What bothers Bernard-Henri Lévy, the Parisian intellectual, about Eric Zemmour is that the latter has indicated that he believes France is for the French people and Muslims from North Africa (or elsewhere) should demonstrate they, too, want to become French and partake of an ancient civilization before, or as part of the process of, settling there.
In short he is saying immigration is more than just crossing a border on the ground. There are others that matter too.
Eric Zemmour is a literate, erudite, brilliant man whose polemical verve sometimes is too clever by half, he assumes too readily his audience follows arguments that they may not have the educational, let alone mental, equipment to follow. As a practical matter this makes it easy to misinterpret him.
For example, Zemmour expresses a reverence for France’s roots, noting that cutting them leads to a kind of mental vacuity and nihilism. Among these are the Catholic religion, bound inextricably, he believes, to the national identity. He upholds the necessity of knowing, studying, internalizing the beliefs, the history, the physical places that made and make France French. He has been accused of wanting to outlaw foreign names; what he said was that a person can have a foreign middle name but should have a French name — one that appears on the calendar, each day of which is a specific saint’s day — as first name.
This is not terribly controversial. The turn of the (last) century writer Maurice Barres, whom the sage Matthew Omolesky discussed in a valuable article recently, held similar ideas and was read by anyone with an education. His conservative, even reactionary, biases did not get him banned from reading lists.
But Levy rages that Zemmour is a danger to the Jewish people by placing himself, a Jew, in an anti-Semitic tradition. That is overdrawn. The love cathedrals and all they represent scarcely makes an anti-Semite; on the other hand, it may be fair to ask why growing numbers of French disdain them and do not care what they represent — and this, Zemmour argues, should be of concern to non-Catholic French, including of course Jews.
The issue is not whether Zemmour is a good Jew or a self-hating one, but whether he cares deeply for France, how he conceives the public issues France confronts. Levy seems less interested in meeting Zemmour on the issues than in grandstanding about the horror of a French Jew proclaiming impolite (even reactionary) ideas.
Rather than ask what relevance a cathedral has in a country where church attendance is low and mosque attendance is high — Zemmour would politely note that is exactly the point — BHL (as Lévy is known) attacks his man as a defender of anti-Semites who is off the reservation (like Spinoza?).
The occasion for Lévy’s outburst appears to have been the publication of a book, wherein Zemmour develops his thinking of these questions and others. At an early debate of the coming presidential campaign Zemmour, who is not a declared candidate, dusted it up verbally with Jean-Luc Mélenchon, an old-school Marxist, who is. The likely or declared mainstream candidates snubbed the televised show, which drew thousands of paying attendees in a big old theater, on the grounds they did not want to dignify two extremists.
But what is an “extremist” when the consensus policies around which mainstream parties compete are variations of the same and are broadly unpopular? Is anyone proposing alternatives an extremist? President Macron, who will be a candidate for reelection, may the one who benefits from a siphoning of conservative votes by Zemmour (if he runs) and a siphoning of socialistic votes by Mélenchon, draining the establishment Right (Republicans) and Left (Socialist-Ecologists), and squeaking through on the votes of the mushy center.
Now it is true Zemmour takes a radical tone in saying and writing that the consensus policies doom France, and the French as they know themselves, to extinction. And it is true Jean-Marie Le Pen, the old far-right leader (now retired), said he would vote for the national candidate best positioned to win, a sharp rebuke to his daughter Marine who will run as the candidate of his old party, the National Front, renamed National Rally.
Le Pen’s characteristically teasing encouragement of him does not make Zemmour a Lepenist, with its nasty nazinostalgia and Vichyite connotations; it means that certain issues that are real, and that were perhaps addressed in an unacceptable manner in the past, are now still real, and are being addressed by a new boy on the block and it is up to the voters to consider what this means. The same point could be made about Mélenchon’s candidacy, which could, under the standards the French media tends to apply to nationalist voices, be dismissed as stalinonostalgia rather than on its merits.
Mélenchon argues that the France of Zemmour’s wish, apart from being a racist horror, notably for its stigmatization of Islam as incompatible with French civilization, is already extinct. Zemmour is playing the race card, the resentment card, says Mélenchon, who believes all “bourgeois” societies require radical transformation. And since France is well into a process which he hails as “creolization,” the proper policies would be in the direction of encouraging immigration.
Zemmour v. Mélenchon, or “incompatible civilizations v. anti-capitalist creolization” may seem an abstract argument between political eggheads to many French voters, who understand perfectly well that their country’s welfare-state economy and its embrace of cultural plurality are not going away. The devil is always in the details, in the long trends; altering these by degree is about all democratic governments can do.
Zemmour puts things starkly to inflect the long trends, not to bend them brusquely. To govern, however, were it ever to come to that, pragmatism and compromise are inescapable. His mere presence in the campaign, even if he in the end does not run, will shape the coming election in important ways, because it raises a long-denied question: What will rising French generations, that will include many children of immigration from non-Western countries, think when you say France?
Many things, many different things, obviously, as you would expect. But will there be a common core? And what will it be? Will the demographic tilt be such that the French will find themselves a despised minority in their own country? These are alarming, but serious questions, and it will be interesting to see whether French public opinion — French voters — thank him for raising them.
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