent package. The question is: why was the book written? Is it an attention-seeking rant or a serious manifesto? Amid the tear gas and the smoke of burning bras, a faint light occasionally shines and an oily condescension seeps into the prose. One group alone is spared Zemmour’s insults. He calls them le peuple — the hard-working, white, male citizens of the true France. In 1993, the law was changed to allow parents to name their children as they wished. Until then, only names in the calendar of saints and ancient history had been accepted. Suddenly, there were Mohameds all over the place. ‘With the feeble weapons at their disposal, the people tried to defend their national euphony’ by calling those traitors ‘Momo’. ‘They softened and gallicised those guttural consonants,’ but to no avail.
Today, Zemmour’s France lies dying from self-inflicted blows, and those proletarian boys, neglected by a politically correct élite, ‘find it hard to seduce girls who prefer the glibness of students or even the ostentatious virility of the “scum” from the banlieue’. According to Zemmour, many of them vote for the Front National. In a nation which, unbeknownst to Zemmour, has been multicultural since before the Revolution, that may indeed prove suicidal.
Available from Spectator Bookshop (by phone only 08430 600033) at £27. Graham Robb has written widely on France, including biographies of Victor Hugo, Balzac, Rimbaud and Baudelaire.