Meet the French Trump

This right-wing TV personality could become France’s hottest presidential candidate

A chant echoes off the walls outside a Romanesque church in Normandy, deep voices clamoring in French: “Zemmour President! Zemmour President!” A slender man of average height, Eric Zemmour grins broadly as he stops to shake the hands jutting from behind steel barricades, more like a politician than a bestselling author and television personality. He wears a charcoal suit, a blue tie and a blue scarf, stylish if not telegenic, balding with wispy hair, hollow cheeks and prominent ears. That hasn’t prevented comparisons to another TV star who once dabbled in politics on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Since his first book came out in the 1990s, Zemmour has become France’s premier provocateur. A far-right polemicist turned TV host, he effortlessly meshes references to Napoleon, Marcel Proust and Charles de Gaulle with stinging attacks directed at immigrants, the #MeToo movement and political correctness. He’s argued the antisemitic Vichy regime protected France’s Jews. He has described migrants as rapists and said Africans are intent on submerging Europe, demographically and culturally. His laments for a vanished era of French grandeur and dire predictions of a declining France — the country, he believes, is already engaged in a civil war — have struck a chord with nationalist and disenfranchised voters.

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He’s in Touques, a picturesque town near the coast of Normandy — middle class and visibly homogenous — as part of a nationwide tour to promote his latest book. But the crowds, bodyguards, police and TV crews are potent reminders that Zemmour, 63, isn’t merely here to sign copies under the church’s wooden ceiling. He’s openly exploring a presidential run and, in just a few weeks, he has upended French politics, drawing comparisons to Donald Trump and his insurgent candidacy of 2016.

Now, polls project that should he decide to run, Zemmour could garner enough votes to face off against centrist incumbent Emmanuel Macron in the second round of the presidential election in the spring, even without the backing of a mainstream political party. Obsessive media coverage of his blunt rhetoric has sent political adversaries scrambling to mount a response. To his critics, he’s a polished version of Trump, a skilled populist exploiting France’s growing polarization for political gain. To his defenders, he’s France’s last hope. Whether or not he’s elected, Zemmour has already ushered in a new era of transgressive politics, says Jean-Yves Camus, director of the Observatory of Radical Politics. “He has no limit.”  

A few days after the book signing, camera crews from CNews, a French TV channel inspired by Fox News, will train their cameras on Zemmour as he walks the streets of Drancy, the impoverished suburb northeast of Paris where he grew up. What has happened there, in Zemmour’s view, is emblematic of the sweeping changes France has seen since his own parents immigrated from Algeria in the 1950s. In 2017, about 30% of Drancy’s 70,000 residents were born abroad, mostly in Africa. He sees mosques, halal butcheries and women wearing Islamic veils as visible signs that suburbs like Drancy have become “foreign enclaves under the rule of Allah and drug lords,” he writes in his new book, “France Has Not Said Its Last Word.”

Zemmour traces France’s woes in part to immigration policies enacted four decades ago. He argues that they contributed to a swelling of the immigrant population to 6.8 million people in 2020, or about 10% of the population, up from 7.4% in 1975.

Most came from France’s former colonies in Africa, recruited as cheap labor, then brought their families across the Mediterranean Sea. In essays bearing declinist titles like “The French Suicide” and “French Melancholy,” he argues that today’s immigrants make no effort to adapt. “New arrivals are those imposing their way of life and customs to a French population who must submit or leave,” he says from Drancy. 

As the country has grown increasingly multicultural, it has grappled with what exactly it means to be French. Under the motto of “Liberty, equality and fraternity,” the republic pledges to treat all citizens equally as long as they embrace a colorblind identity. This principle weighs heavily on all facets of life — French authorities are forbidden from collecting the kind of data on race that the U.S. government uses to guide public policies. It’s a universalist ideal that some believe holds the nation together, while others warn that it conceals wide disparities.

Zemmour turns that principle on its head, saying that French natives are being diluted by a burgeoning pool of foreigners who trample this sacrosanct principle — for instance, by giving their children foreign names. He has specifically targeted Africans, describing youths from the Maghreb as “thieves,” “murderers” and “rapists.” He has argued that police stop people of African or Arab descent more often than the general population because “most drug dealers are Blacks and Arabs,” even as police experts and academics have shown the persistence of racial profiling. For his comments, he has been convicted twice of inciting hatred (once for inciting religious hatred, once for racial hatred).

Fears of unbridled immigration are rooted in France’s colonial past, says Camus, in a lingering resentment toward immigrants whose forebears — from countries like Algeria — once fought for independence from the country they now choose to call home. Distrust focused on Islam was also fueled by a string of terror attacks perpetrated by jihadists since 2012, many of them French citizens. He cites a recent poll showing that a majority of French people now believe in the “great replacement,” a theory endorsed by Zemmour that claims African Muslims could one day replace Europe’s white and Christian population. (The idea has surfaced in the manifestos of mass killers including from New Zealand and El Paso, and championed by Fox News’ Tucker Carlson.) 

Zemmour keeps hitting this alarmist note because it resonates with voters, says Jacques de Guillebon, the editor of L’Incorrect, a conservative magazine that has backed the potential candidate. “We’ve had 40 years of rather uncontrolled immigration,” he says, and as of late, France “doesn’t integrate or assimilate’’ newcomers. Some fans in Touques echo this sentiment, describing Zemmour as a straight shooter unafraid to tell it like it is. “A large majority of French people, what we call ‘silent France,’ has found someone that talks like them,” says Hervé Retailleau, a 56-year-old consultant, holding the author’s book tucked under his crossed arms.

With these hard-line views, Zemmour is outflanking Marine Le Pen, the far-right leader of the National Rally, a popular party that has failed to carry her to the Élysée Palace. While she has worked hard to tone down the xenophobia and racism the party has long been associated with, hoping to attract more mainstream voters, Zemmour’s intransigence on immigration could allow him to siphon off some of her electorate, says de Guillebon. Zemmour, who’s of Jewish descent, bemoans the loss of Christian values, which also makes him an attractive candidate to blue-blooded conservatives. 

Zemmour’s life bears little resemblance to Trump’s. His father ran an ambulance business and his mother was a housewife. A gifted child, he went on to study at the prestigious Sciences Po university in Paris, eventually becoming a columnist at Le Figaro, the country’s marquee conservative daily. He became a fixture on talk shows in the early 2000s, assailing writers and politicians alike with irreverent quips and developing a cult following. Yet he has embraced comparisons with the former president. In his new book, he recounts a meeting with Rosine Ghawji, a Franco-American woman and founder of Working Mothers for Donald Trump, where she told him, “The French Trump, it’s you.”

Zemmour didn’t contest it, likely because he sees the Trump formula — using divisive rhetoric, zeroing in on immigration and lambasting the liberal elite — as the “recipe to winning the presidential election,” says Bruno Cautrès, a political scientist at Sciences Po. “He thinks one can become president of the French republic by explaining to people that he doesn’t have a program and wants to save France.”

His ideas haven’t changed much over the years, but Zemmour was able to reach an even broader audience after CNews gave him a prime-time TV slot in 2019. He used the time to deliver protracted rants against cancel culture, feminists and Muslims. The channel dropped him after the state regulator moved to limit his broadcast time, a restriction that is typically reserved for declared candidates. Geoffroy Lejeune, editor of Valeurs Actuelles, a conservative magazine that supports Zemmour, says that what Trump and Zemmour share is that “they’re taking on political correctness frontally — confronting it in a radical way — and it’s working.” (The magazine was recently convicted of making racist insults over the depiction of a lawmaker as an enslaved African.)

Also like Trump, Zemmour is an ardent critic of globalization, free trade agreements and social liberalism, and a proponent of the nation-state. Some in France now see him as the antidote to industrial decline. Many of them also supported the Yellow Vests, a protest movement over economic inequality that rocked France in 2018-19 and exposed the growing economic disparities between thriving cities and stagnating midsize towns known as “peripheral France.” Many are dissatisfied with Macron and fear the country has reached a dead end, Cautrès says. “It’s a context that is heavily conducive to the emergence of disruptive personalities” like Zemmour.

In Touques, Raymond Pigeon, a 66-year- old retiree, stands patiently in the sun, waiting for the author to arrive. He doesn’t usually vote, but says he will cast a ballot for Zemmour if he chooses to run. A lot can change between now and the first round of voting in April, and French elections have been unpredictable in the past. Macron was a former banker and economy minister who’d never held public office when he was elected in 2017. But Pigeon, who drove 50 miles to see Zemmour, says the outsider candidate gives him hope his country can be saved.

“He’s given us a good kick in the butt,” he says. “He’s told us, ‘All is not lost.’” 

This story appears in the December/January issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.