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Far-Right’s Eric Zemmour Runs For French Presidency Through Armenia – OpEd

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Eric Zemmour, the rising star on the nationalist far-right in French politics, believes the way to win the presidency is to campaign in Armenia. France has the world’s third largest Armenian diaspora in the world, after Russia (2 million) and the US (1 million). Zemmour was accompanied on his four-day visit to Armenia this month by Philippe de Villiers, the leader of another far-right party, the Movement for France. Valerie Pecresse, candidate of the centre-right Republican Party in the 2022 French presidential elections, also plans to visit Armenia. Pecresse and Zemmour share much in common on immigration and the threat to French identity from Muslims. 

The “normalisation” of far-right discourse in French politics is seen in a “disconcerting revival of ultranationalist thinking, and with it the rehabilitation of once-ostracised reactionary writers.” New-old identity politics in France is obsessive and paranoid “about decline, and the failure of elites to protect French identity.” In the past this has led to a search for internal fifth columnists such as Jews, Protestants, Freemasons and foreigners or from abroad, principally Germany. For Zemmour, “it is above all Islam.” 

The entry into the mainstream of far-right views on immigration, identity and Islam are evidenced by the discourse of President Emmanuel Macron, the Gaullist centre-right and of course the meteoric ascendancy of Zemmour making him a potential contender to enter the second round of next year’s presidential elections. With the decline of the left and centre-right in France, and a long tradition of far-right politics, Zemmour’s obnoxious view are now given airtime without being subjected to critical questioning. As the Economist wrote, “That such views are given a legitimate airing is new, and disquieting.”

Most French politicians seek votes in the Armenian diaspora in France. The French newspaper Le Monde said Zemmour “does not come to Armenia to talk to Armenians. He comes with the aim of collecting ballots from certain Armenians in France who, after the Nagorno-Karabakh war, started by Azerbaijan, a satellite of Turkey, in 2020, must face their own hatreds.” 

Le Monde’s comment reflected traditional French bias as all French politicians – including Macron – share a pro-Armenian position in the south Caucasus. This makes France a poor choice to be a co-chairman of the Minsk group set up in the 1990s to find a resolution to the First Karabakh War. Armenia’s occupation of twenty percent of Azerbaijani territory was condemned in numerous UN resolutions. 

Zemmour is an unusual politician on the far right; after all, he is the son of Jewish Berbers who emigrated from Algeria to France in the 1950s and grew up in a Parisian suburb. He was a political reporter for Le Figaro newspaper. In 2011, around the same time as Donald Trump began his involvement in politics and launched the “Birther Movement”, which claimed Barack Obama had not been born in the US and was not therefore eligible to be president, Zemmour was convicted of inciting racial hatred. Zemmour had told a TV chat show that drug dealers were mostly “blacks and Arabs”, a similar refrain to Trump talking about Mexican “drug dealers, criminals, and rapists.”  He was fined after saying on another TV channel that employers “had a right” to turn away black or Arab job seekers.

Zemmour draws on far-right discourse that has deep roots in French political culture. “But what is new is the reception and acceptance of this discourse in the public conversation … It’s a turning point in French political history that Zemmour’s discourse is given so much space and legitimacy by the media,” US academic Cécile Alduy said. A similar “normalisation” of nationalist and racist discourse took place during the 2016 US elections and Trump’s presidency.

Zemmour travelled to Armenia after a violent election rally in France where the bona fide Nazi Zouaves Paris (ZVP) attacked leftist protestors. Although Zemmour is a populist nationalist he is nevertheless a proponent of the rehabilitation of Marshal Philippe Pétain, the Nazi collaborator who headed the Vichy regime during World War II. Zemmour wrongly credits the Vichy regime with saving French Jews and claims the Nazi’s were more tolerant than Muslims.

Zemmour’s visit to Armenia aimed to transplant his French racist views of a coming “war of races” between the Christian and Islamic worlds to that of Armenia-Azerbaijan. Facing Mount Ararat in Turkey, Zemmour told his Armenian hosts “I want to tell Armenians how they have been a model of resistance for centuries.”  

Le Monde wrote: “Eric Zemmour instrumentalises the cause of Christians in the East, which has become a preserve of the extreme right, even though this extreme right sees in these Christians only a means of justifying its Islamophobia.” In Armenia, Zemmour fanned anti-Turkish and anti-Azerbaijani sentiments and divided immigrants in France into “good” and “bad” types with presumably himself and Armenians belonging to the first group.  

Le Monde ignored the fact Azerbaijan is the most secular Muslim country in the world and has a two-decade strategic alliance with Israel. Even in French media critical of Zemmour there is little attempt at researching reality on the ground in the South Caucasus. The Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict is nothing to do with civilisation or religion and all to do with international law. Armenia  and  Russia are the only two irredentist powers in the former USSR unable to accept the  boundaries of their Soviet republics as post-Soviet international borders.

In Armenia, Zemmour visited the Khor Virap Monastery, Armenian-Turkish border, and Armenian Genocide Memorial. His visit to the latter was duplicitous as French Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti accused him of being a Holocaust denier. Zemmour also opposed French legislation to prosecute those who denied genocides. Armenian’s place what they describe as the genocide committed against them during World War I alongside the Holocaust committed against Jews during World War II. Zemmour’s description of Armenia as a “martyr land” must have led to raised eyebrows.

Zemmour is a supporter of the far-right conspiracy theory of Replacement whereby liberal politicians in Europe and the US are seeking to replace their Christian populations with Muslims.  In Armenia he promoted this to an audience angry at having to leave Karabakh and the seven surrounding Azerbaijani provinces which had been occupied for nearly three decades. Zemmour claims that, in today’s France, “an Islamic civilisation is replacing a people from a Christian, Greco-Roman civilisation”. “Veiled women”, Mr Camus recently told a tv interviewer, “are the flags of conquest, of colonisation.”

Zemmour described Armenia as a “cradle of civilisation” and “old Christian land” within the context of his extremist views of the threat to French Christian culture from Islam. Just as Armenia was a Christian country “in the middle of an Islamic Ocean” so too “Europe was founded by Christianity” without which “there is no Europe and there is no France.” 

Zemmour’s racism and Islamophobia found a receptive audience in Armenia: a mere 20 turned out to protest his arrival at Yerevan Airport. Are there really so few opponents of racism and Islamophobia in Armenia?  

Growing nationalism and Islamophobia in France coupled with a large Armenian diaspora creates an in-built bias in France’s approach to the South Caucasus and the Eastern Mediterranean. France has long lost the right to be a co-chairman of the Minsk Group to seek a peaceful resolution of the Karabakh conflict.

*Taras Kuzio is a Research Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society think tank in London and a professor of political science at the National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy. His book Russian Nationalism and the Russian-Ukrainian War is published next month by Routledge.

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