TravelGuides – When a far-right candidate has ‘le buzz’, France shouldn’t take young people for granted | Oliver Haynes

TravelGuides – When a far-right candidate has ‘le buzz’, France shouldn’t take young people for granted | Oliver Haynes

In early 2019 I was teaching French sixth formers on an Erasmus placement when we got into a discussion about immigration. Some girls spoke admiringly of women on the centre-right, some boys were liberal left, though suspicious of the excesses of internet social justice politics, while others might be dismissed as “woke”.

They all rolled their eyes when I asked them what they thought of Éric Zemmour, the smirking far-right polemicist running for president. My students thought he was racist and wrote him off as a crank. They hated Marine Le Pen of the far-right Rassemblement National (National Rally) but took her seriously. You had to accept that she was part of the political furniture, but this guy was beyond the pale. He had, after all, been convicted of hate speech.

Yet even then he was depressingly mainstream, writing bestsellers containing Vichy apologia and hate-filled screeds against feminism and homosexuality. He had a column at Le Figaro where he penned conspiratorial pieces arguing that Christianity had made France but Islam was trying to break it. Recently, Zemmour has become a semi-permanent TV fixture. A murky infrastructure of donors and online shock troops supporting him has emerged, and he tours France meeting fans.

Zemmour’s politics are horribly nihilistic. His ideas are straight from extremist Renaud Camus’ “great replacement” theory of a concerted demographic annihilation of white Europeans by immigration. Although his new book, La France n’a pas dit son dernier mot (France Has Not Spoken Its Last Word), is tinged marginally with optimism, his conclusion about the supposed renaissance ignores living standards and lapses into a war cry against foreigners and those who dare object to police brutality.

He is frequently compared to Donald Trump, though politically Zemmour is a different beast. He is, in his own words, engaged in a Gramscian struggle over culture. His strategy seems more considered than Trump’s spasmodic demagoguery.

Polls for the presidential election have shown Zemmour at 15% and 17%, placing him ahead of Le Pen and the likely candidates for Les Républicains, the formerly dominant centre-right party that collapsed because of President Emmanuel Macron’s rise and successive corruption scandals involving its leaders. One November poll even showed him in the second round facing Macron, whose frontrunner status appears solid. However, with increased scrutiny in the immediate run-up to announcing his candidacy, his campaign has begun to flag, and he has fallen behind Le Pen. So whether this is a real phenomenon or a media-driven fad is not clear, but the fact that this extremist is able to cast himself as central protagonist of the political spectacle during a pandemic, while prices are sharply rising, reveals a political and media class with no vision.

Aurélien Mondon, a researcher of the far right at the University of Bath, told me that he didn’t “buy for a second that it’s actually what the people want … If they had more choice and different sources of mediation and political knowledge, that’s not what they’d go for.”

He described his latest research into opinion polling, which found that when you ask people to name the most pressing issues facing their society, immigration ranks highly, but when you ask about the biggest issues affecting their lives, immigration doesn’t factor. Instead, people talk about jobs, pensions or healthcare.

Mondon says this is because people can answer truthfully about their own lives, but they can’t speak for all their fellow citizens so they rely on mediated political knowledge, and the broadcasters providing that knowledge have given up. He says they talk about little else beyond “Islam, Islam, Islam”.

It is often taken for granted that young people are leftwing, and mostly they are. The leftwing populist Jean-Luc Mélenchon received the most votes at the 2017 election among 18– to 24-year-olds and it’s likely that the majority who abstained hold liberal views, like the students in both the poorer and richer lycées where I taught. But it wasn’t a liberal centrist or mainstream conservative that came second among the young, it was Le Pen.

There are echoes of that cycle again. In the recent regional elections 87% of young voters abstained, preferring protest movements to formal politics, but online Zemmour has “le buzz”. It’s important not to overstate things: although growing, the youth movement around Zemmour is tiny. But whether it’s Génération Nation (National Rally’s youth wing) or Génération Zemmour, the online community where predominately young, male users share links to France’s burgeoning fascist YouTube scene and debate Zemmour’s theories, the fact that these ideas are finding any traction with young people should shame politicians.

Éric Zemmour
Éric Zemmour. Photograph: Denis Thaust/SOPA Images/REX/Shutterstock

This embrace of nihilism, even if it sticks at 20% for Le Pen or splits towards Zemmour, and the abstention rate, suggest a generation has been created that is deeply political (as any of my French friends who teach will tell you) but sees no hopeful vision for France.

Out of electoral opportunism the right is converging around Zemmourian politics. The Macronists have been at it for a while; with the interior minister Gerald Darmanin’s debates with Le Pen and Zemmour revealing a startling amount of common ground between the trio, and the higher education minister Frédérique Vidal’s witch-hunt against so-called “Islamo-leftists” in universities.

Les Républicains, perpetually terrified by the fragility of their base, are busy proclaiming that Zemmour is not racist. Their presidential hopefuls are setting out a remarkably similar stall. They seem to have no ideas beyond calculating how to absorb the far right for electoral gain. Meanwhile, the laughing stock that is the French left offers platitudes, or where there is a concrete programme, as in Mélenchon’s case, there is no strategy for overcoming the left’s divisions.

The controversial French conservative author Michel Houellebecq’s 2015 novel Submission, in which the 2022 election is won by a Muslim Brotherhood candidate and France becomes a moderate caliphate, captures the tone of French electoral politics well. I disagree, but many took the book at face value as an endorsement of the “great replacement” theory. Submission reflects France’s anxieties; it satirises an overwhelming preoccupation among the elite with Islam and the stifling of any vision beyond decline. Mélenchon also appears in the narrative. He stands in for the left, organising a protest that does nothing.

Prices are rising, the pandemic rages, students are queueing at food banks, yet politicians and broadcasters just want to talk about Islam, immigration and Éric Zemmour.

  • Oliver Haynes, a student from City of London University, was highly commended in the Guardian Foundation’s Hugo Young award for political opinion writing 2021, for this piece

TravelGuides – When a far-right candidate has ‘le buzz’, France shouldn’t take young people for granted | Oliver Haynes

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