By Gerard Leval
In its Dec. 16 editorial “A French shande,” Washington Jewish Week launched a full-frontal attack on Eric Zemmour, a right-of-center journalist who has chosen to declare his candidacy for the French presidency and has a very considerable following. Without in any manner wishing to express support or opposition for Zemmour’s candidacy, I feel compelled to try to provide a more objective analysis of Zemmour’s positions and declarations.
It is true that to Americans, including American Jews, who may be paying attention to Zemmour’s candidacy, he sounds somewhat like Donald Trump. As a consequence, the strong emotions that have always been associated with the former president inevitably seep into views of Zemmour. This is misplaced. France is not the United States. Eric Zemmour is not Donald Trump. And French Jews are not American Jews.
WJW characterizes Zemmour as an “ultranationalist.” In point of fact, the prefix “ultra” is both inappropriate and prejudicial. Zemmour is a self-avowed nationalist. He is enamored of French history and culture. He is strikingly intelligent and well-spoken, articulating his positions in an elegant French that reflects his extensive familiarity with French literature and his respect for it. He is intent on preserving the aspirational values that have epitomized France since the French Revolution and which brought to French Jews the first semblance of legal equality in any Western nation (even before such equality was generally afforded to Jews living in the United States).
France is not a heterogeneous nation like the United States. It is a nation that over the years has welcomed immigrants (including many Eastern European and North African Jewish immigrants), but has required that they assimilate and, in the public square, take on the attributes of people who have lived in France for generations. One can disagree with this approach to taking in immigrants, but that approach is not immoral and it is not a “shande” (a shameful act or an embarrassment). Indeed, the so-called melting pot model which, for generations, was supposed to characterize the American experiment with immigration, but is now denigrated, has overtones of this theory.
Eric Zemmour believes in the traditional French model for immigrants, namely that those who have chosen to reside in France should become profoundly French. He opposes those immigrants who refuse to assimilate into French society and believes that in order to permit assimilation of those recent immigrants now in France, the pace of immigration must be slowed considerably. He also favors the removal of immigrants who have arrived illegally or engaged in criminal behavior. One can disagree with that policy, but, once again, it is hardly immoral to advocate for it.
WJW then suggests that Zemmour’s “ultranationalist” and “anti-immigrant” ideology has led him into “historical revisionism.” In particular, the editorial has focused (as has France’s left-wing press) on Zemmour’s claim that France’s wartime collaborationist Vichy regime saved Jews. It suggests that “he praised the Nazi collaborationist” government, permitting the editorialists to label Zemmour “pro-fascist.” This is inaccurate. Zemmour, as an intellectual journalist, has sought to remind his readers that history is very complex and that there are shades of evil (although he does not mince words when it comes to characterizing Nazi evil).
He notes accurately that some Jews were, in fact, saved by the collaborationist Vichy government in a pact with the devil (the Nazis).
I am in a particularly good position to know that Zemmour is right because members of my family were among the beneficiaries of the morally reprehensible policies of Vichy. My mother’s family had lived in France for several hundred years when the Germans occupied France and my grandfather was a highly decorated veteran of World War I. Those attributes meant that, in the early years of the occupation, under the legislation aimed at Jews, they would be exempt from the various restrictions targeting Jews.
There is no question that this was a profoundly unfair and immoral policy. Zemmour agrees. But in the interests of understanding history, even the vilest history, it is not a “shande” for him to raise this subject. It may, however, be unwise and even insensitive to the point of being disturbing. But then Zemmour has never been afraid to take on unpopular and complex subjects, even when it is to his detriment. Today, some of those subjects have projected him into a competitive position in the forthcoming French presidential elections.
Although WJW may consider Zemmour to be a “French shande,” this is not the judgment of many French Jews. True, the leaders of the official French Jewish community and Jewish intellectuals see Zemmour as a threat, but they do so from the comfort of their elegant neighborhoods in Paris and its western suburbs. However, for the less affluent Jews living near and sometimes even side-by-side with immigrants who are frequently virulently antisemitic, he appears to be less a “shande” than a potential protector. That aspect of Zemmour also deserves consideration.
WJW demonstrated that, in an age of political correctness, it is prepared to join in condemning a person who challenges conventional notions and who does so by unflinchingly confronting difficult subjects and even painful historical issues. Perhaps most distressing is WJW’s choice to chastise Zemmour for his opinions specifically because he is “a Jew whose family immigrated to France from North Africa.” This is an actual shande.
Gerard Leval, of Washington, D.C., is a partner in a national law firm. He is the author of “Lobbying for Equality: Jacques Godard and the Struggle for Jewish Civil Rights during the French Revolution,” published by HUC Press.