In 2015, when Geoffroy Lejeune was a twenty-seven-year-old political writer at Valeurs Actuelles, a hard-right French magazine, he wrote a novel imagining the successful French presidential campaign of an unlikely candidate: Eric Zemmour, a (very real) far-right journalist. Promoting the book, Lejeune insisted that although the novel was fictional, its premise was “plausible.” If Zemmour ran, Lejeune said, “it wouldn’t be a fiasco.” Last year, life imitated art. Zemmour, convicted several times of hate speech against Muslims and migrants, ran for president. His campaign attracted enormous media interest, not least from Valeurs Actuelles, now led by Lejeune; Zemmour was on the cover seven times. Unlike in Lejeune’s novel, however, Zemmour did not win. He finished fourth, with 7 percent of the vote—not a fiasco for a political outsider, but a weaker showing than the early hype prefigured.
Fast-forward a year. Lejeune appears to be on his way out as editor in chief of Valeurs Actuelles, with his coverage of Zemmour reportedly to blame, at least in part. Alexis Lévrier, a French media-watcher and historian, told me that Lejeune is seen as so connected to Zemmour that Zemmour’s defeat has “ricocheted” onto Lejeune. According to Le Monde, Lejeune was suspended following a confrontation with Jean-Louis Valentin—a former local official from the traditional center-right Republican party, who was recently appointed to lead the parent company of Valeurs Actuelles. When Valentin showed up to an editorial meeting, Lejeune reportedly shouted words along the lines of “This is my newsroom—you have no business here. Get out!” The blow-up came amid broader tensions between Lejeune and the owners of Valeurs Actuelles—led by Iskandar Safa, a Franco-Lebanese naval-construction magnate—who reportedly believe that Lejeune has dragged the publication too far right and too close to Zemmour in particular. Valentin was brought in to reverse that shift. (Lejeune was scheduled to meet yesterday with bosses to start a process that, per Le Monde, is expected to lead to his departure. Neither he nor Valeurs Actuelles returned my requests for comment.)
French media-watchers, including those I spoke to, suspect that management’s turn against Lejeune derives not from any principled political stand but from financial considerations. Since the publication’s focus turned to Zemmour’s campaign, sales have fallen. Whatever the motivations, the situation points to an interesting dynamic on the French far right, which has grown dramatically in influence and popularity; Zemmour may have flopped in last year’s election, but his rival Marine Le Pen made the runoff and scored more than 40 percent of the vote. In some ways, the drama at Valeurs Actuelles illuminates factional sparring: leading voices at Valeurs Actuelles have long accused Le Pen of moving too far left on the economy (Zemmour is a fiscal conservative); Lejeune, for his part, is personally close to Marion Maréchal, Le Pen’s niece, who broke with her aunt and backed Zemmour last year. (Lejeune has denied that their friendship influenced his coverage.) More importantly, the drama underscores just how successful these different factions have been at planting shared culture-war ideas in the press—not just in right-leaning outlets, but in mainstream ones, too.
Valeurs Actuelles was founded in 1966 as a magazine of the conservative right. It positioned itself as part of the mainstream, though it dallied with extremes. Lucien Rebatet—a virulent anti-Semite who received the death penalty for collaborating with Nazis during World War II, then had his sentence commuted—wrote film reviews under a pseudonym in the magazine’s early years. A decade ago, the magazine started running incendiary covers: One referred to the country’s Roma population as an “overdose.” Another depicted Marianne, a character who personifies the French republic, wearing a Muslim veil. Both covers earned the magazine convictions for inciting hatred. As Valeurs Actuelles grew in notoriety, it also grew in popularity, steering and riding a right-wing backlash to the Socialist government of François Hollande.
Yves de Kerdrel, the editor during that period, was, oddly enough, close to Emmanuel Macron, who was a centrist minister under Hollande. In the second half of the 2010s, de Kerdrel left, and Valeurs Actuelles was taken over by a new generation of committed right-wing reactionaries, including Lejeune. In a 2020 headline, Le Monde described them as “young wolves.” Ostensibly, they were brought in to tone down the vitriol, but the magazine continued to splash hard-right tropes, not least in a cover describing George Soros as “the billionaire who is conspiring against France.” In 2020, Valeurs Actuelles ran an illustration depicting Danièle Obono, a left-wing lawmaker who was born in Gabon, as a slave with an iron chain around her neck. Afterward, editors acknowledged that they had gone too far but maintained that the drawing was not racist, claiming that their intention had been to criticize Obono and other “indigenists” for ignoring African complicity in the slave trade. French courts disagreed, ruling that the magazine had committed “public injury of a racist nature.”
During the same years, mainstream political figures increasingly engaged with Valeurs Actuelles. Whereas, during the Hollande era, officials were routinely mocked on the magazine’s covers—one referred to Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, an education minister, as “the Ayatollah”—once Macron became president, some of his ministers posed willingly. At one point, Macron invited Valeurs Actuelles journalists to an event conferring the Légion d’honneur onto Michel Houellebecq, a French author who has been accused of racism, misogyny, and Islamophobia. Later, Macron sat for an interview with Louis de Raguenel, a reporter at the magazine, and expounded at uncommon length on Islam and immigration. Macron, accused of sanitizing a far-right publication, told critics that he was merely trying to meet voters where they are. Maybe so, but as commentators also pointed out, in picking Valeurs Actuelles over more traditional-right newspapers and magazines, Macron signaled that he sees the far-right camp as his primary adversary.
While mainstream politicians engaged with Valeurs Actuelles, so did mainstream news organizations. In 2020, Europe 1, a radio station, named de Raguenel as the head of its political service; his appointment was met with a staff revolt over his affiliations and lack of experience. Lejeune and other leading figures at Valeurs Actuelles became fixtures on radio and TV talk shows. LCI, a TV news channel, severed its ties with Lejeune following the Obono scandal—“We make television built on respectful debate,” the channel’s CEO said, “not opinion TV”—but he continued to appear regularly elsewhere, not least on CNews, a network that has been called the French Fox.
Even as major French outlets have heaped attention on Valeurs Actuelles, they have often struggled to pinpoint its ideological position. Jean-Yves Camus, a prominent expert on the far right, told me that he wouldn’t apply the label “far right” (“extrême droite”) to Valeurs Actuelles; the magazine’s mission, he said, is to unite different rightward factions, from the center-right through Le Pen’s party to Zemmour. In moving to oust Lejeune, the owners of Valeurs Actuelles are reportedly hoping to return to that role—the latest in a series of efforts to broaden the magazine’s political and commercial appeal. (They were reportedly close to sacking Lejeune last year, only for Lejeune to rally the newsroom, and the magazine’s readers, around him—the latter via an online appeal claiming that the publication was under attack from the left.)
It must be noted, though, that in recent years the entire French right has moved in a radical direction. The traditional center-right has effectively been sidelined, or co-opted by Macron, and even relatively moderate conservatives now hew to culture-war talking points on Islam, identity, and immigration. Zemmour may have lost—and Lejeune may be looking for a job—but they have undoubtedly succeeded in changing the terms of the debate.
Even without Lejeune, Valeurs Actuelles is unlikely to stop hammering far-right themes. Zemmour and his ilk “have won a media battle,” Lévrier told me. “They have succeeded in imposing a far-right vocabulary and imaginary. And that victory is total.”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.