France has been split down the middle by the sacking of the nation’s favourite – and at the same time most detested – hard-right, Islamophobe misogynist.
Eric Zemmour was dismissed by the 24-hour news channel i-Télé after telling – or seeming to tell – an Italian journalist that France’s estimated five million Muslims should be “deported” to avoid “chaos and civil war”.
The channel’s decision was approved by anti-racist groups and some left-wing politicians. It was lambasted by senior figures on the right of French politics – who adore Zemmour – but also by some on the left – who detest him – on the basis of his right to free speech.
With the radio station RTL also under pressure to dismiss Zemmour from his twice-weekly commentary slot, the fate of the provocative journalist and author has become the hottest issue in French politics. Zemmour, 56, a Jew of Algerian origin, could therefore be said to have disproved his own pet theory.
His book Le Suicide Français has sold 250,000 copies in the past three months. It claims that France’s core identity has been destroyed by immigration, feminism, homosexuality, Europe, free trade and excessive, unnecessary guilt about the persecution of Jews in the Second World War.
The controversy surrounding the scrapping of Zemmour’s programme on i-Télé suggests that, au contraire, France remains France.
In few other countries would the sacking of a political commentator arouse such passions. In few countries, would politicians on both sides of the left-right divide have defended Zemmour’s right to freedom of speech.
The row is also typically French in being partly semantic. In an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, Zemmour said the removal of France’s Muslim population seemed “unrealistic” but might be necessary to avoid “chaos and civil war”.
The interview went unnoticed until it was picked up and translated by the hard-left French politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon. On his blog, Mr Mélenchon said Zemmour had called for the “deportation” of all French Muslims, many of whom are second or third-generation French citizens.
In France, “deportation” carries dark overtones of the fate of hundreds of thousands of Jews and other French citizens sent to Nazi deathcamps during the war. Zemmour protested that he had never used the word.
The Italian journalist who conducted the interview pointed out that the word “deport” was in his question, as published, not in Zemmour’s reply. The word in Italian – deportare – was the normal word for “repatriate”, he said.
10 things immigration has done for Britain
10 things immigration has done for Britain
1/10 The Mini
The 1959 classic, that is, perhaps our greatest piece of industrial design, a miracle of packaging and revolution in motoring. Its genius designer was Sir Alec Issigonis, who was an asylum seeker. His family, Greek, fled Smyrna when Turks invaded this borderland in around 1920, and he wound up studying engineering at Battersea Polytechnic. He went on to create that most English of motor cars, the Morris Minor, as well as the Austin-Morris 1100, all much loved products of his fertile imagination.
2/10 Marks and Spencer
Once upon a time there was no M&S in Britain, difficult as that may be to believe. We have one Michael Marks to thank for our most famous retailer, and he was a refugee from Belarus, arriving in England in about 1882, and soon after set off to flog stuff around Yorkshire. He eventually teamed with Thomas Spencer to create the vast business we know today.
And many other TV shows created, funded and otherwise produced by that largest of larger-than-life characters, Lew Grade (also a world class tap dancer). The man who dominated commercial television gave us memorable entertainment such as The Prisoner, the Saint and brought the Muppets to Britain (a sort of fuzzy felt wave of immigration), as well as puppet shows where you could see the strings. All this from a penniless Jew from Ukraine, born Lev Winogradsky, who escaped the pogroms in Ukraine with his family in the 1890s. His nephew Michael Grade has also done his bit for British television.
4/10 The House of Windsor
Or the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha until George V prudently rebranded the family during the First World War. Well, our royals are a pretty German bunch, as well as having various types of French and other alien blue blood coursing around their veins. ‘Twas ever thus. There was William the Conqueror, Norman French, who certainly broke the immigration rules; William of Orange, a direct import from Holland; the Hanoverian King Georges, the first barely able to speak English; Queen Victoria, who married a German, Edward VII, who couldn’t stay faithful to his wife, a Danish princess; George V wed another German princess; Edward VIII married an American (though she hardly visited England and prompted his emigration and exile); and the Queen is married to man born in Corfu. The embodiment of the British nation, to many, but one thinks of them as quite multicultural really.
5/10 I Vow To Thee My Country
Our most patriotic hymn was the product of a man named Gustav Holst (pictured), born in Cheltenham, but of varied Swedish, Latvian and German ancestry, who adapted part of his suite The Planets to put a particularly stirring and beautiful poem to music, just after the Great War. As the second verse has it, “there's another country/I've heard of long ago/Most dear to them that love her/most great to them that know”. Imagine if the Holst family had been kept out because the quota on musical European types had been reached.
6/10 Curry and Cobra
Chicken Tikka Masala is, so they say, a dish which not only the most popular in Britain but specifically designed to cater for European tastes. For that we probably have to thank an Indian migrant, Sake Dean Mahomed, who came from Bengal to open the first recognisable Indian restaurant, the magnificently named “Hindoostanee Coffee House”. History does not record if a plate of poppadoms and accompanying selection of pickles and yoghurts were routinely placed on the table for new diners, but we do know that we had to wait until 1989 to taste the ideal lager for a curry - Cobra. That brew was brought to us by Karan (now Lord) Bilimoria, a Cambridge law graduate who hailed from Hyderabad.
7/10 That big red swirly sculpture at the Olympic Park
Or Orbit, to give it its proper name, the work of Anish Kapoor, who arrived in 1973 from India and had the artistic imagination to fill a power station.
8/10 The Sun
Love it or hate it, and many do both, this has been a symbol of much that is successful and a lot that is awful in British journalism since its inception in 1969. In its turn it spawned the Page 3 Girl and some nastily xenophobic headlines. All the stranger when you consider its creator was, of course, Rupert Murdoch, born 11 March 1931 in Melbourne, Australia.
OK, Karl Marx’s philosophy was not much of a gift to the world, but for a while it seemed like a good idea. Though we might not dare admit it, Marxism still has a few insights to offer to anyone wanting to understand the workings of capitalism, though too few to excuse everything that was done in its name. Born in Germany spent much time in the British museum and the British pub, buried Highgate Cemetery. Oddly, his ideas never really caught on in his adopted homeland.
10/10 The NHS
They came from many, many backgrounds, including Ireland, the Philippines, east Europe, the Indian subcontinent, and Africa, as they still do, but the contribution of the black nurses who came to the UK from the Caribbean to heal and care for is a debt of honour that must be recognised. It so sometimes forgotten that it was Enoch Powell, then Minister of Health (1960-62), who campaigned to recruit their skilled nurses to come and work over here. One abiding legacy we can thank Enoch for.
Senior figures in the Socialist-led French government nonetheless questioned whether Zemmour should be allowed to remain in his three slots as a TV and radio commentator on current affairs. They pointed out that he was, in effect, raising the desirability of the forced repatriation of one in 12 of the French population.
Journalists at RTL radio suggested that the author and essayist had finally overstepped the limits of provocation and should be dismissed from his Tuesday and Thursday morning commentary slots. Zemmour complained that he was the victim of a “fantastic manipulation”.
In the past 10 years Eric Zemmour, once a pupil of President François Hollande at Sciences Po, the politics school in Paris, has become a witty spokesman for the increasingly hard-right drift of French politics.
Islamophobia and a rejection of all immigration form the core of Zemmour’s world view. He also argues that French men have been emasculated by feminism. It is “normal”, he says, for men to have violent attitudes towards women (even though it is better if they control their urges most of the time).
He has managed to make himself look foolish on several occasions. On RTL earlier this year he said the barbarian “pillaging” of Europe after the fall of Rome was being re-enacted by “thieving violent gangs of Chechens, Romas, Kosovars, North Africans and Africans”. During the World Cup in Brazil this summer he said Germany had no chance of winning because its team included players with Turkish and North African backgrounds. Germany defeated the favourites Brazil 7-1 in the semifinal and went on to win the competition.