Eric Zemmour, the new darling of the French Right has got progressive commentators on this side of the Channel scratching their heads: how does quite such an avowedly racist figure (he’s been prosecuted in France several times for incitement to racial hatred), emerge from a Jewish background?
True, contemporary Jews are no strangers to ethnonationalism – arguably, the Israeli state is really founded on its latent claim to primordial blood and soil – while, as for the Second Age of globalisation, with its world-girdling waves of economic disruption, it’s allowed for a grotesque synergy between traditional conspiracy theories about Jewish financiers and contemporary leftist anti-capitalism. Yet even so, the Zemmour phenomenon seems cognitively dissonant.
A superficial dig into Zemmour’s subsoil provides further paradoxes – most notably a populariser of Renaud Camus’ “Great Replacement” theory, another conspiracist canard that frightens les Francais des souche, literally ‘the French of the stump’, or those French whites who believe their roots in la patrie to be deep. Although not so deep that they can’t be uprooted by a secret cabal of liberal internationalists, intent on implanting black and brown people – mostly from their own former African possessions – in their stead.
And yet Camus himself came to prominence as a political commentator – in part, at least – because of the revelations of his own strident anti-semitism, a traditional form of bigotry for, um, French traditionalists.
There’s this oddity, and the still-further one that just as Zemmour made his name as a television pundit rather than a right-wing firebrand, so Camus started out as an avowedly ‘gay’ novelist, whose most famous work, Tricks, was a lurid and only semi-fictionalised account of his own cruising lifestyle. He may have rejected this ascription for himself, but it would seem difficult for Zemmour to do the same with his Jewish identity.
Or would it? On consideration, the Zemmour case proves yet again the truth of two Machiavellian maxims of politics: your enemy’s enemy is indeed, if not a friend, at least a more reliable ally than that friend; and while it may be advisable to keep that enemy closer than any true friend, in doing so you inaugurate a cascade of fissiparousness – one that makes a nonsense of just the sort of solidarity ethno-nationalists cleave to.
The point around which the contested status of French Jews has revolved for well over a century now is the Dreyfus Affair – and on this, and even more disturbingly, the Pétain regime, Zemmour has been outrageous, questioning both the former’s innocence and the latter’s guilt. He asserts – wrongly – that the Pétain regime didn’t persecute French Jews but only foreign-born ones, and in so doing reveals the underlying mechanisms that have propelled him well beyond the political pale.
Successive French regimes, including Petain’s, sought to use French Jews as structural elements in their racist colonial regime. After the annexing of Algeria in the 1840s, the French flip-flopped several times. They invited French Jews to join in their colonial enterprise, and crucially they granted French citizenship to some – but not all – of the Jews already living there.
It’s this cheese-paring level of divide-and-rule that Zemmour replicates in his own highly divisive world view. But here’s the weirdness: ‘Zemmour’ is itself a Berber name, and while he was born in France, his antecedents almost certainly hale from the long-standing Jewish Berber-speaking community in the deep south of Algeria, rather than the mixed Sephardic-Ashkenazi community in the north. The French initially separated the northern Jews from the southern ones, even after the extension of their territory to the M’zab, in the 1880s, they classed the Mozabite Jews – along with their Muslim Berber neighbours – as indigènes.
Under Pétain – contrary to Zemmour’s nonsense – all Algerian Jews became subject to racial laws, while it’s only with the imminent loss of the country during the war for independence that they finally threw in their lot with their Muslim enemies’ enemy.
This is how contemporary France has ended up with a man of mixed North African and Middle Eastern heritage raising the spectre of the white French being replaced by people, um, quite like him – at least, if you set any store by racial and ethnic as opposed to cultural distinctions. The great replacement Zemmour is truly reacting to is the mass exodus of long-standing Jewish communities from North Africa and the Middle East that followed these countries’ independence and the establishment of a new Jewish colony: Israel. If you like, Zemmour’s warped view of France is merely the screen on to which an internecine conflict between Muslim and Jewish Berbers is being weirdly projected.