French Jews Split Over Zemmour

The probable candidacy in next year’s presidential election of the man who promotes the fear of the “great replacement” has produced a shock wave in the French Jewish community. Many Jews are saying they will vote for Eric Zemmour, to the dismay of their community leaders. This may well be a flash in the pan, but it may also be the consequence of erroneous interpretations of Islamophobia and knee-jerk support of Israel.

Propaganda poster of the Vichy government (detail)

“There, I have said it. For the record.” Thus, did attorney Patrick Klugman conclude on Wednesday 6 October 2021, his “op-ed talk” on RCJ, the communitarian radio station of the Fonds Social Juif Unifié. His subject: “Eric Zemmour and the Jewish Question”. “The hero of the French far right is a Jew who proclaims his Jewish identity” he deplored. Zemmour’s racist rhetoric, his anti-Arab and anti-Muslim obsessions and his growing popularity among many French Jews worries counsellor Klugman and many others, like Serge and Arno Klarsfeld1 who, in Le Monde, on 11 July 2021 implored Jews “to keep away from the far right”. Klugman is distressed “to see Jews who are proud of their identity supporting him” and to hear things like “the fact is some of the things he says are true” … “Nothing but an accident of birth relates Eric Zemmour to Judaism,” he deplores.

Counsellor Klugman also sits on the Steering Committee of the Conseil Représentatif des institutions juives de France (CRIF) and was once president of the Union des étudiants juifs de France (UEJF). A member of the Socialist Party, he played an eminent role from 2014 to 2020 in the Paris City Hall as deputy-mayor in charge of international relations. A close friend of former Mayor Bertrand Delanoë and of the current Mayor Anne Hidalgo, he played a key role behind the scenes in the sharply criticised operation “Tel Aviv-sur-Seine.2 He is a prominent member of the camp of those who are more or less tired of standing up for Israel and makes no bones about his long-time anti-racism—he was a member of SOS Racism—or his repulsion for the Islamophobia rampant among some of the population, including Jews. In this respect, he is at opposite poles from his colleague, counsellor Gilles-William Goldnadel, notoriously Islamophobic, a rabid supporter of the West Bank colonies, and who is clearly leaning in favour of Zemmour.

Klugman’s op-ed talk is welcome indeed for it strikes a sensitive nerve. Both he and several of my friends and I have parents and relatives who, though Jewish, have no problem with the idea of voting for Zemmour, on the contrary. The result is disputes, tensions or somewhat cowardly sighs, as a whole branch of French Jews hide their faces in shame on learning that so-and-so vaunts the “good ideas” of the nauseating undeclared candidate. By voicing their support for Zemmour within the family circle and the community, a new step is taken, without it being possible to say for certain whether this is simply a fad or a far-reaching sea change.

In itself, this is rather depressing news. But our consternation must not make us forget that this is nothing new. As long ago as 2016, over 1,200 people bought tickets to attend a Zemmour lecture in the main Paris synagogue on rue de la Victoire, with Rabbi Gilles Berheim at his side, which was already something of an anointment.

“Our last chance before exile”

Swamped with CNews and other non-stop news channels, always ready to spotlight the putative candidate, Zemmour’s Jewish fans, often old-age pensioners but not always, began coming out of the woodwork when the media—their media—started building the suspense. Noémie Halioua is editor in chief at the Paris office of 124news, Patrick Drahi’s pro-Israeli channel. She is no doubt perfectly familiar with the sociology of her audience and on 27 September, declared a form of allegiance to Zemmour on the website of Elizabeth Levy’s far right magazine Causeur. “For the last few weeks, after prayers, in the consistorial synagogues, discussions have taken a quarrelsome turn, complete with name calling. In reply to ‘Are you not ashamed? You want to vote for a Petainist? We hear “Zemmour is our saviour, God has set him on our path to defend us!” the journalist writes. “For many Jews of humble origin from North Africa, Zemmour embodies ’our last chance’ before exile. A rampart against our disappearance, the prospect of a new life, worth turning a blind eye on a few excesses.” Turning a blind eye, that about sums it up.

And the journalist goes on to sing the praises of “a man who rejects labels, peer-group pressure, an inner circle mentality, has always been careful to avoid tribal reflexes”. Such as “dancing to oriental music at weddings as is customary among Sephardis. On the other hand, Zemmour does not despise a downtown luncheon date, an old French custom. Thus, he could share a meal with Jean-Marie Le Pen, often convicted of anti-Semitism, and the daughter of Nazi Joachim von Ribbentrop, tried and executed at Nuremberg … as revealed by Le Monde. “We can almost imagine the tackiness of that meal, where the obsequious Monsieur Z. dredged up one witticism after another, like so many kowtows from the good kapo3 entertaining his masters.” was the ironic comment made by historian Jeremy Rubinstein on Hiya.

The I24news journalist is not alone in taking that line. A frequent guest on TV channels and in the pages of the far-right magazine Causeur, with a regular column on the website Figaro-Vox—the two pillars of “zemmourism”—attorney Gilles-William Goldnadel supports the most extreme right-wing in Israel and makes goo eyes at Zemmour. He is obsessed with “leftism” and on 27 September, after the TV debate between Zemmour and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, député for the left-wing party la France Insoumise, Goldnadel explained that the former “should concentrate his energies more on the sinister far left”. It is leftist ideology which had succeeded in brainwashing a broad section of our elites and a small portion of the people into believing that patriotic resistance to the invasion [by Africans and Arabs] is reminiscent of the period of collaboration. [with the German occupation]. Praise for Philippe Pétain put to a new use. A little excess? Pétain, who, as Klugman has reminded us, revised with his own hand and added further restrictions to the status of Jews under the Occupation.

A “Jew of the negation”

Even the CRIF is worried, so extensive is the phenomenon. On 30 September last, an article appeared on its Internet site entitled: “Zemmour: the double penalty for French Jews”. Yonathan Arfi, vice-chairman of the CRIF, wrote: “As Jews, we are not, of course, responsible for Eric Zemmour’s rhetoric. But we do have a reasonability for standing in its way.” The President of the CRIF himself, Francis Kalifat, added “Not one single Jewish vote must go to the putative candidate, Eric Zemmour”. Historian and researcher Marc Knobel, director of studies for the CRIF, has been denouncing for several years in various articles the ideology of the “apocalypse maker”, whom he sees as “a Jew of the negation” who goes so far as to exhume the phraseology of the anti-Semitic far right pertaining to the supposed guilt of Captain Alfred Dreyfus.4 Several other dignitaries of the Jewish community have expressed their concern. Ariel Goldmann, president of the Fonds Social Juif Unifié has stated “his shame at belonging to the same religion as him”, while the UEJF, by the voice of its president Noémie Médar, is in the front line when it comes to denouncing Zemmour’s “lies about historical realities”.

Zemmour, though he was born in Montreuil, a suburb of Paris, has never made a secret of his origins among the Jewish colonists of North Africa nor of his admiration for Pétain. His latest book, Ia France n’a pas dit son dernier mot, is full of those innuendoes, insinuations and bogus ironies of which racists and anti-Semites are especially fond, accustomed as they are to playing on words, even the most repulsive. I shall not take the trouble of repeating them here. Some say Zemmour is a case of “self-hatred”. Maybe so. But in the 1930s many assimilated Jews, often veterans of WW1, were admirers of Colonel François de la Roque. And yet, as leader of the Croix-de-Feu5, he decried “Jewish purulence” and rallied Pétain, continuing to rail against the Jews after the beginning of the war. “Zemmour descends from those Algerian Jews granted French citizenship with the Crémieux decree of 1870 but who lost it under Pétain, who repealed the decree in 1940", historian Michel Wievworka told Orient XXI. “He presents himself openly as a Jew but caters to an electorate which includes many anti-Semites.”

However, the heated debate over Zemmour also illustrates two errors of analysis. The first: “For some members of the intelligentsia over the last few years”, Michel Wievorka continues, “the only problem with anti-Semitism in France has its source in the Arab-Muslim world. Many pronouncements reveal an obliviousness to the persistence of right-wing anti-Semitism. But this has in fact reared its head in slogans that have nothing to do with the Israel-Palestine conflict.”

The second error is having failed to measure the depth of the rift in the French Jewish community, evaluated at some 700,000 individuals. This rift has appeared not so much in connection with the religious issue as on the attitude to adopt towards Israel. Most French Jews are worried about anti-Semitism, but they are divided over the policies of the increasingly right-wing governments of Israel, which have had the unfailing support of the community organisations in France for the last twenty years. The extension of the colonies, the rampant racism of Israeli society, all that is redolent indeed of a “great replacement”.6

The present Prime Minister Naftali Bennet has never made a secret of his anti-Arab feelings. Zemmour sings a tune which is very familiar to many members of the community. These are very active in its cultural and religious institutions and deeply committed to supporting Israel, some of them living between the two countries. “The Jewish world is sick and it is desperate” a well-known Jewish intellectual deplores. For him, “no counter-narrative seems effective”.

“Being Jewish is no guarantee against stupidity”

“You know, people are getting used to violence now, with Israel, the terrorist attacks. Zemmour’s verbal violence does not frighten them because it corresponds to what we hear in the rest of the country”, a religious leader in the Paris region explains. “He says out loud what others are quietly thinking,” he continues, even if he finds it terrifying. “That part of the congregation normally the most invisible are the ones most afraid of aggressions, the devout are ill at ease, afraid to wear the kippah and indeed they do not wear it anymore”, a community cadre adds. The difficulty is that we are talking about “very personal feelings”, he goes on. “People use the same words, the same phraseology, they have the same reasons as the Duponts, the Durands and the Martins, they are talking about the same malaise. By ranting about a France in mortal danger, Zemmour is polluting everything. Unfortunately, the fact of being Jewish is no guarantee against stupidity.” Both these men, deeply involved in the social life of the community, share the concern expressed by Chalom Lellouche, Rabbi of Levallois-Perret, another suburb of Paris: “The danger is great, and it is real. What is at stake is inter-confessional peace, national unity and France itself.”

There is no doubt but what it is around the synagogues that the confrontation is sharpest. Taken to task by the chairman of the CRIF, Zemmour shot back: “Me, I am very popular when I go to the synagogue. I advise Monsieur Kalifat to come with me and he will see who is the more popular.” And on 12 October he even called Francis Kalifat the “useful stooge of the last of the French anti-Semites”. Kalifat immediately replied: Zemmour is “the useful Jew and the new champion of revisionism in our country”.

“A pathetic, reactionary, itinerary.”

However, when Zemmour criticised the fact that the children killed in the Toulouse terrorist attack (perpetrated in March 2012, it caused seven casualties, among them three pupils of a Jewish school) were buried in Jerusalem, just as their assassin Mohamed Merah had been buried in Algeria (which is untrue, he is buried near Toulouse), it created a malaise. He had already called for a ban on the use of foreign surnames in France. One of the main spokespersons for the Franco-Israeli right wing, the député Meyer Habb waxed ironically: “Meyer Habib will no longer be called Meyer Habib, for example”. But mostly he denounced the “shameful, scandalous, devastating” declarations concerning the tombs of the Toulouse children. According to our community leader, “what he said about the Jewish children killed by Merah did not go over well, many people were shocked.”

That umpteenth divagation of Zemmour’s makes our interviewee furious. The right riposte remains to be found, but we might also wonder about the consequences of this constant support given the radically racist Israeli right, the confusion fuelled by the friends of Israel about a pseudo-conflict of civilisations. All discourses which Zemmour happily endorses. When he comes down on “Arabs”, agreement is pretty general. “There is something very wrong” is the sad observation of a community leader. It is hard to put it better.

Michèle Sibony is spokesperson for the Union juive française pour la paix (UJFP) In her view: “Zemmour imagines he is speaking for grass roots, France. His pathetic, reactionary, itinerary is in contradiction with everything Jews have stood for throughout the history of humanism and revolutionary universalism.” It is hard to fault her on this point. Nevertheless...? For Michel Wievworka, “this Jew who wants to make his mark on the far right has yet to begin his campaign. Up to now, he has not found himself in difficulty. But the shooting has only just begun. The reactions of prominent figures like [Bernard-Henri-Lévy] or Kalifat, who are not necessarily my cup of tea, either, but are nonetheless fairly powerful. For the moment, voters are baffled.”

Let’s hope that the debate—the fight would be a better word—will help to avoid a bad Jewish joke coming true, a Jew becoming the first revisionist, racist, Islamophobic, misogynous, homophobic president in the history of France…

1TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: Celebrated Nazi-hunters.

2TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: A day-long summer-time celebration of a city presented as “progressive”, unlike the Israeli government responsible for the massacres and persecutions of the Palestinians.

3TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: Concentration camp inmate serving as guard.

4EDITOR’S NOTE. Alfred Dreyfus (1859–1935), was a French army officer, victim of a judicial machination which triggered a major political crisis early in the Third Republic known as the“affaire Dreyfus” (1894–1906) which split the country between “dreydusards” and “anti-dreyfusards”. Accused of spying for Germany, declared a “traitor to the homeland” he was sentenced to dishonourable discharge and “deportation for life in a walled enclosure”. He was pardoned in 1899 and rehabilitated in 1906.

5EDITOR’S NOTE: French veterans’ organisation founded in 1927, originally with an ideology based on the comradeship of the trenches during WW1, it evolved later towards a Catholic nationalism and took up the themes of the conservative and militaristic right wing. Considered a fascist movement, it was dissolved in 1936.

6TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: The idea that because of immigration, Arabs and Africans will soon be so many that they will take over the country.