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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Can France’s Constitution be changed to add the right to abortion?

In the wake of the American Supreme Court's decision to end abortion rights for women in the US, French politicians from the centre and the left say they will move to have the right to terminate pregnancy enshrined in France's Constitution - so how easy is it to amend the Constitution in France?

Can France's Constitution be changed to add the right to abortion?

France’s first Constitution came into force in 1791, written by the French Revolutionaries and promising liberté, egalité and fraternité.

Those values are still very much in evidence in France today (in fact they’re carved into every public building) but in 1791 medicine involved bleeding, social networks meant gossiping with your neighbours over the wall and wigs made out of horsehair were very fashionable – in short, things change.

And the French constitution changes with them.

In fact, even talking about ‘the’ constitution is a little misleading, since France has had 15 different constitutions between the French Revolution of 1789 and the adoption of the current constitution in 1958 – the birth of the Fifth Republic.

Since 1958, there have also been 24 revisions to the constitution. Introducing it, then-President Charles du Gaulle said “the rest is a matter for men,” (we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he meant people, since women did have the vote by then) in other words, he envisaged that it would be revised when necessary.

So the short answer is that constitutional change in France is possible – and there is significant precedent for it – but there are several steps involved. 

What does it take to change the Constitution?

Changing the constitution in France requires Presidential approval, plus the approval of both houses of parliament (the Assemblée nationale and the Senate) and then the approval of the final text by a three-fifths majority of two parliaments.

The other option is a referendum, but only after the two assemblies have voted in favour.

In short, it needs to be an issue that has wide and cross-party support.

Articles 11 and 89 of the French constitution cover changes.

Article 11 allows for a constitutional referendum, which is a tool that is intended to give the people decisive power in legislative matters. A high-profile example of this is when former French President Charles de Gaulle employed Article 11 to to introduce the appointment of the president by direct universal suffrage in 1962, which modified then-Article 6 of the constitution. However, this method of changing the constitution is controversial, and can technically only be done for specific themes: the organisation of public authorities, economic and social reforms, or to ratify international treaties. Technically it does not require the referendum to first pass through parliament.

What did previous reforms cover?

Looking at the reforms in the last 60 years, the scope has been pretty wide.

The French Constitution was substantially amended to “take account of these new developments, needs, ideas, and values.” The goal of these amendments was to better “define and control the power of the executive, to increase the powers of Parliament, and to better assure the protection of fundamental rights.”

About 47 articles were amended or drafted, and some new provisions came into force immediately, such as the limitation to two consecutive presidential terms. 

Examples range from the 2000 Constitutional referendum where French people voted to shorten the presidential term from seven years to five years; the 2007 constitutional amendment to abolish the death penalty, and several amendments to adapt the French constitution to make it compatible with EU treaties such as the Maastricht and Lisbon treaties. 

Is a constitutional change more powerful than a law?

The most recent call for change – sparked by events in America – is to add the right to abortion into the constitution.

The right to abortion in France is protected by the “Veil law,” which was passed in 1975, so is there a benefit to adding it to the constitution as well?

Simply being a law does not give a definitive and irrevocable right to abortion in France and the law can be changed – parliament recently elongated the legal time limit for performing an abortion up to 14 weeks, which shows that under different circumstances lawmakers would be free to remove these provisions and chip away at the “Veil law.”

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: What is the law on abortion in France?

If a majority of deputés agreed on a text banning abortion it could become law (although there are other procedural steps to pass through and such a decision would be challenged in the courts). Whereas, as outlined above, changing a constitutional right requires a much broader consensus from across the political spectrum.

In short, enshrining the right in the constitution would provide further protection for the right in the event of a future government that is anti-abortion – Marine Le Pen, who came second in the recent residential election has always been very vague on whether she supports the right to abortion, while many in her party are openly anti-abortion.

Why has France had so many constitutions?

The simple answer is that France’s many constitutions have reflected the shift between authoritarianism and republicanism throughout French history.

France is currently on its Fifth Republic, and its history since the French Revolution has also involved several periods of restoration of the monarchy and a brief period under an Emperor – all of these different regimes have required their own constitution.

READ MORE: Explained: What is the French Fifth Republic?

During the tumultuous revolutionary period, France had several constitutions, culminating in “Constitution of the Year XII,” which established the First French Empire. When the monarchy was restored, a new constitution codified the attempt to establish a constitutional monarchy.

France’s current constitution ushered in the Fifth Republic, largely at the behest of General Charles de Gaulle who was called to power during the May 1958 political crisis. One of the defining characteristics of the Fifth Republic is that it is a democracy, though the executive (the president) holds a significant amount of power.

So far, the Fifth Republic’s constitution has lasted 64 years, and should the Fifth Republic last until 2028, it will be the longest Republic – even longer than the Third Republic which endured from 1870 to 1940.

Could France have a new constitution in the future?

It is very possible. Former left-wing presidential candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon has proposed a Sixth Republic, which, according to France 24, would involve “proportional representation to make parliament more representative; giving citizens the power to initiate legislation and referendums, and to revoke their representatives; and scrapping special powers that currently give France’s executive right to pass legislation without parliamentary approval.” 

Mélenchon failed in his 2022 presidential bid however, so the Fifth Republic is still – for the moment – on course to beat that longevity record.