The Saturday Profile

French Provocateur Enters Battle Over Comments

“When you describe reality, you’re treated as a criminal.”<br> ÉRIC ZEMMOUR
Credit...Ed Alcock for The New York Times


HE is perhaps France’s best-known professional provocateur, as much adored by the xenophobes of the far-right as he is reviled by immigrants, women and gays. But Éric Zemmour might also be misunderstood by his allies and enemies alike, a sort of hopeless intellectual whose nuance is lost in the sensationalist jumble of the media world he inhabits.

A slight man with a quick tongue and a fearsome intellect, Mr. Zemmour, 52, has made a career of speaking on the edge in a culture where the ideal of social harmony often takes precedence over freedom of speech. He can be heard daily on French radio, read weekly in the news media and seen all over television; he is routinely accused of racism, sexism, homophobia, fear-mongering and narcissism, or some combination thereof.

“I’m reviving the ‘French polemic’ in a world that’s on the one hand Americanized, and on the other, that people want to see sterilized by antiracism, by political correctness,” Mr. Zemmour said over coffee at the back of a dark Paris cafe. “That it is to say, where you’re not allowed to say anything bad about minorities.”

In comments that his critics have parsed and denounced and parsed again, he has spoken of a “white race” and a “black race,” decried what he sees as the feminization of society and called homosexuality a social disorder. Last month, though, his pronouncements for the first time brought him before a court, on charges of defamation and “provocation to racial discrimination.”In a televised debate last March he argued that blacks and Arabs were the targets of illegal racial profiling by the French police “because the majority of traffickers are black and Arab; that’s how it is, it’s a fact.” The same day, on another channel, he suggested that French employers “have the right” to deny employment to blacks or Arabs.

The comments surely do not rank among his most incendiary, and, however uncomfortable, the first point might well be true. Even the rights groups that brought the case acknowledge that France’s poor, immigrant populations account for a disproportionate amount of crime, if not a clear “majority,” in a country that does not keep official racial statistics.

MUCH to Mr. Zemmour’s delight, his three-day trial in January drew droves of supporters, including several prominent politicians, along with hordes of critics and a crush of reporters and photographers. His comments had already fueled months of controversy and hand-wringing; he was nearly fired from his post as an editorial writer at Le Figaro Magazine, and Canal+, the television station that broadcast his statement on traffickers, received a warning from the French audiovisual authority.

The intense reaction to Mr. Zemmour’s case — and more broadly, to Mr. Zemmour himself — seems a measure of the tensions in France around race, Islam and integration. And it speaks to the difficulty of discussing those issues in a nation that is committed constitutionally to treat every person simply as a “citizen,” with no acknowledgment of ethnicity, color or religion.

“When you describe reality,” Mr. Zemmour said at his trial, “you’re treated as a criminal.”

His critics say it is less a question of pronouncing realities than how they are pronounced.

“If he had said that there is an ‘overrepresentation of the immigrant population,’ there wouldn’t have been a trial,” said Alain Jakubowicz, a lawyer who heads one of the rights groups that brought suit. “There are the words that are said, and the words that are received, the words that are understood by listeners.”

“He has rights, of course, but he also has responsibilities,” Mr. Jakubowicz added.

From a young age, Mr. Zemmour said, he dreamed of becoming a “journalist-writer-intellectual” in the style of Voltaire, Émile Zola or François Mauriac and other outspoken, sometime-radicals like them. The ambitious son of Jewish Berbers who emigrated from French Algeria in the 1950s, Mr. Zemmour was raised near Paris and attended the elite Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris, known as Sciences Po. Later, after being twice denied admission to the even more rarefied precincts of the École Nationale d’Administration, which feeds the highest echelons of French power, he became a journalist, covering politics, and joined the newspaper Le Figaro in 1996.

Mr. Zemmour is a busy man. Beyond his books and novels, and the ceaseless interviews he gives, he presents a daily editorial on RTL, France’s most popular national radio station; co-hosts a debate program on news channel i>TELE; writes his weekly editorial for Le Figaro Magazine; and appears on a three-and-a-half hour talk show on Saturday nights on France 2, a state-owned television station.

PARADOXICALLY, Mr. Zemmour often exercises his right to free speech to endorse stricter limits on similar freedoms. He advocates a return to authorizing only Christian first names for children born in France, a restriction lifted in 1993; his ancestors in Algeria had adopted French names, he noted. And he hailed the ban on the public wearing of the full facial veil as a way “to oblige people to become authentically French.”

“The state needs to do its job, which it’s always done, of imposing constraints,” he said. “For me, France is the ban on the veil.”

He says that his views are those of a silent majority, French people who seek the return of the resplendent France of de Gaulle, a proud, imagined France unencumbered by the guilt of the post-colonial era. Efforts to integrate the country’s immigrant populations have plainly failed, he said, and the country ought to revert to the “assimilationist” approach he says it abandoned decades ago.

“We believe that we have the best way of life in the world, the best culture, and that one must thus make an effort to acquire this culture,” he said. By contrast, he said, the notion of a country made great by the diversity of its people and values “is an American logic.”

Asked why he believes in the superiority of the French model, he said only that “there is a singular art of living” in France.

“For me, France is civilization with a capital ‘C,’ ” he added.

The groups that have taken him to court have been urging an American social vision, he said. Yet, he added, they are not also willing to endorse American standards of free speech, and they oppose the taking of American-style ethnic statistics.

“I’m taking — because they forced it on me — the American model, and I’m throwing the American model back in their face,” Mr. Zemmour said. “But in the name of French tradition.”

It is a delicate distinction, one even his friends worry might well be lost on most people.

“He’s a very naïve guy,” said Éric Naulleau, a co-participant on the show on France 2, on a broadcast last year. “He has yet to understand the rules of the screen, Zemmour. He thinks he’s in a book where you can explain things, where you can step back.”

Like Mr. Zemmour, Yazid Sabeg, the government’s commissioner for diversity and equal opportunity, has been a prominent voice on France’s integration problems. An Algerian-born businessman, he is also the country’s foremost advocate for the legalization of ethnic statistics. But he denounced Mr. Zemmour’s statements about traffickers as inaccurate and calculated “to spread hate,” and he said he hoped to see him convicted.

“I’m for saying everything,” Mr. Sabeg said. “But not nonsense like this.”

Mr. Zemmour shrugged off Mr. Sabeg’s stance, and that of the plaintiffs in his case, as an absurd logical contortion. “They want the American model without the drawbacks of the American model, and that’s not possible,” he said.

“Maybe I’ll be convicted,” Mr. Zemmour said, with some satisfaction. “But they’ll never untangle themselves from their contradictions.”

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