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Éric Zemmour’s Jewish Paradox by Jorge González-Gallarza

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Éric Zemmour’s Jewish Paradox

When I first met Éric Zemmour at a meet-and-greet for Hispanic politicos held last October in a ritzy Parisian hotel, the question I asked him may have let slip a somewhat overdone philosemitism on my part. The response I got, however, helps make sense of the polemicist’s—now failed—bid for the French presidency. Still a month out from announcing his candidacy, I was intrigued by Zemmour’s stance on what is increasingly the top concern for his fellow French Jews per a recent survey by the FONDAPOL think-tank and the American Jewish Committee (AJC)—the rapid rise of anti-Semitism. 

“How will you protect Jews from the deluge of taunts, insults, and violence that are now commonplace across Seine-Saint Denis?” I asked him apropos the once solidly middle-class county northeast of Paris where Zemmour grew up, but which has since become a byword for white exodus, mass migration and radical Islam. In response, I expected the would-be candidate to regurgitate some right-wing boilerplate or other about the rise of Islamism that omitted the threat that rise poses to Jews specifically.

The epitome of an assimilated Jew, Zemmour after all decries the fracturing of French nationhood into a plethora of sectional interests (communautarisme), the Jewish community included, and has been acidly chastised by that community’s legacy institutions, the influential Conseil Représentatif des Institutions Juives de France (CRIF) chief amongst them. The son of Algerian pied-noirs, whose mother inculcated into him a passionate love of French culture, he has also held up his life story as a template for other ethnic minorities to assimilate. He refers to his co-religionists as “Frenchmen of Judaic faith,” has kept his own religious beliefs and practice strictly private, and invokes them, if at all, merely to deflect accusations of racism. To that extent, his answer to my question was unsurprising—but there was more. “As Jews fled Seine Saint-Denis,” he answered, “scores of non-Jews were also fleeing. Why did the gentiles never make the news?”

A canary in the coalmine, then—such is Zemmour’s view of the approximately 600.000 Jews living in France as revealed by his counterquestion, to which I’ve found myself harkening back in the days following the recent first-round vote. The anti-Semitism increasingly experienced and reported by these Jews in schools, workplaces, streets, and popular culture is merely the latest crystallization of a larger societal ill which, if not acted upon, will soon catch up with the population at large. Working-class Jews in particular are the community most endangered by mass migration from Muslim-majority countries—but that danger may one day spill over into the non-Jewish, white majority. Largely Sephardic, most of those Jews resettled into the outskirts of Paris and other cities from Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia after these countries gained independence from France in the 1950s and 1960s. Many have since left for upper-scale neighborhoods or Israel. Politically, these inner-city Jews (juifs de banlieue) have been relied on by right-wing candidates before Zemmour to sound the alarm about France’s excessively loose migration policy and to help awaken the country to the need to tighten it.

Although Zemmour the assimilationist has largely refrained from campaigning on Jewish-only issues, the homestretch of the campaign saw him gesture towards a strategy to capture this segment of the Jewish vote. On April 8th, his campaign came under fire for an SMS blast to thousands of Jewish recipients, the data for which was bought from a shady vendor, urging them to combat anti-Semitism by voting Zemmour. And when the prosecutor looking into the mid-February murder of 30-year-old disabled Jew, Jérémy Cohen, alluded to the possible role of antisemitism in his death, Zemmour welcomed Cohen’s father to his campaign headquarters and echoed his pleas for the truth about the case to emerge.

Zemmour’s strategy of addressing the anxieties of working-class Jews stands in sharp contrast to decades of electioneering by the country’s largest Jewish institutions, which routinely call for Jews to reject the extremism of both left and right and embrace republican values by voting for centrist parties. This contrast between Zemmour and mainstream Jewish organizations such as the CRIF was heightened during this campaign by a highly publicized riff over the role of the Vichy regime in abetting the Holocaust: whereas Zemmour contends that Vichy saved French Jews by helping deport foreign ones in their stead, the CRIF and most mainstream historians have denounced this effort to rehabilitate Vichy as a form of revisionism bordering on denialism. In this light, whilst Jewish grandees such as the CRIF’s leader Francis Kalifat have tasked Jews with honoring the soul of the Republic and the memory of Alfred Dreyfus by renouncing nationalism, Zemmour has stirred them to reject the tired pieties of old and vote with their anxious minds for a candidate who will protect them.

And how did this strategy fare? Well, by the standard of his overall performance, exceedingly well. Zemmour’s bid to propel a right-wing platform to the runoff by uniting under a single ticket disgruntled workers and the patriotic bourgeoisie failed spectacularly for lack of the former’s votes. Marine Le Pen’s core electorate throughout the post-industrial north indeed stuck with her, leaving Zemmour with little more than a handful of upper-class voters in a few major cities. His performance with the Jewish vote, meanwhile, is almost exactly the inverse. Whereas well-off Jews from major cities heeded the CRIF’s calls to reject the extremes and voted instead for Pécresse or Macron, working-class Jews showed up for Zemmour in surprisingly high numbers. This is hard but not impossible to ascertain by official statistics, given that French law forbids election returns broken down by ethnicity. However, French expatriates in Israel, most of whom have made aliyah in the last decade and are making a decent but less comfortable living than in France, are nevertheless a workable proxy for working-class Jews. Although many feel estranged from French politics and turned out at a meager 10% rate, Zemmour came in first with a stonking 53% of that vote, and this despite the energetic campaigning of Meyer Habib, the constituency’s MP who hoped to turn Franco-Israelis out for Pécresse. This rightward realignment of the working-class Jewish vote seems confirmed by a look at the spatial breakdown of the vote in Sarcelles, an inner city north of Paris with a once thriving Jewish community. Whereas the far-left Jean-Luc Mélénchon claimed nearly 50% as in most working-class outskirts, the three electoral precincts where Jews are concentrated went decisively for Zemmour.

Whether owing to his allegedly excessive laissez-faire or the electorate’s choice to vote tactically, Zemmour may have failed to wrestle the yellow vest, left-conservative vote from Marine Le Pen. But among French Jews, this is precisely the bloc that showed up for him decisively. At a minimum, this result shows that the tired, stale voting instructions issued from on high by the community’s legacy institutions are increasingly ignored by those very Jews most threatened by the rise of anti-Semitism, or who have fled from that threat to Israel. Rather than sterile scholarly controversies over Vichy’s role in the Holocaust, these Jews are primarily concerned by the imminent threat of unchecked migration from Muslim-majority countries. In revealing this fracture, Zemmour made things marginally easier for Marine Le Pen in the runoff, provided she seizes on her opportunity. Her campaign has had a strategy to capture the working-class Jewish vote of its own, documented in a 2019 book by Judith Cohen-Solal and Jonathan Hayoun, although one ultimately undermined by her failure to condemn her father Jean-Marie Le Pen’s comment in 1995 that the gas chambers were “a point of detail” of World War II history. If his daughter manages to overcome that blemish and lock in a substantial share of middle and working-class Jews come April 24th, it will have been in no small part thanks to Zemmour’s campaign.

Jorge González-Gallarza (@JorgeGGallarza) is the co-host of the Uncommon Decency podcast on Europe (@UnDecencyPod) and an associate researcher at Fundación Civismo (Madrid).