HE is perhaps France’s best-known professional provocateur,writes Scott Sayare,
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 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.
…“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.
…Mr. Zemmour shrugged off [the stance] 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.”