France has grown accustomed to outrageous, provocative statements by the extreme right-wing author and commentator Eric Zemmour in recent years. But Zemmour's outburst on September 29th was shocking even by his standards.
Speaking of thousands of unaccompanied minors who have migrated to France in recent years, Zemmour said: “These youths, like the rest of the immigrants, must stop coming. All, all, all, because they have nothing to do here. I repeat it. They are thieves. They are murderers. They are rapists. That is all they are. They have to be sent back.”
One couldn't help recalling a statement by another populist television personality. Donald Trump was referring to Mexicans rather than Muslim Arabs when he announced his candidacy for the US presidency in June 2015, but the prejudice was the same. Mexicans were "bringing drugs... bringing crime. They're rapists," Trump said.
The French billionaire Vincent Bolloré has for the past year offered Zemmour his dream pulpit, a 7-8 pm nightly current affairs talk show on CNews television channel, part of Bolloré’s Canal+ group. Zemmour has made Face à l’Info the leading news programme in its time slot, with approximately 600,000 nightly viewers.
Did not respond
Zemmour said he “did not have time” to be interviewed by The Irish Times for this article. CNews did not respond to a request for an interview with management.
CNews is sometimes called the "French Fox News". Like the Australian-born press magnate Rupert Murdoch, who founded Fox News, Bolloré is more mainstream conservative than his hard-right commentators. Zemmour might be seen as the French equivalent of Fox's Sean Hannity, the television and radio host who reportedly speaks to Trump most weeknights. Zemmour, like Hannity, writes best-selling books.
As the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné notes, the more than 20 per cent of the French electorate who vote for the extreme right “have their television station now”.
Isabelle Roberts, the co-founder of Les Jours online newspaper and co-author of the book The Empire, about Bolloré, notes that the diatribes for which Zemmour has three times been convicted of hate speech, and which have led to two ongoing investigations by judiciary authorities, occur five nights a week.
“He’s been saying the same things for a year on CNews, with the same words, the same obsessions,” Roberts says.
But Zemmour’s allegation that “all” underage migrants are “thieves, murderers and rapists” has unleashed a particularly severe backlash. Several human rights groups, including SOS Racisme, and 10 presidents of French departments that have welcomed unaccompanied underage migrants have filed lawsuits against Zemmour. The presidents of departments are from the political left, what Zemmour calls “Islamo-gauchistes”.
Colour of Islam
He has even equated town halls won by the Green party in this year’s municipal elections with green, the colour of Islam.
“Zemmour’s victims, this time, are children, the unaccompanied minors on our territory,” Hélène Sandragné, head of the council of the Aude department, wrote on her Facebook page. “They are victims of racism on the part of a journalist who constantly violates the ethics of his profession, victims of an abusive generalisation that casts opprobrium on all unaccompanied minors.”
The Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel (CSA), which is meant to act as a television and radio watchdog, invoked article 40 of the penal code, which requires anyone aware of an offence to notify the prosecutor. The Paris tribunal opened a new investigation into Zemmour’s alleged “provocation to racial hatred” and “public insults of a racist character” on October 1st.
Zemmour delivered his rant against underage migrants four days after Zaheer Hassan Mahmood, a 25-year-old Pakistani who initially told police he was 18, attacked and severely wounded two people with a meat cleaver outside the former offices of Charlie Hebdo, the weekly satirical magazine where French-born jihadists murdered 12 people in January 2015.
Mahmood said he staged the attack because Charlie Hebdo reprinted cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad during the ongoing trial of 14 alleged accomplices of the killers.
Zemmour’s tirade lasted for 13 minutes, and is worth revisiting. “If Allah wills it, these people will conquer the land of the infidels,” he said sarcastically. “France is paying for its own invasion... Me, I think of the women who are raped by these people. I think of the men who are murdered by these people, of the French people who are brutalised and traumatised by these kids. We have to stop this. We have to think of the French first... As long as there is one of them, we must not let them in because it means a thief, a rapist, a murderer who persecutes the French.”
The format of Zemmour’s show is a panel discussion moderated by Christine Kelly, a West Indian journalist and, incredibly, a former member of the CSA. Two or three other commentators are mostly quiet and rarely if ever take issue with Zemmour. The mood is friendly and jokey. Kelly coyly says “tut, tut” to Zemmour’s worst provocations.
On the night in question, Kelly murmured, “Not all of them, Eric”. “Not all, not all. You’re absolutely right,” Zemmour replied, contradicting his earlier statement that “all, all, all” were thieves, rapists and murderers.
“These words are yours, not those of CNews,” Kelly said lamely. Confronted by a storm of protest, Zemmour later fudged. “I said that among between 40,000 and 50,000 unaccompanied minors who cost us 2 billion a year, there is a higher rate of delinquency, not that every single one of them from the first to the last were delinquents.”
On September 25th, four days before his outburst regarding underage migrants, Zemmour was convicted by the Paris tribunal of provocation to hatred
Zemmour had a programme on iTélé, which Vincent Bolloré rechristened CNews in 2017. “When iTélé fired Zemmour in 2014, following his first conviction for hate speech, Bolloré was not yet in full control of Canal+,” says Isabelle Roberts. “Bolloré went into a mad rage in 2014. In the meantime, he took over Canal, and he brought Zemmour back in 2019. It was an obsession with him.”
Bolloré rehired Zemmour weeks after his speech at the September 28th, 2019, Convention of the Right organised by Marion Maréchal, the grand-daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the extreme right-wing Front National, which has since been renamed Rassemblement National.
On September 25th, four days before his outburst regarding underage migrants, Zemmour was convicted by the Paris tribunal of provocation to hatred for reasons of “origin, ethnic group, nationality, race or religion” in his speech at the convention.
Zemmour was fined €10,000 and reprimanded for “distinguishing Muslims as a group from those of French origin, as well as Muslim immigrants in France, and designating them not only as responsible for the attacks of 2015 but as former colonised people who have become colonisers.”
Zemmour’s speech “constitutes an exhortation, sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit, to discrimination and hatred towards the Muslim community and their religion,” the court said.
Employees’ unions at the Canal+ group virulently opposed the hiring of Zemmour with a campaign on social media and a communique saying his presence would offend the ethics of staff and threaten their security. “You can go on strike for six months, but Zemmour is coming,” Serge Nedjar, the director of CNews and a Bolloré loyalist, told trade unionists.
We said that if we use a time -delay system, if it is broadcast, it means it has been validated editorially
Laurent d’Auria, a co-founder of +Libre, the leading trade union in the Canal+ group, has worked at the station for 30 years, and is the main interlocutor with management. A year ago, the unions went to the company’s dormant ethics committee to protest Zemmour’s hiring.
“They asked what measures we wanted taken. We said the editorial responsibility of the station had to be engaged, that they must not be able to hide behind ‘Zemmour said it, not me. It was live and we couldn’t intervene.’
“We suggested a time-delay system, similar to the one used for sporting events, that allows slow-motion replays,” d’Auria continues. “We said that if we use a time -delay system, if it is broadcast, it means it has been validated editorially. The ethics committee validated our proposal, which was accepted by management. When the CSA expressed concern about Zemmour’s arrival at CNews, management promised that the programme would be slightly time-delayed.”
But in the intervening year, CNews has not cut one word of Zemmour’s interventions. “What we feared has happened,” d’Auria says. “CNews has no right to let him say these things. They had the means to cut him. They didn’t do it. He’s creating hysteria, spreading fake news.”
Zemmour’s repeated offences raise the question of the media group’s legal responsibility. “The ratings are all that matters to management,” says Roberts. “For the Canal+ group, silence means consent. Management, and above all, Vincent Bolloré, are irresponsible and responsible, because they know exactly what to expect with Zemmour.”
Journalists at Fox News clearly identify with the Republican Party in the US. Apart from Zemmour, political convictions at CNews are more amorphous. Pascal Praud, who hosts two programmes a day, resembles a more guarded Zemmour-lite. Praud often has one leftist on a panel of four, with the other three seats filled by far-right commentators. Jean Messiha, a high-ranking civil servant and member of the board of Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National, is a frequent guest.
The Canal+ group was founded by a friend of former Socialist president François Mitterrand in the 1980s, and was traditionally perceived to be left-leaning. When Bolloré took over, he spiked Le Zapping and Les Guignos de l’Info, the extremely popular show with political puppets, like Spitting Image in the UK.
Bolloré lent his private yacht and jet to former president Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007 and is believed to have wanted to make CNews a vehicle for Sarkozy's failed 2017 presidential campaign. Instead, the channel continued its slide into hard-right populist nationalism.
“The station never positioned itself so blatantly before,” says a source at the Canal+ group. “Its coverage of French society is through the prism of immigration, Islam and insecurity. And the guest speakers are almost all from far-right publications with low circulation, like Valeurs Actuelles magazine.”
‘I love him’
According to Le Canard Enchaîné, editors instruct journalists to concentrate on violence against the police and white people.
What kind of person admires Zemmour? I interviewed Elisabeth L, an affluent retired business executive who tunes into CNews almost every evening, solely to watch Zemmour. “I love him,” she says. “I especially want to stress his love of our country. I identify a lot with that. He says, ‘immigration, yes, but controlled and reasonable. And immigration not just with rights but with duties’.” (Zemmour in fact says that all immigration must stop.)
“I don’t want people to think we’re completely racist,” Elisabeth L continues. “I’ve had Arab servants all my life. I give money to my former maid, who is elderly and who is Arab. I am not racist. I am racist against the bad ones. Against fundamentalists. I don’t want my country to become a Muslim country.”
Eric Zemmour is the son of Jewish “Pied-Noirs”, who emigrated from Algeria when it gained independence from France. His family name means olive tree in the Berber language. His father worked as an ambulance driver.
“He’s an example of successful integration,” says Elisabeth L. “His family lived in the housing projects that are full of Arabs now. I know from other Jews who lived in these places that it was very clean. It’s since the Arabs arrived that everything is broken and falling apart.”
Elisabeth L finds Zemmour courageous. “He’s one of few people who dares say things,” she says repeatedly. “Enough. We’re in our country, not theirs. If this goes on, we’ll be in their country because they have so many children and there are already between 10 and 15 million Muslims in France. I’d really like to know how many of them are fundamentalists.”
Elisabeth L dwells at length on the September 25th attack outside the former Charlie Hebdo offices. “The guy who tried to kill two people with a meat cleaver lied. He said he was 18. He had been in France for several years. We helped him. We fed him. We tried to integrate him. He thanks us by trying to kill two people.
“If you go to the Trocadero, you see bands of Moroccan youths selling drugs. They do burglaries, take your handbag. They shouldn’t be there... Zemmour says it very well: ‘Respect the country that welcomes you. In your countries, you often live in shacks without electricity, without water, with nothing. Here you have social security, health insurance, welfare. It’s paradise. And you thank us by stabbing us?’”
The latest outcry over Zemmour’s hate speech has occurred at a time of flux on the French right, when political minds are turning to the May 2022 presidential election.
President Emmanuel Macron has lured more moderate conservatives from Les Républicains party, while Marion Maréchal and other personalities on the far right have repeatedly attempted to unite traditionalist Catholics, the hard-right wing of Les Républicains and the extreme right.
Much of the extreme right is disillusioned with Maréchal's aunt, Marine Le Pen, who could be expected to lose to Macron again, as she did in 2017. Zemmour says Le Pen is a leftist, but he has cordial relations with Maréchal. The two are seen as the future of the extreme right in France. There has been talk of a show for Maréchal on CNews.
Bolloré is, like Maréchal, a traditionalist Catholic. He purchased La France Catholique magazine and has made its director, Aymeric Pourbaix, the presenter of a Sunday afternoon programme on CNews called Spiritual Quest.
On CNews on Monday night, Zemmour claimed that Macron’s October 2nd speech about radical Islam reiterated what he has been saying for years. “I had to pinch myself,” Zemmour said gleefully. But he criticised two measures advocated by Macron: the teaching of Arabic in French schools, and a ban on home schooling. “We didn’t teach Italian and Russian to the children of Italian and Russian immigrants,” Zemmour said. “Because of Arabs, we are going to be deprived of the right to home school our children?”
Le Pen seems to be following Zemmour’s cue. She made a similar critique of Macron’s speech the following day. She said Zemmour’s September 29th characterisation of all underage migrants were thieves, murderers and rapists was “excessive,” but questioned whether he deserved being “dragged in front of a tribunal”.