Softbois in France: a feminist perspective on the rise of Éric Zemmour

Zemmour’s racism and anti-immigrant positions are not new, but his misogyny reveals where the ideological fault line lies between the new and the old far right.

Credit: Illian Derex (CC BY-SA 4.0)Éric Zemmour announces the founding of his political party, Reconquête, at a rally in Paris on December 5, 2021.

Éric Zemmour, a prominent French journalist and television personality who espouses extreme-right views, announced in November that he would be a candidate for president of the Republic. He doesn’t yet have enough signatures to run in the April election, but his potential candidacy has captured enormous media attention, revealing significant support from the far right and even from some subcultures of the moderately conservative right.

Zemmour has almost no chance of being elected president, though he might poach some votes from Marine Le Pen, the leader of the Rassemblement National (RN, or National Rally; formerly the FN, or National Front). Nevertheless, a trickle of ministers and smaller political parties continue to join his newly established Reconquête (Reconquer) party, even as he is involved in a series of high profile scandals involving several accusations of sexual assault, an extramarital relationship with a much younger woman, and three court cases on accusations of inciting racist hatred.

While he has won supporters for his extreme positions on Muslims and immigration, Zemmour polls low with women. Marine Le Pen has reorganized her campaign accordingly, and Zemmour —with seven accusations of sexual assault currently pending and more than a few misogynist tracts under his belt—was obliged, for reasons of realpolitik, to declare himself a “feminist, like the next man.”

A darling of the culture wars

Zemmour, 63, rose to prominence in the 1990s as a columnist and commentator. Back then he espoused a “union of the right”—i.e., a coalition of the moderate right Républicains and the far-right Front National (FN). He became a darling of the culture wars with his essay Le Premier Sexe (2006), a gender panic polemic on the purported “feminization” of men in France. The book—yes, its title is a riposte of Simone de Beauvoir’s feminist book The Second Sex—sold over 100,000 copies.  He followed this with a novel, Petit Frère (2008), in which he attacked “anti-racist angelism,” and then a trilogy that sold even better than Le Premier Sexe—Mélancolie française (2010), in which he recounts the history of France; Le Suicide français (2014), where he argues that the French nation has become degenerate since the student-led uprisings of 1968; and Destin français (2018), a sort of autobiography in which he describes various historical events that have influenced his worldview. He ends the final essay with a polemic against the growing influence of Islam on French society.

Zemmour’s most recent book, La France n’a pas dit son dernier mot (France Hasn’t Had Its Last Word), published in 2021, sold 165,000 copies within three weeks. Cherished by his followers as “an intellectual” and tolerated by others as a kind of maverick TV personality—a buffoon, perhaps, like the former journalist Boris Johnson, or like Donald Trump—Zemmour is, thanks to his many books, a frequent guest on television news and culture programs. He uses these prime-time opportunities to air his views on the decline of French society, the clash of civilizations, immigration and assimilation, national preference, and national identity. He is one of the figures responsible for bringing the “great replacement theory,” the fear that France’s “native” (white) population will be replaced by (brown) non-European people, into the mainstream discourse.

Whilst lamenting the passage of France’s heroic age—Napoleon, etc.—Zemmour manages to align himself with both President Charles de Gaulle, who led the French resistance during the Nazi occupation of France, and the Nazi collaborator Marshall Philippe Pétain, Vichy France’s chief of state. This pairing is an ingenious move, presenting two historical figures who represented opposing political views as representatives of France’s lost past, when strong men took charge. Jean Marie Le Pen, the former leader of the far-right FN, made the mistake of expressing his support for Pétain while denouncing de Gaulle—at a time when de Gaulle was still an extremely popular figure in France. Zemmour expresses support for both men, which is novel.

A racist’s racist

Zemmour is the son of Jewish immigrants from Algeria and is himself a practicing Jew who attends an Orthodox synagogue. That has not stopped him from aligning himself with the antisemitic far right, or from saying that Pétain was right to deport non-French Jews to concentration camps—because in doing so he saved some French-French Jews (of the 75,000 Jews deported from France, 72,500 were murdered) .

Zemmour has transitioned smoothly from being an “outspoken” voice in the discourse around political correctness as it morphed into what we now call a “debate” on “cancel culture.” Today he is a comfortable anti-feminist, traditionalist, misogynist, homophobe, anti-abortionist, and a “critic” of the legacy of the social movements of the 1960s. He also deplores gender studies and writes in Le Premier Sexe that rape trials qualify as the “judiciary surveillance of desire.”

In the months before he announced his candidacy, Zemmour reveled in several personal and legal scandals that further raised his public profile. In September Paris Match’s cover showed him frolicking in the sea with Sarah Knafo, his 28 year-old assistant and campaign manager, whom he has known since she was 13 years old (she is the daughter of family friends). Zemmour recently confirmed that Knafo is his “companion” and is pregnant with his baby, to the delight of the press, which speculates endlessly about Mylène Chichportich, his wife of 40 years: Is she suffering or indifferent as she stands silently at his side?

While Knafo is something of a protégée to Zemmour, she is in her own right a perfectly terrifying and precocious extreme right militant. As a university student she was active in the FN and in a student association called Critique of European Reason, through which she got down with the sovereigntists and Euroskeptics, and met prominent right wing thinkers like Alain Finkielkraut. At 25 she did an internship at the French embassy in Tunis. She then authored a “handbook,” based on what she’d learned in North Africa about migration routes, on how to facilitate the deportation of undocumented migrants from France.

His frequent trips in and out of court keep the press talking about Zemmour, too. His January 17 conviction for inciting racial hatred was his third. A judge fined him 10,000 euros ($11,400) for having said, on live television, that unaccompanied migrant minors “have nothing to do [in France], they’re rapists, assassins, that’s all they are, you have to send them back to where they came from.” Meanwhile, at one of his November rallies, Zemmour’s militia-style bodyguards beat up an anti-racist activist in a brawl reminiscent of Trump rally scenes.

A radical ideologue

French commentators have pointed out that the country’s media is falling into the trap of giving free publicity to Zemmour, just as the U.S. media made the mistake of broadcasting Trump’s rallies live without commentary and of reporting incessantly on his tweets, giving him massive free publicity on mainstream evening and cable news programs. Like Trump, Zemmour overwhelms the media with provocative soundbites, which are often in the form of attacks on journalists. As a result, media outlets are drowning in a sea of far-right madness—reporting and broadcasting Zemmour’s racist, sexist, and fascist comments repeatedly, without analysis or critique.

The fact that Zemmour’s ideas are splayed bittily across television and internet platforms, and that only certain people read his books from beginning to end, works to obscure their character as a complete ideology. His misogyny, abhorrence for the student-led uprisings of 1968, dislike of modernity, and hatred of Muslims are connected and inform each other. A quick online search brings up a list of citations to go with each of Zemmour’s ideas, presented like an inventory of the contents of a bag belonging to the fasciste du jour.

Zemmour deliberately muddies the extremism of his complete ideology by presenting his ideas in a willfully confusing, often “third positionist” manner— i.e., expressing right wing ideas in the language of left-wing ones. For example, in his books he offers a critique of the monogamous couple and, ostensibly, praise for polyamory. But this is not advocacy for free love. Rather, it is an expression of approval for a premodern society in which married men had multiple mistresses and in which women had no means of leaving an unhappy marriage. In French third positionism is roughly translated as confusionniste — which is a better term, perhaps, because the deliberate effort to create confusion is a salient and defining characteristic of contemporary fascism. Writing about Zemmour is challenging because it’s almost impossible to avoid the trap of either reproducing his ideas without comment, or presenting them with expressions of shock and outrage. In either case, the writer is amplifying Zemmour’s ideology, thus giving him yet more free publicity.

Zemmour and his fellow far right television personalities have succeeded in shifting the Overton window of the French discourse. Fueled by the country’s growing and fertile climate of Islamophobia, which is partly a reaction to a series of high profile, violent terrorist attacks over the last six years, the center and center-right are now taking positions that were once considered far right. In a recent illustration of this shift, Macron’s government drafted and passed the Loi de Séparatisme, a law to “strengthen republican values.” The law targets and seeks to repress the Muslim community and its cultural expression, which conflicts with France’s aggressive secularism. As such, it is a populist attempt to exploit, or give lip service to, the idea that a cultural “great replacement” has happened, or is happening, in France.

It is perhaps surprising that the extreme right—identitarian and antisemitic as it is—might choose Éric Zemmour over Marine Le Pen. Zemmour, though born in France, is the offspring of an Algerian-Berber Jewish immigrant family, while Le Pen is white and descended from France’s best-known fascist dynasty. Zemmour’s background has been a subject of conversation on fan forums for Papacito (a far-right influencer with a popular YouTube channel who supports Zemmour) and on gaming websites, where eager 20-year-old neo-Nazis agree that while his Jewishness is a bit of a problem, he’s kind of an Ubermensch.

The fault line in the far right

Physically, Zemmour cuts a slight figure, with, as Harrison Stetler put it, “massive ears folding out around [a] receding jaw.” He bears no physical resemblance to the towering Aryan figures of Donald Trump or Boris Johnson, or to the topless horse rider Vladimir Putin. His possible success amongst extreme right voters — a smattering of ultra-conservative Christians, neo-Nazi groups, far right influencers, lapsed FN or Républicains voters—seems to be derived from his capacity to embody discursively a kind of straight talking, Trumpian masculinity (and whiteness), not seen in French politics since Jean-Marie Le Pen led the FN. He espoused a more overt brand of racism than that of his daughter Marine, the heir to the party’s leadership.

Marine Le Pen, meanwhile, has in recent years made a dive for the center, trying to clean up her party and kicking out embarrassing family members such as her niece (who now wants to run with Zemmour) and her father, who infamously described the Holocaust as “a detail of history” and, as a French military officer, tortured people during the Algerian war. The effect of Marine’s efforts to take the party mainstream was to alienate her most right-wing voters, who have become disillusioned with her perceived political correctness. While Le Pen herself has said she is “against gay marriage,” she has also pink-washed her party in an effort to appeal to LGBT groups and even has several gay deputies. Recently Le Pen revealed that for the last five years she has been living in secret with a woman, her “childhood friend” Ingrid. “There are no men in my house, even the cats are female,” Marine said in a widely watched TV interview broadcast in early November.

The critical fault line between Zemmour and Le Pen is, clearly, misogyny. Zemmour positions himself against a “cosmopolitan” political correctness that purportedly welcomes homosexuality and feminizes extreme right politics. Those who oppose Marine Le Pen’s leadership of the FN perceive her as having emasculated her daddy’s once-great party.

One might wonder what is more prominent in Zemmour’s ideology—a hatred of women, or a hatred of Muslims and immigrants?

But this would be the wrong question. Zemmour’s essay Le Premier Sexe shows his misogyny and his racism to be, if not interchangeable, on a continuum with one another. It shows the strong link between “theories” of feminization and the great replacement, which usually advances the racist theory that Muslims, Jews, and other non-white people will soon replace white people. It starts out as a great replacement theory about gender, advancing the idea that French men have become feminized through a culture that elevates “feminine values.” Men, he writes, are allowing themselves to be replaced by women and become total pussies, whereas a real man is a “sexual predator, a conqueror.”

It is of course a polemic: his histrionic dismay at the purported fragility of contemporary French men is motivated by his belief in a naturalized masculine power (and violence), ready and waiting to be resuscitated. His essay is a spurious patchwork of loosely connected observations on advertising, football, cinema, sport, dubious “facts” and statistics, and hardcore conspiracy theories. He advances the theory that the purported feminization of men is due to the influence of “single mothers, sixty-eighters and feminists,” plus a homosexual conspiracy that wants to denaturalize sex and create a society segregated along the lines of gender. According to Zemmour, the plot is to eradicate male body hair because it would remind men of their natural “bestiality, virility,” and to set up conspiratorial alliances in cities between immigrants, single women, and gays. The speed with which he moves from roots to rootless cosmopolitans is, frankly, startling.

By the end of Le Premier Sexe all this scattered madness joins up with his other great preoccupation—Muslims and immigrants. The great replacement of gender becomes just the great replacement, tout court. Hurtling through an account of the liberalization of divorce and abortion, he claims that French men have “laid their phalluses down,” thus declaring France “an open land, waiting to be impregnated by a virility from outside.” This has happened, he writes, because Christianity is a pussy religion. Outside of the Western world, he writes, men defend their dominant position “like a treasure” and refuse to align the “status” of their women with that of the Europeans.

The argument is not simply that white French men are becoming more like women, but that they will be replaced by a masculine revolution of foreign (Muslim) men who are concentrated in France’s suburbs. Despite the book’s highly misogynistic character, which shows Zemmour’s hatred for women and especially feminists, part of his argument is that Black and Arab men, with their machismo and their desire to dominate, present a danger to…Western white women and feminists.

Zemmour can claim as much as he likes that he is now a feminist. His entourage of female influencers, FemmesAvecZemmour (WomenWithZemmour), are flocking to make the same racist argument about women’s safety in an effort to make a feminist of old Zemmour. But Zemmour is quite different from other leaders. He manages to present himself as a real man, a man’s man, a man who speaks his mind, while remaining, a wily, self-satisfied intellectual who espouses a hardcore and explicit ideology. Whether he becomes a candidate in the presidential election or not, it’s quite clear that his prominence is symptomatic of a rightward shift in France, and in any case such extreme right mobilizing has already made its impact on the policies of the center.

Rona Lorimer

Rona Lorimer is a writer and translator based in Paris. Her essays have been published in mute magazine, Commune, Mask, The Brooklyn Rail and Endnotes. She also writes poems, plays and short fiction. Follow her on Twitter @laserveuse2 .

Related Articles


See All