The Media Today

Anti-media rhetoric and violence as the ‘French Trump’ launches his campaign

December 6, 2021
On December 5, 2021, the first meeting in the race for the French presidential election in 2022 of the former journalist and far-right polemicist Eric Zemmour took place in Villepinte, a suburb of Paris. Thousands of people came, including his closest supporters, some of whom spoke before him to introduce his speech. (Photo by Samuel Boivin/NurPhoto via AP)

Yesterday, Eric Zemmour, a far-right candidate in France’s presidential election, held his first official campaign rally in a suburb of Paris. According to Le Monde, around eleven thousand people showed up; addressing the crowd, Zemmour thanked the “nearly fifteen thousand French people who braved the politically correct, the threats of the far left, and the hatred of the media” to be there. He wasn’t done bashing the press: at one point, he described journalists as being part of a system that “wants to steal democracy from you”; at another, he declared that “my adversaries want me politically dead, journalists want me socially dead, and jihadists want me dead, period.” He also repeated extreme anti-immigrant rhetoric and unveiled a name for his political movement: Reconquête, or “Reconquest.” (The Spanish word Reconquista recalls the historical period when Christian armies fought to drive Muslim rulers out of modern-day Spain and Portugal.) Zemmour pledged to work “tirelessly” to rid France of foreign ideologies that have only survived thanks to “public money and militant journalists.”

As I’ve written before in this newsletter, Eric Zemmour is a journalist, and a militant one at that: he began his career as a political reporter before becoming a pundit, writing a column for the conservative-leaning newspaper Le Figaro and appearing regularly on radio and TV, most recently via a nightly show on the increasingly right-wing network CNews, whose ratings he helped to juice. (Zemmour’s punditry has earned him two convictions for hate speech against Black people, Muslims, and immigrants. One of his convictions was recently overturned on appeal; a third case has yet to be resolved.) He first started flirting with a presidential campaign a few months ago in what initially struck many observers as publicity-seeking for a new book; he tried to hold down his gig at CNews, but in September, he stepped back after a regulator ruled that he was behaving like a candidate and should thus be subject to the fairness rules that govern French election broadcasting. As he kept other journalists guessing about his intentions, he continued to bash them. In October, he pledged to take back power from the media; a few days later, while visiting a trade show, he picked up a sniper rifle and aimed it at a group of reporters, telling them to “get back.” (He claimed this was a joke—“If you don’t know the difference between humor and being serious then you’re an imbecile,” he told a reporter—but his political opponents didn’t see the funny side.) Last Tuesday, Zemmour finally made his campaign official in a video that used footage from various movies and news channels without asking their permission first. (At least one network threatened legal action.)

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The French media has responded to these and other provocations by granting Zemmour a disproportionate amount of coverage as the presidential race has started to heat up; according to one analysis, in September alone he scored sixteen slots across prime-time TV and print front pages and was mentioned by the media more than four thousand times. (The election will take place across two rounds in April; current polling suggests that Zemmour won’t make the second round, but it’s still early and he isn’t far off.) He has supplied reporters and commentators with an endless stream of controversies and scandals to chew on: last week alone, news cameras snapped him giving a voter the middle finger, and Closer, a gossip magazine, reported that a senior campaign aide is pregnant with Zemmour’s child. (Zemmour pledged to sue Closer.) The voluminous coverage has led a number of French journalists to question whether it’s all too much. “I can’t believe what I am hearing at our editorial meetings,” a journalist at a left-wing newspaper in Paris told Politico. “We do what the left does every time, pushing up the far right.” Over the weekend, Julia Cagé, an economist and media expert, made the case that Zemmour has been great for the business model of TV news, attracting viewers and generating viral clips at a low financial cost. Staffers at some networks have reportedly raised concerns internally about the volume of their Zemmour coverage.

If you think that this sounds a bit like the debate around coverage of Donald Trump’s US presidential campaign in 2016, you aren’t the only one. Numerous journalists and media-watchers, within France and without, have recently attested to an uncomfortable sense of déjà vu: an adviser to the former French president François Hollande told Politico that, by flooding the news cycle with outrageous statements, Zemmour has “checkmated the media, just like Trump”; Yasmeen Serhan, a writer at The Atlantic, warned that “by over-indexing on a single candidate, French journalists look doomed to repeat the mistakes of their counterparts on the other side of the Atlantic.” Just as the coverage of Zemmour has been compared to the coverage of Trump, Zemmour has himself been compared to Trump the man, which has driven even more coverage of his candidacy—not least in US media, which has recently generated more than its fair share of “French Trump” profiles and thinkpieces. Zemmour has courted such comparisons, sometimes explicitly. And so the hellish content cycle churns on.

I generally find “Trump of [insert foreign country]” comparisons to be facile and annoying, and there is, indeed, much that is different about Zemmour and Trump, both substantively and aesthetically. (As one French sociologist pointed out recently, Zemmour has worked to establish a veneer of intellectual credibility. His campaign-launch video shows him reading from a stack of papers in front of a library of musty-looking leather-bound books; it’s not hard to imagine Trump calling this bad TV.) The US and French electoral systems differ, too, with the latter’s two-round structure making anti-establishment upsets harder to pull off; as the French media historian Alexis Lévrier recently noted, Zemmour’s ubiquitous media strategy will require ever-more inflammatory rhetoric that will limit his ability to build the type of broad coalition the French system demands. Still, whatever happens to Zemmour’s candidacy, he has already succeeded at framing the media agenda around his extreme views. And there is, ultimately, a similarity of media dynamics here. Zemmour seems to have embraced Trump’s instinct that all publicity is good publicity, and it seems to be working for him, too, at least in terms of courting more coverage than his rivals. Observing Zemmour’s campaign launch last week was “like watching a train wreck in slow motion,” Politico’s Clea Caulcutt wrote on Friday, but “people are paying attention, even if it’s just to gawk.” (One Zemmour aide told Caulcutt that even train wrecks can help build a narrative: “the hero needs to overcome tribulations” to keep the media interested.)

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Once the press has started to lavish attention on an extreme politician, it can be hard to stop: as Serhan notes, “to dedicate too much time and space to Zemmour would be to give him the clout that he no doubt craves, and signal to audiences that he is more deserving of their attention than other potential candidates,” but for the press to ignore him—especially having already validated him as a big story—would “be to risk falling short of its journalistic duty to report on and scrutinize a viable contender for the French presidency,” not to mention the broader appeal of his odious ideas. Not that scrutiny will necessarily dent Zemmour: as we saw with Trump, he can simply use it to bolster his anti-establishment and press-bashing credentials. “What I would say to the French is, as soon as you see that happening, where the very criticism that you try to level against this candidate gets incorporated into his pitch, you are in the danger zone and you’ve got to reconsider your practices,” Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, told Serhan. The attention horse may have bolted with Zemmour, as with Trump, though in both cases, it’s not too late for media practices to change.

Not that change will keep French journalists out of the danger zone—they’re already in one, including in a physical sense. Last month, journalists at nearly forty French outlets called on politicians to act on rising anti-media threats emanating from the far right, noting, among other warning signs, that Zemmour’s team blocked a regional newspaper from covering a campaign meeting in retaliation for its coverage of a prior event. According to journalists present (more than four hundred of whom were reportedly accredited for the event), attendees at yesterday’s Zemmour rally grew increasingly hostile toward the media, booing journalists in general and verbally abusing specific reporters—part of a broader atmosphere of violence that saw Zemmour supporters throw punches and chairs at anti-racism protesters, and one attendee grab Zemmour himself by the neck. At one point, a group of attendees started chanting that a crew from Quotidien, a French TV show, were “collaborators”; security spirited the journalists away as a precaution. (They later reentered the venue.) Zemmour had taken aim at Quotidien in his campaign launch video. Some parallels between him and Trump seem self-evident.

Below, more on Eric Zemmour and the French presidential election:

  • Another Trump parallel: Bloomberg’s Daniel Zuidijk recently explored the “online ecosystem” that has exploded around Zemmour, which “works much the same way as the coalition of interests on social media that cheered” Trump in the runup to the 2016 US election. The ownership of many groups and pages supporting Zemmour remains unclear, Zuidijk wrote. “At least one example seen by Bloomberg has connections to white supremacy. Posts in the group, which is not being named here to avoid promoting the site, was started by a page with links to a website against inter-racial marriage.”
  • Old acquaintances: In October, Le Monde’s Guillemette Faure spoke with members of “a new category of journalist”: those who worked with Zemmour prior to his political rise, and had recently been tapped as sources for the rash of media coverage about his candidacy. “He’s never managed a team, let alone himself,” one said; “I already didn’t like him as a journalist,” another added, “so in politics…” One journalist said that they were invited on TV for a segment comparing Zemmour and Trump. “I refused,” they said.
  • Counterprogramming: In scheduling his first official rally for yesterday, Zemmour stole the media thunder of Valérie Pécresse, who leads the region around Paris and was selected on Saturday to be the presidential candidate for Les Républicains, France’s establishment right-wing party. Pécresse beat out Éric Ciotti, a French lawmaker who is to her right politically. Zemmour—whose outsized media footprint helped set the agenda around the party’s candidate selection process—has described Ciotti as his “friend” and called on disaffected Républicain supporters to support his campaign.
  • A change of messenger: Last week, the campaign of Yannick Jadot, a green presidential candidate, forced out Matthieu Orphelin, its spokesperson, over his past ties to Nicolas Hulot, a former TV host turned government minister who was accused, in a recent TV documentary, of raping and otherwise sexually abusing four women. (Hulot, who was first publicly accused of rape in 2018, has denied wrongdoing and said he is retiring from public life.) Delphine Batho, a French lawmaker who also formerly served as a minister, will replace Orphelin as spokesperson for Jadot’s campaign.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.