Sounds Vichy

by Phoebe Maltz Bovy

My project for the holidays is clearly going to have to be reading as much as possible by and about Éric Zemmour, author of a bestselling French book about that nation’s decline, which we covered earlier this week. Elisabeth Zerofsky has more on Le Suicide Français and its significance:

Once Zemmour has identified the source of the rot at the center of everything, it is easy for him to unpack each successive social and legal development that whittled away at France’s glory. The legalization of abortion was a “collective suicide,” because the demographic heft of the French children who were never to be born amounted to “lost power, gone forever more.” The emergence of “triumphant homosexuality” is tied to “the decisive evolution of capitalism,” because Western capitalism has an insatiable need for consumerism, and “the homosexual universe, especially the male one, embodies the temple of unbridled pleasure, sexuality without restraint, hedonism without limit.” The sexual revolution led to a “feminine Bovaryism that is sanctified as a supreme value in relations between the sexes.” The normalization of divorce revealed the “paradoxical destiny of feminists to accomplish the dream of absolute irresponsibility, for which they railed against generations of predatory males.”

Zemmour goes on and on:

the rise in delinquency in the nineteen-eighties and nineties came mostly from “immigrant families that France had welcomed,” and has been so twisted around by the left that “gangs of traffickers, thieves, and rapists are sanctified, eternal victims of a neocolonial and racist order. What we call delinquency, they call victims; what we call victims, they call guilty parties.” And, of course, once de Gaulle was gone, France was faced with the choice of “bowing down before the American empire or drowning itself in Europe.”

The runaway sales of Zemmour’s book mirror the astonishing rise, over the past year, of Marine Le Pen, who is the president of the far-right National Front Party. The National Front’s first-place win in the European Parliament elections last May brought it out of the shadows—where it had hovered as a fringe movement since Le Pen’s father founded it, in 1972—and gave it the imprimatur of legitimacy. France’s two main political parties are in shambles. The right-leaning Union for a Popular Movement, immobilized by scandal and infighting, has just reinstated as its leader Nicolas Sarkozy, who was voted out of office as President of France in 2012. The left-leaning Socialist Party’s major problem is François Hollande, the most unpopular French President of the modern era, who has presided over a contentious split in his Party over the question of whether France’s economic troubles call for a move to the right.

What neither New Yorker piece mentions is that Zemmour is Jewish. Specifically, of Algerian-Jewish origin. I point this out not to conspiracy-theorize (as, I realize as I type, the phrase “… is Jewish” comes across, without context), but as a Jew myself, and – more relevant – as someone whose doctoral study focused on French-Jewish history and literature. I was especially surprised to see Zemmour’s Jewishness absent from Stille’s article, which delves deep into the connections between Zemmour’s writings and those of self-proclaimed anti-Semites of earlier eras. Stille also mentions Max Nordau, but refers to this major Zionist leader only as a Paris-dwelling Hungarian who wrote about decadence in the late 19th century.

It seems implausible to me that the New Yorker omitted Zemmour’s background out of ignorance, so this must have been an editorial decision. Perhaps – and I might be projecting – the trouble was that examining the relationship between Jewish identity and French nostalgist conservatism (not to mention the legacy of the Crémieux Decree) would simply take too long, because it’s so fascinating. Or maybe it’s that an American publication is projecting American ideas of Other-ness onto France – making Zemmour just another white guy. At any rate, while as a rule I think leaving out an author’s ancestry is fine, if someone stands accused of writing in the tradition of “authors like Édouard Drumont,” France’s most famous anti-Semite, it does seem relevant that the author in question is Jewish. What it all means, however, I’ll wait to weigh in on until after having, at the very least, read the book.