It’s a book tour, mais pas comme des autres. Last night, Eric Zemmour, rising star of the French right and undeclared candidate for the presidency, rocked up in Béziers to promote La France n'a pas dit son dernier mot (France hasn’t yet had its final say), his book which has sold 250,000 copies in a month. A political campaign rally? Perish the thought.
I got there early and spent an hour talking to dozens of Zemmour’s fans, lining up to enter the hall. Many had come hundreds of kilometers. There were scores of students. All were disillusioned with Marine Le Pen. Many admitted they’d previously voted for Nicolas Sarkozy. This was not a traditional National Front crowd in their blue smocks, driving those battered Renault vans that look like garden sheds on wheels. The car park was filled with Audis, BMWs, top-line Peugeots and a Jaguar or two. The crowd was well-spoken and smartly dressed.
The Zinga Zanga conference hall was filled to the rafters and hundreds more stood outside as Zemmour took the stage, an hour late, to thunderous applause and chants of ‘Zemmour président.’ The night before, he’d been in Nîmes where he’d had an equally supercharged reaction. Versailles is next, to be followed by Rouen, Caen, Rennes and Nantes. He spoke fluently for 25 minutes and took questions for another 25 minutes.
Afterwards he spent an hour signing copies of his book and met scores of journalists. I grabbed just a moment with him and asked him how he viewed the threats of Macron’s government to cut off electricity supplies to Britain in retaliation for the squabble over post-Brexit fishing rights.
Ever the intellectual, he noted that Anglo-French relations have been worse - a reference to the Napoleonic wars, doubtless — and then put the blame firmly on Europe and particularly the negotiations led by Michel Barnier, who has himself subsequently declared that he’s a candidate for the presidency.
‘The French fishermen thought they could continue as always, the English that they’d get everything back. This was the result of holes in Barnier’s dossier, the consequence of poor negotiation.’
On stage, repeatedly denying he has decided to present himself as a candidate for the presidency next year, Zemmour’s elocution was nevertheless in every respect a campaign speech. His showed that he is moving rapidly to present far more rounded and extensive policies beyond his traditional focus on immigration and the need for migrants to assimilate and respect French history, culture, education and constitutional traditions.
He decried political correctness, wokeness, the obsession with transgenderism. He demanded the expulsion from France of those who betray the principles of the Republic. He also spoke passionately against the imposition of lockdowns during the Covid crisis, a policy he denounced as having been inspired by China. Zemmour declared:
“Over the last sixty years the right has been in power for 40 years and the left for 20.When the left is in power they implement their ideas. And when the right is in power they implement the ideas of the left. The electorate has never been more firmly right, and the politicians of the right have never been so solidly to the left.Politicians imagine that politics is about being elected. That this is the summit of their careers. But once elected a new combat must follow. A battle of ideas on the campus, in the media, schools, culture. A war that the left has systematically won. It’s time for us to fight with the same conviction. To use our convictions to gain power and use power to implement our convictions.The left has taken over our schools with their ideologies of pervasive racism, LGBT, devaluation of the baccalaureate, taken over our universities with their ideologies and the massacre of our language. Our singers, actors and directors have undermined our families, the relations between men and women. The public service channels have become propaganda. They are channels for an ideology that detests France and the French. Paid for with your taxes.
When Zemmour called for an end to the ‘redevance audiovisuelle’ – equivalent to the TV license – there was thunderous applause. Asked about the 2005 referendum in which French voters overwhelmingly rejected the proposed European constitution, only to see the government ignore them and adopt an identical text as a treaty, he offered the closest hint yet of his sympathy for Frexit.
He promised to rerun the referendum and to use the mechanism frequently, noting De Gaulle and subsequent presidents had staged numerous referendums. The rulers of France have become terrified of the people, he said.
Zemmour is lazily labelled a racist and right-wing extremist by corporate journalists in both France, Britain and the United States but he resembles above all the Margaret Thatcher that France never had. He’s a conservative, combative, fearless and lucid.
‘The intellectual combat is not a game. It’s the sine qua non,’ he said. ‘We must resist the nihilism of the left’.
Despite the frequent comparisons between Zemmour and Trump, there are huge differences. He doesn’t belittle or insult his political opponents. He writes his own books. He’s cultivated and sophisticated, a master of his mother tongue. He refuses to dumb down or speak in slogans. To the contrary, he respects the perspicacity of his opponents and admits they’ve been winning the battle of ideas.
But there are similarities and not just the fervency of his supporters. Zemmour terminated his discourse with, in effect, a rousing call to make France great again. To be French ‘is a privilege,’ he declared. ‘We must return to France the place it deserves in the world.’
It’s impossible to extrapolate from Zemmour’s reception in Béziers that he’s on a course to win the Elysée. Béziers is a stronghold of the right with a hugely popular right-wing mayor, Robert Ménard. It is represented in the National Assembly by the equally popular Emmanuelle Duverger, Robert’s wife. Both are journalists. A demonstration in front of city hall organised by the local Communist Party on Friday night, opposing Zemmour, attracted a paltry 60 participants.
Yet all over France, no other candidate seems to be generating the polling momentum or popular attention being paid to Zemmour, least of all the unpopular President Macron with his endless soliloquies about European renaissance. It’s easy to see why Generation Z is feared and despised by the French establishment.