Eric Zemmour
Eric Zemmour Image Credit: Gulf News

On 17 January, earlier this year, a French court convicted a well- known writer and television personality, one Eric Zemmour, of “racist hate speech” in a televised abuse of immigrants.

“They’re thieves, killers, they’re rapists. That’s all they are. We should send them back,” Zemmour said in his tirade against the child migrants. The show was televised in September 2020 on the CNews channel.

His outburst caused an outrage across France. However, he was ‘lucky’ on his day in court — he got away with a friendly slap on the wrist; he was fined 10,000 euros (Dh40,074) and didn’t even have to pay the amount in full. He was told he could pay them in daily instalments of 100 euros over 100 days

One would expect such a convicted racist would be shunned by society, sacked by his employer or at least issue an apology. Not in today’s France apparently, and certainly not Zemmour. Today, he is one of the top three candidates in the country’s presidential election, set for 10 and 24 April. Surreal, right? Not quite.

President Emmanuel Macron is widely expected to win the polls, mainly due to the crisis in Ukraine. Traditionally, voters tend to stick with the incumbents at times of crises. They prefer not to take chances with change. But still, the French election sometimes yields suspiring results. Nothing is certain here.

Macron, the former banker who served as economy minister under Socialist former president François Hollande, won the presidency with a huge margin five years ago, when few expected him to do so. He is again running on so-called a centrist platform this year.

Right wing-inspired policies

Many of his policies to boost economic growth have led to the famous Yellow Vests protests. He is being accused of favouring the rich in almost all his right wing-inspired policies. He is a right wing in disguise, his critics say.

His main rival in next month’s polls is none other the usual suspect, the far-right leader Marine Le Pen. As expected, she sticks to her regular anti-immigrant agenda. This year, she added another proposal to her immigration policies — an end to the automatic citizenship for people born in France.

A close third is Valerie Pecresse, the candidate of the main right wing party Les Republicains. This is the party of Jacque Chirac and Nicola Sarkozy. Pecresse is the party’s first female presidential candidate. She is a former higher education minister.

Then there is Eric Zemmour, the convicted racist pundit, the “most drug dealers are black and Arab” TV presenter, who was investigated 16 times for racist and hate speech. The latest polls though have put him in third place, ahead of Pecresse. But it doesn’t matter, does it? All the four main candidates are right-wing demagogues, Macron included.

But Zemmour is an interesting person to talk about because evidently he is the one who is shaping the elections. He is actually influencing the polls agenda and speech of the other candidates, leading to an atmosphere of hate and anti-immigrants’ sentiment all around in the land of liberty, equality, and fraternity.

The author made his reputation in France by promoting the racist, Islamophobic theory, the Great Replacement, on his show, the conspiracy theory adopted by many white supremacists worldwide, which inspired massacres in the United States and other countries against non-whites, including the Friday mosque massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand on 15 March 2019, where at least 50 people were shot dead by white supremacist Brenton Tarrant.

The Great Replacement

The Great Replacement centres around the theory that white Christian populations in the US and Europe are being replaced by mostly Muslim immigrants. Until a few years ago, the theory was restricted to underground room or whatever hole racist lunatics meet in.

Today, thanks to Donald Trump and his right- wing policies, the theory has garnered more believers, this time more mainstream, supposedly sane people. Zemmour tried to sell this theory for years on his TV show. He succeeded, finally. He has taken his fearmongering racism national.

First of all, let us be frank. France today lacks real statesmen. The days of Chirac, Mitterrand and De Estaing are long gone. The French are stuck today with the likes of Sarkozy and Macron, who has yet to prove his real leanings — he is more of a salesman with no true colours. He is a banker, after all.

As Zemmour stormed the national stage last November, the French elite trembled. He was so popular he was considered in December as the main challenger to President Macron. The Great Replacement theory, which until few years ago was shunned by Marine Le Pen herself, has become a regular point of discussion in this election. The Zemmour effect. He has reshaped the debate and stretched the boundaries of what is politically acceptable in France.

Last month, Pecresse, the Republican candidate, at her main campaign speech, which was filled with veiled attacks against immigrants and Muslims, said France will not succumb to the ‘Great Replacement’. She made it clear there is substantial difference between “French of the heart” and “French of papers”, a reference often used by racists to point at naturalised citizens as not quite as French as their white fellow citizens.

“By using the ‘Great Replacement,’ she gave it legitimacy and put the ideas of the extreme right at the heart of the debate of the presidential race,” Philippe Corcuff, an expert on the far right who teaches at the Institute of Political Studies in Lyon, told France 24 radio.

Using the racist reference in what is considered the most important speech in her career shows the massive influence of extreme right ideas, such as the Great Replacement, and racist candidates such as Zemmour, in this election. And if this man gets in the second round for a one-on-one against Macron, which is a possibility, it is plausible that the French president will adopt a similar line.

The Ukraine crisis showed that in Europe, it is fairly easy to fall to racist discourse. The mainstream media, leaders and intellectuals all fell into the trap of differentiating between a war in the heart of white civilised Europe and another in the uncivilised, dark-skinned Middle East or Afghanistan.

The Zemmour rise shows how fairly easy in France too to turn a universally liberal and confident society into a scared community that is quickly falling for the hate-filled speech of convicted racists.