French far-right pundit Zemmour provokes and teases ambitions

·5-min read
Eric Zemmour has convictions for racial and religious hate speech

In his latest costly outburst, France's best-known far-right ideologue Eric Zemmour spoke with his trademark intensity, his hand and raised finger chopping the air of the TV studio in time with each racially charged sentence.

Once Zemmour had finished his diatribe against child migrants and the asylum system, the presenter was quick to point out that his views did not represent those of the channel.

"I always take responsibility for my statements," the 62-year-old replied, his large eyebrows raised, his lips in a half-smile. "You know, it's often been expensive."

So it proved again: last Thursday, France's media regulator fined the channel, CNews, 200,000 euros ($240,000) for broadcasting the comments in September on "Face a l'info", a show that Zemmour co-hosts.

The author and polemicist was found to have "incited hatred towards isolated foreign minors and spread a number of degrading stereotypes" that could encourage "discriminatory behaviour".

Previous criminal convictions for racial and religious hate speech include a 2010 sentence after he said "most drug dealers are black and Arab" and in 2019 when he likened Muslims in France to "colonisers".

The September outburst was sparked by an attack several days before by a Pakistani man on the former offices of the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine, which had recently republished cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.

The 25-year-old assailant, who injured two people with a meat cleaver without realising the magazine had changed location, had arrived in France with false papers in order to claim asylum as an unaccompanied minor.

"All of them, all of them, they've no right to be here!" Zemmour said in the segment. "They're thieves, killers, they're rapists. That's all they are. We should send them back. They shouldn't even be here!"

Despite an uproar and another criminal investigation for hate speech, Zemmour kept his job on the cable news channel, the second biggest in France, which is owned indirectly by billionaire Vincent Bollore.

Viewer numbers for his time slot have rocketed since he began appearing in September 2019 and he is credited with helping lift CNews close to long-time cable news leader BFMTV.

Recent media surveys suggest audiences sometimes peak at more than one million people, compared with under 100,000 on average before he began.

- Presidential ambitions -

Zemmour's popularity reflects a long-standing nationalist, anti-immigration current in French politics, but he is also seen by some as a reason for its growing influence.

In 2014, the then head of the Socialist party Jean-Christophe Cambadelis voiced concerns about the "Zemmourisation" of French society, which he saw as increasing racial tensions and divisions.

French historian of immigration Gerard Noirel has warned his theories are implicitly "an incitement to civil war".

But such is his appeal and reach that he was recently reported to be considering a run in next year's presidential election when the incumbent Emmanuel Macron is expected to seek a second term.

The Express magazine pondered the destiny of this "fantasy object", adding that he and people around him were reaching out to potential public and financial backers.

The Paris-born son of Algerian Jewish parents has not denied the claims, seen as signalling either genuine ambitions or satisfaction at the mounting speculation.

"He's a very popular figure. There are a certain number of people who are pushing him to stand," said Alain Duhamel, a veteran political commentator and author who has clashed with Zemmour frequently on TV panels.

"He's a very good debater, perhaps a good orator, publishes successful books. You can see the appeal. But he knows that if he takes the step, it's the end of his career in journalism... I'm not sure he wants to," Duhamel told AFP.

Much will also depend on the fate of established far-right leader Marine Le Pen who opinion polls show as running Macron close in a run-off between the two of them.

If he ran against her, Zemmour would likely split the far-right vote.

- Mixed appeal -

The most incendiary claims in his CNews outburst -- he conceded on-air afterwards that "not all" under-age migrants were rapists and killers -- are at odds with how the former newspaper reporter likes to see himself.

The author of numerous books including the best-selling "French Suicide" considers himself not a racist rabble-rouser, but an intellectual and historian.

He peppers his appearances and written output with references to sometimes obscure figures from France's past, giving him respectability in a country that still reveres its public intellectuals.

Chris Bickerton, a European politics lecturer at Cambridge University, says Zemmour combines the appeal of an intellectual with someone who "says out loud what people think quietly to themselves."

"The stuff that he says is actually not as extreme as you think because the French political spectrum has moved massively towards his direction," added Bickerton, author of the recent book "Technopopulism."

A February poll found that 60 percent of French people think there are too many immigrants in the country, while a separate one found that two in three in people would support a ban on the Islamic headscarf in all public spaces.

"He has this kind of free-speech quality to him because of the charges he has come up against. That's always made him a public figure, and he may morph into a more political figure," Bickerton said.