LAST WEEK, THE killer of 85-year-old Mireille Knoll was sentenced by a French court to 22 years without parole. The courtroom was told that the assault in March 2018 on this aged Jewish woman started out as a petty robbery but was transformed into a frenzied attack — and that this was fuelled by “a broader context of anti-Semitism” and prejudices about “rich Jews”.
As a young girl, Knoll had managed to survive the Nazi occupation, the lethal acquiescence of the regime of Marshal Pétain in it – and its role in rounding up Jews for deportation in July 1942.
In 1995, President Jacques Chirac gave a speech at the Velodrome d’Hiver — the assembly point of the arrested Jews — and stated that the French state accepted responsibility for what had happened.
Chirac said: “France, land of the Enlightenment and of Human Rights, land of hospitality and asylum, France, on that day, committed an irreparable act. It failed to keep its word and delivered those under its protection to their executioners.”
A total of 64 trains left for Auschwitz; 76,000 Jews never returned.
Yet Éric Zemmour, who is campaigning for the French presidency on an ultra-nationalist ticket, argued in his book Le Suicide Française (2014) that Pétain protected Jews with French citizenship from deportation.
Zemmour’s approach is reminiscent of the attempt to induce a historical amnesia during the post-war years in France. It was only when Marcel Ophuls’ film, The Sorrow and the Pity (1969), and the publication of Vichy France (1973) by the American academic, Robert Paxton, that young people, born since 1945, began to seriously look at French collaboration with the Nazis.
They discovered that French civil servants acquiesced in carrying out the “Statut des Juifs”, the French police were complicit in rounding up Jews for “transport to the East” – and the French Catholic bishops, with rare exceptions, remained silent.
The antisemitism of Vichy was indigenous to France.
Zemmour’s rewriting of recent French history is all the more remarkable since he is Jewish — more an incidental Jewish Frenchman than a French Jew by self-definition.
He does not believe that Jews should wear a kippa in public because it imposes a religious identification on others. He does not believe in legal provisions for shechita to provide kosher meat. He lauds conservative Catholicism in France, quotes pre-war nationalist antisemites, Édouard Drumont, Maurice Barrès and Charles Maurras — and believes that Alfred Dreyfus was targeted for being “German” and not Jewish.
Pope Francis is castigated for his moderation and for “selling off Christianity”. For the far right in France, he is “our sort of Jew” — someone opposed to mass immigration and an unspoken “Jewish influence”.
To use Lenin’s phrase, Zemmour is “a useful idiot” who provides cover for the far right to make a strategic use of a proclaimed philosemitism. As the former leader of the Front Nationale, Jean-Marie Le Pen commented: “the only difference between Éric and me is that he is Jewish and it is difficult to label him. He therefore has more space to manouevre”.
Le Pen is known for his comments on the Shoah and that “the gas chambers were just a detail in the history of World War II”.
Others on the far right cannot quite believe that a Jew could be such a French uber-nationalist — someone who looks to Napoléon and Chateaubriand for inspiration and treats Philippe Pétain with political kid gloves. Conspiracy theorists see him as a Jewish trojan horse who has positioned himself to carry out the wishes of international Jewry.
Two of Zemmour’s aides, Jonathan Nadler and Julien Madar, both worked for short terms at Rothschilds Bank, which further fuels such paranoia about Zemmour and a belief in a clandestine Jewish conspiracy.
De Gaulle is invoked as a patriotic model for Zemmour, a courageous leader of the Free French during wartime. But he is also remembered by the far right for his comment after the Six Day war that the Jews are “what they have always been down the ages, an elite people, sure of itself and domineering”.
Yet Zemmour is an admirer of Renaud Camus, the author of Le Grand Replacement in which he argued that the French are systematically being replaced by foreigners with no roots in the country — “a genocide by substitution”. Since Camus published this book in 2011, the replacement theory has been taken up by white supremacists the world over and used as a rationale for numerous attacks, including the killings at the synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018.
In Charlottesville, the year before, young men, bearing torches, marched and chanted “Jews will not replace us!” The US academic and writer, Mark Lilla, described Camus as “a kind of connective tissue between the far right and the respectable right”.
In his latest book, Zemmour writes: “No small town, no small village in France is safe from a savage squad of Chechen, Kosovar, Maghrebi or African gangs who steal rape, pillage, torture or kill”. In the years before the Nazi victory in 1940, Maurice Barrès had similarly argued that “a new population (of Jews) will take over in France”.
Significantly Zemmour has named his movement ‘Reconquête’ — and this cannot but invoke images of the reconquest of Muslim Spain by the forces of Catholicism. Yet Zemmour would have been expelled by Fedinand and Isabella in 1492 because he is a Jew.
Zemmour is a Jew who embraces neither Jewish particularism nor Jewish universalism, but instead adopts an indifferent assimilationism similar to those many Rome Jews who embraced Mussolini’s fascism in the early 1920s — and long before Italy’s descent into antisemitic legislation.
Zemmour has said that he identifies with the Compte de Clermont-Tonnerre’s comment to the revolutionary Constituent Assembly in 1789: “To the Jews as individuals, everything. To the Jews as a nation, nothing”. Zemmour argues therefore that the Jewish victims of the Islamist, Mohamed Merah, murdered a decade ago in Toulouse, should have been buried in France and not in Israel.
There are two concerning conclusions which emerge from the presidential candidacy of Éric Zemmour. The first is that it allows those Jews without a sense of history to embrace the far right. The Kahanist Jewish Defence League in France has spelled out its agreement with Zemmour’s stand on immigration.
Moreover, Zemmour has been famously described as “the French Trump”. Both never stood previously for office, but made their political names through the media. Both bend history to suite their agenda and are provocative and divisive figures.
And as with Trump, a growing number of Jews believe that they have finally found their political champion and have nothing to fear from the far right.
Secondly, Zemmour has sanitised antisemitic innuendo in France — that negative comments about Jews are no more than an opinion and not a crime.
According to the most recent polls, the presidential candidates, Valérie Pécresse, Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour are all within a few percentage points of each other. It is therefore not improbable that Zemmour could enter the second round against Macron in April 2022 as the candidate of a united right wing.
One wonders what Mireille Knoll and her generation of French Jews would have made of all this — the inversion of values, the denigration of rationality and the cynical selectivity in the retelling of those terrible events in occupied France so long ago.
Plus61j 14 December 2021