A ‘Jewish antisemite’ is fast becoming the new threat in France

Eric Zemmour may be Jewish, but the country’s chief rabbi accurately labelled the presidential contender, who says Dreyfus may have been guilty and defends Vichy France

November 11, 2021 10:23

British Jews may think we know it all about candidates for the highest office in the land having a tricky back catalogue of statements on Jews. But whatever we went through in recent years would be dwarfed by what is about to hit our cousins in France.

Eric Zemmour, much talked about as a far right candidate for the French presidency in next spring’s elections, said in September that the Jewish victims of the notorious Toulouse terror attack of 2012 — a rabbi, his two sons, aged just six and three, along with another little girl, aged eight — were not really French because they were buried in Israel. That proved, he said, that “they were foreigners above all and wanted to stay that way even beyond death.”

Last year, Zemmour touched on one of the defining traumas of both modern Jewish history and modern French history, hinting that Alfred Dreyfus — the French Jewish army captain wrongly convicted, jailed and publicly humiliated on false charges of espionage in 1894 — might not have been innocent after all. “We will never know,” he said.

Zemmour has views on the Holocaust too. These days, there are few defenders of the Vichy regime which collaborated with the Nazi occupation and connived in the deportation of more than 70,000 French Jews to their deaths in the east. But Zemmour claims that the Vichy regime tried to save Jews born in France: it was only foreign-born Jews it was happy to give up. Even if that were true, it hardly amounts to a moral defence — but there’s next to no evidence for it.

The would-be president’s Jewish targets are not all dead. Last month he took aim at the celebrity intellectual, Bernard Henri-Levy, calling him a “cosmopolitan” and “traitor par excellence.” Note the choice of words. Those are slurs that have been directed against Jews since the age of Dreyfus and long before.

So it’s clear that Zemmour is no friend of France’s Jews and that his candidacy to displace Marine Le Pen as the nationalist right’s challenger to Emmanuel Macron will be a source of grave alarm, not least because opinion polls identify him as Macron’s closest competitor even before he has officially entered the race. But there’s a twist: Eric Zemmour is a Jew.

He describes himself as “a French Jew of Berber origin”. He was born in a Paris suburb to Jewish parents who fled to France from Algeria in the 1950s. He’s even a shul-goer, reportedly showing his face at a synagogue in the north of the city regularly since the death of his father in 2012.

Zemmour made his name as a journalist and polemicist — yet another argument against allowing media folk anywhere near political power — and more recently as the fiery host of a TV debate show on a French cable channel modelled on Fox News. There he serves up the now familiar, populist brew of ultra-nationalism, hostility to Muslims and dire warnings of western weakness and decline. He seems to be drawn to the infamous “Great Replacement” theory, writing that “the French population” has vanished from parts of Paris and that “an Arab-Muslim people has replaced” them.

The appeal could be potent. As one observer puts it, Zemmour is part Donald Trump, part Tucker Carlson. That could be enough to see him elbow aside Le Pen and to repeat her 2017 feat of making it to the last, head-to-head round against Macron.

The Le Pen père, Jean-Marie, certainly likes Zemmour’s chances, saying: “The only difference between Eric and me is that he is Jewish. It is difficult to call him a Nazi or a fascist. This gives him more freedom.”

That must be true. Zemmour’s Jewishness blunts the obvious line of attack against him. It also helps that he is not called Le Pen. A chunk of the French electorate has got used to closing ranks and shunning a Le Pen every few years, whether father or daughter. It’s not obvious that that same impulse will kick in when there is no Le Pen on the ballot, but rather the Jewish son of Algerian immigrants.

All of this will be excruciating for most French Jews — though not for that section of the community that supports him and his anti-Muslim stance. But it will also have an impact on Jews far beyond France. There is an unavoidable discomfort when a Jew becomes a global hate-figure. Rationally, we all know that none of us is responsible for the conduct of a Harvey Weinstein or Bernie Madoff. But it’s awkward all the same.

A Zemmour campaign will be easier on one level: his documented hostility to Jews makes clear that his attitudes are not Jewish attitudes. But it will also be more complicated. France’s chief rabbi has described Zemmour as a Jewish antisemite. Now Jews in France and elsewhere will have to explain to a wider world this vexed and strange concept.

Such people are rare, but they do exist. And, it seems, one is about to take his place on the world stage.

November 11, 2021 10:23

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