Eric Zemmour, the extreme right-wing former journalist and television commentator who polls show is the fourth-ranking presidential candidate in France, was on Monday convicted of hate speech for the third time and sentenced to a fine of €10,000.
In a September 2020 rant against migrants who are unaccompanied minors, Mr Zemmour said: “They are thieves. They are murderers. They are rapists. That is all they are. They must be sent back . . . It’s a permanent invasion.”
Such statements have earned Mr Zemmour a reputation as “the French Trump”.
The prosecutor had said that Mr Zemmour’s outburst on CNews, the French equivalent of Fox News in the US, consisted of “outrageous statements” demonstrating “violent rejection” and “hatred” of France’s immigrant population “surpassing the limits of freedom of expression”. CNews was fined €5,000 for broadcasting his tirade.
About 30 associations, including SOS Racisme, the human rights league LDH and the international league against racism and anti-Semitism Licra, were civil plaintiffs, along with about 20 French departments who are responsible for helping unaccompanied minors.
Mr Zemmour did not attend the court session but issued a statement denouncing an “ideological and stupid” conviction.
“The truth is that these ‘unaccompanied minors’ are often not even minors, nor are they unaccompanied. They are on our territory illegally and are strongly inclined to delinquency and crime,” Mr Zemmour said. “As French citizens, we must demand the right to address this question.” He added that the charge of “racial hatred” was inappropriate, since migrants are not an ethnic group or race.
Mr Zemmour has been charged with hate speech and similar offences about 15 times over the past decade and has two previous convictions. He will appeal Monday’s verdict.
The presidential candidate faces yet another trial in May 2023 for “aggravated defamation” of feminist and LGBT movements.
Mr Zemmour has built his career on provocation. Scarcely a day passes without him offending someone. If he were elected president of France, one often hears, the country would plunge into civil war.
Although he is the son of Jewish immigrants from Algeria, Mr Zemmour’s rewriting of history has often angered France’s Jewish community. On Thursday, a French court will decide whether he is guilty of denying crimes against humanity by claiming in 2019 that Marshal Philippe Pétain, the second World War collaborationist leader, “saved” French Jews, thousands of whom were deported to Nazi death camps under Pétain’s rule.
In 2020, Mr Zemmour questioned the innocence of the Jewish army captain Alfred Dreyfus, who was falsely charged in 1894 of having spied for Germany. On January 13th, the 124th anniversary of Zola's famous newspaper editorial "J'accuse", a group from Mulhouse, Dreyfus's home town, demonstrated against Zemmour. "When Eric Zemmour questions . . . the work of historians and academics, he propagates sickening, unacceptable ideas which threaten civil peace," Bernard Eichholtzer, the group's spokesman, told Agence France-Presse.
Although he was long employed by the conservative daily Le Figaro, and became famous for commentaries on CNews, Mr Zemmour has poor relations with the press. He pointed a sniper rifle at journalists covering his visit to the Milipol weapons trade fair last October.
When Mr Zemmour received journalists on January 10th, ostensibly to convey his New Year’s wishes, he mocked them for 20 minutes, telling them that theirs was “the most hated profession in France”.
“Who doesn’t like you?” he asked rhetorically. “The people, my dear friends. And they are right to hold a grudge against you.”
Mr Zemmour admitted to having been a journalist himself, but added, “I was different, for three reasons. I was on the right. I spoke and wrote French, whereas political correctness is your mother tongue. And I was popular.”
Mr Zemmour was condemned by the entire French political class after he criticised France’s “obsession with inclusion” for disabled children before a group of teachers who support him on January 14th. He said that all but the most lightly disabled should be educated separately from other children.
Mr Zemmour's rhetoric is so extreme that Marine Le Pen, the other far-right presidential candidate, has gained acceptability by comparison, a poll conducted by Kantar Public for Le Monde and France Info concluded.
Only 40 per cent of French voters now see Ms Le Pen as the representative of “the nationalist, xenophobic extreme right”, whereas 64 per cent described Mr Zemmour that way. Half of French voters still believe Ms Le Pen represents a danger to democracy, while 62 per cent said Mr Zemmour does.
Ms Le Pen is in competition with the conservative candidate Valérie Pécresse to face president Emmanuel Macron in the April 24th run-off of the presidential election. Though Ms Le Pen has gone some way towards "undemonising" her Rassemblement National party, her disastrous performance in a debate against Mr Macron in 2017 appears to have permanently damaged confidence in her ability to govern.