OPINION: Zemmour’s fake French history has a dark and long-term motive

The far right political pundit and possible presidential candidate Eric Zemmour has been busily rewriting French history - John Lichfield looks at the reasons behind his distortion of the past.

Zemmour claims Vichy 'protected' French Jews during WII.
Zemmour claims Vichy 'protected' French Jews during WWII. Photo: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP

Donald Trump peddled alternative facts; Eric Zemmour invents history.

On his book tour – a presidential election campaign in all but name – the xenophobic pundit tells his adoring audiences: “I’m going to give you the true history of France and the Republic”.

The true history?

Here, in distilled form, is the History of France, according to Eric Zemmour (who is placed by opinion polls in second or third place in the campaign for the April presidential election).

“France is a country destined by its cultural superiority to be amongst the great countries of the world. Its destiny has been betrayed by internal enemies and undermined by jealous foreigners (especially les Anglo-Saxons). France’s very existence is now threatened by the planned ‘great replacement’ of white people by brown and black people.”

“The greatest figures in French history (before Zemmour) were Joan of Arc, King Louis XIV, Napoleon and Charles de Gaulle. All of them freed France from foreign rule (bad) or subjected foreigners to French rule (good).”

French far-right media pundit Eric Zemmour on his book tour. Photo by Christophe SIMON / AFP

Zemmour’s history of France is a 21st century version of the Dolchstosslegende – the stab-in-the-back myth – that  helped to bring the Nazis to power in Germany in the 1930s. According to that big lie, Germany was not defeated on the battlefield in 1918. It was betrayed by Socialists, liberals and Jews – above all by Jews.

Zemmour, who is of North African Jewish origin, fictionalises the history of France for similar political ends. He claims that French nationalism, French identity, inherent French superiority, have been tarnished in the last century by foreign powers, internal betrayals and – above all – by a conspiracy of historians and politicians to misrepresent events.

In particular, Zemmour is obsessed with World War II – almost as obsessed as, say, the Daily Express.

The British tabloid version of 20th century history is not entirely false but it is distorted by omission. The legend of Britain’s “triumph” in the 1939-1945  war (with a little, vague help from our friends) has reinforced the British belief that we are a chosen people, owed a special place in the world.

Zemmour falsifies the French history of the Second World War because the received version – military failure, official collaboration, shame and gratitude to allies – does not fit his Francocentric world-view. It conflicts with Zemmour’s belief  that it is the French who are the chosen people, owed a special place in the world.

Thus, according to Zemmour . . .

The collaborationist Vichy regime from 1940-44 protected “French” Jews; it did  not collaborate with the Nazis but preserved the identity and independence of France.

The allied liberation of France in 1944 was “partly” an “invasion” intended to place France under American control. Only De Gaulle’s determination and courage, he says, prevented France from becoming an American colony.

History is messy. Memories are short. Some people are ignorant and easily misled (including many who should know better). Zemmour’s re-written history of WWII – in which both Vichy and De Gaulle play heroic roles –  coincides with some facts but tramples or distorts many more.

No, the Vichy regime did not protect French-born Jews. Many Jews survived the war in France because ordinary French people helped them – risking severe punishment by the Vichy regime or by the Nazi invaders.

No, the allied invasion in 1944 had no colonial aims. The Americans were sometimes disrespectful of French sensibilities – and especially De Gaulle’s. France did not become a US cultural or political satellite post-1945.

That was not especially De Gaulle’s doing. Neither did other liberated countries, such as Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark. Nor did former enemies, like Germany or Italy. Compare and contrast the post-war fate of Poland or Hungary.

Zemmour’s Soviet-like drive to re-write history is not confined to World War II.

It is now accepted by all reputable historians, French and foreign, that Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish army officer jailed in 1894 for spying for the Germans, was innocent. He was framed by the ultra-nationalist, anti-Semitic military establishment because he was Jewish.

READ ALSO New museum honours dark scandal of French history

The Dreyfus case became – and remains for the ultra-Right – a litmus test of blind French patriotism. You were, and are, either pro-France or pro-Dreyfus. You cannot be both.

The Jewish Zemmour has in recent years cast doubt (with no evidence whatsoever) on the innocence of Dreyfus. He does so in a weaselly way ie “the innocence of Dreyfus cannot be proved.” In any case, he says, the French military distrusted the hapless officer because he was “German, not because he was Jewish.”

This is a direct lie. Captain Dreyfus was Alsatian. The anti-Semitism of his persecutors was blatant and unashamed.

Zemmour also claimed in Rouen last week that France and Britain had been “enemies for 1,000 years”.  

Really? Our two countries have not fought one another (except on the rugby field or about fishing grounds) for more than two centuries.

Something like 500,000 British soldiers were killed on French soil in 1914-18 – fighting for their own country but also fighting for France. Eric Zemmour should take the time to visit the Somme.

An obvious question arises. Why does Zemmour take so much trouble to distort French history?

First, to establish his credentials as an ultra-patriot and rehabilitate  (he hopes) the race-based ideology of the  far-right. Zemmour claims that the forces of “anti-France” have conspired to besmirch French patriotism – and especially his own ultra-nationalist, race-obsessed politics – by droning on about Dreyfus and exaggerating France’s 1940-44 failures.

As a Jew, Zemmour believes that he is well-placed to revise 20th century history, without suffering the same kind of rejection as Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, when he tried the same thing in the 1980s and 1990s.

Zemmour likes to quote George Orwell (a man who would have detested him.) In particular, he likes to quote an Orwell line from 1984: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”

Zemmour believes French history has been used to disqualify the ultra-nationalist right and to promote a squashy, left-leaning internationalism and tolerance. To sweep it all away, he needs to change the narrative.

“1984” indeed.

Can it work? In the short term, I think not. Zemmour shot to 17 percent in first round voting intentions in some polls three weeks ago. Since then, he has been lower in some polls, stable in others. He is not deflating; nor is he advancing.

The more that some people hear from Zemmour,  I believe, the less they will like him. It is depressing and scary all the same that he is taken seriously by so many supposedly well-educated and well-heeled (ie non-suffering) French people.

His revisioinist project is, I believe, long-term: to change the software in French minds to prepare the ground for an  ultra-nationalist, authoritarian government in 2027 or beyond. In that he may already be succeeding.

Member comments

  1. It is also very common for contemporary right-wing authoritarian movements to promote a “mascot” from a group they otherwise seek to marginalize. “You say we oppress Black people/Jews/gays/Middle Easterners/Asians, but look at this one shouting our most extreme views!” A recent example is Larry Elder, African American (also a right-wing “media figure”) and ultimately unsuccessful frontrunner to unseat the Democratic governor of California. It can be a lucrative gig for awhile, but as Colin Powell proved, if you ever try to get real power or stand up for any of your own values that go against the supplied talking points, you’re out.
    Which is all to say, I doubt Zemmour believes most of what he’s saying. He enjoys being the cheeky poster boy and the perks of riding the wave. But he’ll be more useful to the French far right than they’ll ever be to him.

    1. When one has nothing useful to say, resort to insults and name-calling – “mascots”. That is appalling. How about some civility and respect for the point of view of others.

  2. Is the intention to split the far right in the first round? If so, all power to his elbow. A second round of Macron vs the left candidate will be a joy to behold.
    But you just know that the right will say the vote was stolen!

  3. Mr. Lichfield seems to have some axes to grind and starts his article by blaming Donald Trump. In his mind, that legitimizes anything he says from then on.

    But, what is at the crux of his ramble, is that he does not provide any numbers or facts to prove his arguments, or to disprove Zemmour. He uses the liberal catch word “reputable”; as in reputable doctors, reputable scientists, reputable historians to shut down any discussion on any controversial subject. To me, Mr. Lichfield, is like the liberals in the USA, who say: “my mind is made up, do not confuse me with facts”.

    1. > liberals in the USA, who say: “my mind is made up, do not confuse me with facts”.

      Eh? It’s conservatives who are notorious for (and also seemingly the loudest) ironcast views incompatible with facts.
      Some examples: Hair furor did loose the election (he and his followers continue to lie otherwise); the Covid-19 vaccines are safe & effective; CRT (Critical Race Theory) is not taught in grade schools (it’s a method of examining the motivations & consequences of laws, used in law schools); the Global Heating disaster is real and very very dangerous; the extra costs added by tariffs are not paid by the exporters (in most cases, they are paid by the customers in the form of a higher price); “Trickle-down” tax decreases do not work; and so on.
      Or some examples from the article: “the Vichy regime did not protect French-born Jews” (contrary to what Zemmour claims); and “the allied invasion [of nazi-occupied France] in 1944 had no colonial aim” (again, Zemmour claims otherwise).

      1. I could rebuff all your points, but this thread has been hijacked enough. I will just say that your explanation of CRT is both simplistic and misleading. And, it is being implemented in Virginia and Massachusetts as well as in other states.

        Regarding the treatment of jews under Vichy, it is true that the government issued some onerous laws and regulations for the jews living in the Vichy part of France. But, I have not been able to ascertain whether the 70,000+ jews that were sent from Vichy France to Paris were deported before or after the germans took over all of France in november 1942. It makes a difference.

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How one beheading 50 years ago led France to end the death penalty

On a biting cold morning on November 28, 1972, a Frenchman was guillotined for a murder he did not commit, in a case that so traumatised his lawyer he would spend the rest of his life campaigning to end the death penalty.

How one beheading 50 years ago led France to end the death penalty

Roger Bontems, 36, was beheaded for being an accessory to the brutal murder of a nurse and a guard during a break-out attempt at a prison in eastern France.

Seven minutes after he was decapitated in the courtyard of La Sante prison in Paris, his co-conspirator Claude Buffet – a 39-year-old man convicted of a double murder that had sent shockwaves through France – met a similar end.

Among the witnesses of the executions was Robert Badinter, a crusading young lawyer who was haunted by his failure to save the life of his client Bontems.

In a 2002 interview, Badinter, who, as justice minister, famously defied a hostile French public to abolish capital punishment in 1981, revealed that for a long time after Bontems’s death, “on waking around dawn, I would obsessively mull over why we had failed”.

“They had accepted that he had not killed anyone. Why, then, did they sentence him to death?”

Knives made from spoons

In September 1971, Buffet, a hardened criminal who is serving a life sentence for murder at Clairvaux prison, convinces fellow inmate Roger Bontems, who is serving a 20-year term for assault and aggravated theft, to join him in a high-stakes escape attempt.

The pair fake illness and are taken to the infirmary where, armed with knives carved out of spoons, they take a nurse and a guard hostage.

They threaten to execute their captives unless they are freed and given weapons.

This precipitates a standoff with the authorities that keeps the French glued to their TV screens until police storm the prison at dawn and find both hostages dead, their throats slit.

Calls for heads to roll

The grisly murder of the nurse, a mother of two, and the prison warden, father of a one-year-old girl, sparks an impassioned debate about the death penalty, which has not been implemented since President Georges Pompidou, a pragmatic Gaullist, came to power two years earlier.

Hundreds of people baying for the mens’ heads pack the streets outside the courthouse when they go on trial in Aube in 1972. The nurse’s husband and warden’s family are among those attending.

Buffet, who is portrayed in the media as a heartless monster, admits to killing the guard and stabbing the nurse, and defies the court to sentence him to death.

Bontems is found guilty of merely being an accessory. But he is also given the death penalty, amid intense pressure from prison wardens’ groups seeking revenge for their colleague’s death.

Badinter appeals to the highest court in the land not to apply the law of “an eye for an eye”, and then to Pompidou, who has pardoned six other death-row prisoners.

His pleas fall on deaf ears in the face of a poll showing 63 percent of the French favour capital punishment.

An activist is born

On November 28, 1971, Bontems and Buffet are beheaded in the courtyard of La Sante prison, under a giant black canopy erected to prevent the media snapping pictures from a helicopter.

Badinter, whose Jewish father died in a Nazi death camp, would later say the case changed his stance on the death penalty “from an intellectual conviction to an activist passion”.

“I swore to myself on leaving the courtyard of la Sante prison that morning at dawn, that I would spend the rest of my life combatting the death penalty,” Badinter told AFP in 2021.

Five years later he helped convince a jury not to execute a man who kidnapped and murdered a seven-year-old boy, in a case that he turned into a trial of the death penalty itself.

Badinter called in experts to describe in grisly detail the workings of the guillotine, which had been used to decapitate prisoners since the French Revolution of 1789.

In all, he saved six men from execution, eliciting death threats in the process.

“We entered the court by the front door and once the verdict had been read and the accused’s head was safe, we often had to leave by a hidden stairway,” the man dubbed “the murderers’ lawyer” by his detractors, recalled.

When he was appointed justice minister in President Francois Mitterrand’s first Socialist government in June 1981, he made ending the death penalty an immediate priority.

Its abolition was finally adopted by parliament on September 30, 1981, after a landmark address by Badinter to MPs.

Decrying a “killer” justice system, he said: “Tomorrow, thanks to you, there will no longer be the stealthy executions at dawn, under a black canopy, that shame us all.”