Fassin argues that in recent decades, ostensibly left-leaning governments have taken up these battles and allied themselves with the right. Last fall, Macron’s education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, founded the Laboratory of the Republic, a government-organized think tank meant to further the ideals of laïcité, proclaiming that “The veil itself is not desirable in French society” and decrying “le wokisme” as an American import. In 2013, Manuel Valls, interior minister to the Socialist president François Hollande, called for systematically deporting Roma, who are European Union citizens, from the country. Under Valls, the state was successfully sued for racial profiling in policing, but Valls appealed the decision by arguing that the practice was justified because Black people and Arabs are more likely to be foreign and therefore in the country illegally. This is not so far from what Zemmour was saying, Fassin noted. (In 2011, Zemmour was convicted in court of incitement to racial hatred for stating on TV that the police disproportionately stop minorities because “most dealers are Blacks and Arabs.”) Fassin went on: “So if we want to understand why Zemmour can say what he’s saying, you have to look at that.”
The left claimed upholding laïcité was necessary to oppose Islamist extremism, while the right stopped pretending that laïcité was neutral at all. Conservatives like Zemmour openly use the doctrine as a tool to delegitimize Islam. He tells his audiences that under his presidency, he would “not want to hear the voice of the muezzin,” the person who issues the Islamic call to prayer, while simultaneously extolling France’s “Christian heritage.” Part of the waning enthusiasm for Marine Le Pen has been because of her insistence that “Islam doesn’t have the right to express itself in the public sphere, but neither does Christianity,” de Guillebon, now the editor of the right-wing magazine L’Incorrect, told me.
As leftist politicians have shifted rightward, the right has become practically indistinguishable from the far right. In early November, Les Républicains, the supposedly center-right mainstream party, held its first primary debate. Opening a segment on immigration, the moderator asked the candidates if they would use the term “grand remplacement.” Some hesitated, but not a single candidate dismissed the idea. “Sixty-seven percent of the French use it,” Éric Ciotti, a member of Parliament from the south, which tends to be more conservative, said with a shrug. “It’s useless to deny reality.” The moderator continued to press the point: Was France witnessing the replacement of one population by another population? “I don’t like that expression,” Michel Barnier, the former Brexit negotiator for the E.U., said, but he allowed that the French sometimes had a feeling of no longer being “at home.” Valérie Pécresse, who went on to win the nomination of Les Républicains, said she didn’t like the phrase because it “implies that we’re already screwed.”
The trauma of ongoing terror attacks has created a highly-charged environment. In October 2020, Samuel Paty, a middle-school teacher in a Paris suburb who in a class on freedom of expression showed his students Charlie Hebdo’s Muhammad cartoons, was beheaded by an 18-year-old Chechen Muslim refugee who had recently been given permission to stay in France for 10 years. A few weeks later, a Tunisian man fatally stabbed three people in a church in Nice; the man entered France days earlier carrying documents that identified him as a refugee. It was an environment in which “reasonable people decided that to be reasonable, you had to agree with unreasonable people,” Fassin said. They were made to feel that if they weren’t against the so-called Islamo-leftists, a way of branding those on the left as Islamophilic for cautioning against anti-Muslim bigotry, then they were “complicit with terrorism,” Fassin said. “And, of course, that has consequences. Intimidation, basically.”
The left had failed to articulate what it meant to be on the left, Fassin said, to offer a different vision in response to real challenges. “The ideas of humanism and solidarity have weakened in the public debate,” Vincent Martigny, a professor of political science at the University of Nice, told me. Of the left, d’Ornellas said: “They have refused to get into any questions of security, immigration or Islam. Every time those topics come up, they say, ‘Those are right-wing topics.’ So people say to themselves, ‘OK, then I’m on the right.’” For the left, Fassin said, the lack of boundaries is fatal: “If you’re on the left, you have to make sure that people see that the left is different from the right. If you’re on the right, you don’t need that. On the contrary, it’s better if it’s blurred.” As a result, the far right has been able to set the terms of debate. “We are still far from dominant,” d’Ornellas told me. “But you could say at least that for the first time, we are in a position to contest the liberal cultural hegemony.”
Maréchal and Zemmour have long proselytized for what they call the union des droites, the joining of disparate right-wing factions behind a single leader. This could happen either by fusing the center-right party and far-right parties, though that is considered highly unlikely, or, more probably, by joining the most right-wing voters of the center to those on the far right.
Polling suggests that the way to appeal to all conservative voters, urban and bourgeois as well as working class, is by talking about, or more precisely railing against, immigration. This is something that Zemmour has always done. He is an ideologue, and he built his career on a singular obsession. It is hard to say what is electoral strategy and what is Zemmour being Zemmour.