France’s Far Right Turn

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With only one month to go until France’s presidential election in April, the office of Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French far-right party the National Rally, sent the usual Sunday email outlining her schedule for the coming week as “candidate for the presidency of the Republic.” Unfortunately for Le Pen, many of its recipients were at that moment en route to a rally for her rival, where several formerly trusted members of her inner circle would fill the front row. Ever since Éric Zemmour, a far-right pundit and former newspaper columnist, declared his own candidacy for president last November, members of Le Pen’s party had been departing in a steady trickle for his. And yet there was something particularly plaintive in Le Pen’s notification. A final defection was expected that day — that of her niece, Marion Maréchal, quite likely spelling the end of Le Pen and of her party’s hold over the far right.

Emmanuel Macron’s presidential victory as an independent five years ago shook up France’s multiparty system. As parties on the right and left fractured and regrouped, the National Rally remained largely constant. Now Zemmour and Maréchal’s alliance, with its “anti-wokisme” and its appeals to anti-immigrant sentiments, has forged a revanchist politics that captures a notable shift in the public mood. As the far right enjoys its greatest cultural primacy in France in 75 years, it is Zemmour and his followers, not the National Rally, who are defining the future of the French right wing, even if no one expects him — or any other right-wing candidate — to wrest the presidency from Macron.

For the last half-century, French nationalism has operated as a family business. Marine’s father (Maréchal’s grandfather), Jean-Marie Le Pen, helped found the party, which until recently was known as the National Front, in 1972 and led it until Marine took over in 2011. In 1992, Maréchal appeared in a campaign poster as a startled blond toddler held aloft in her grandfather’s arms. Twenty years later, Maréchal was elected to the National Assembly as a representative of the party. At 22, she was the youngest member of Parliament in the history of the modern French Republic. “The Le Pen name is a brand,” Maréchal, now 32, told me last fall. “It has been both my handicap and my advantage. I wouldn’t have been elected without it.”

Maréchal’s impending betrayal of her aunt, with its tantalizing mix of political ambition and familial wounds, had been a subject of media speculation for weeks. Le Pen alliances are famously rocky, and the family’s treacheries have for decades delighted the French media. In 1984, Jean-Marie’s wife left him, later sharing their private frictions in the pages of French Playboy. And in the late ’90s, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s deputy, who believed the boss’s taste for Holocaust jokes was preventing the party from becoming a serious political force, attempted to depose him. In 2015, Marine kicked her father out of the National Front for the same reason. They didn’t speak for months. (Eventually, they reconciled.)

On that early March Sunday, Maréchal chose to announce her support for Zemmour and his party, Reconquête (Reconquest), in Toulon, a small, luminous city with an important naval base on the French Riviera. I had previously attended Zemmour’s rallies only in the north of France, and those were high-security affairs, where the gendarmerie marked off a wide perimeter around the venue and formed riot lines behind the barriers against potentially violent protesters. In the south, you could walk freely up to the entrance of the stadium. Cliques of young people streamed across town to the arena, joining the other well-dressed attendees — tailored coats, red Dockers, boat shoes, in sharp contrast to a National Rally event, where black leather jackets and tattoos are the norm. Zemmour, who is 63, had no prior political experience, but as a best-selling author he was used to giving sold-out book talks and knew how to make people feel as if they were at an exclusive event.

Maréchal left the National Rally in 2017, taking time out from politics to work in the private sector. There had long been reports that she was being sidelined, partly because her popularity was seen as a threat, but also because her positions differed from the party line. Still, her retreat from the National Rally was based on a calculation shared by many: that her aunt, having lost in the two previous presidential elections, was incapable of winning. As Zemmour’s candidacy evolved, it became clear that a primary goal was to end Marine Le Pen’s control over far-right politics in France, by breaking through the cordon sanitaire that the mainstream political establishment had erected around the Le Pen family for decades, and ultimately to remake the French right.

Le Pen, who is 53, has positioned herself as an economic populist, seeking to attract working-class voters from across the political spectrum, caring little if they identify as right or left. Zemmour and Maréchal reject not only the tactic but also the principle behind it. Conservatism, they assert, is still an organizing social force, reflecting a timeless understanding of how we live. In a world of liberal overreach, they believe, the appeal of their hard reactionism is broader than ever. “Despite everything, these currents continue to direct French political life,” Maréchal told me. “In people’s minds, it’s the nation, authority, family, heritage, preservation. Broadly speaking, that’s our identity.” That evening in Toulon, wearing white and six months pregnant, she blew kisses from the stage to an enthralled crowd and delivered a 20-minute declaration on the meaning of the nation. It was her first stump speech in five years, meant without any doubt to symbolize a rebirth, not only personal but also of a new nationalist movement.

In France, political identities tend to coalesce around views of the past and, on the right in particular, around the father of modern France, Charles de Gaulle. Some of the original members of the National Front collaborated during World War II with Nazi Germany, as de Gaulle fought from exile to liberate the country. And in the 1970s, one of the party’s founding principles was a rejection of de Gaulle’s decision as president to withdraw France from colonial Algeria. This history has always put the National Rally at odds with the urban conservative bourgeoisie, which sees itself as heir to the Gaullist tradition — nationalist, out of an old-fashioned sense of pride and duty; republican, despite a certain nostalgia for the aristocracy — and would never vote for a Le Pen. These are Zemmour’s people, and increasingly, despite her lineage, Maréchal’s.

Maréchal, who has continued to dodge precise questions about her political future as she campaigns full-time for Zemmour, is sometimes called the “fantasy” of the right, a double entendre that captures her political currency and symbolic importance. One meaning refers to what some regard as her unique potential to draw the bourgeois voters that have flocked to Zemmour and the working-class voters that back Marine Le Pen, both of which are needed to win. The other is usually invoked obliquely, with the word “photogenic.” If it’s taboo to remark on the sex appeal of a female politician in 2022, it would also be disingenuous to pretend that it isn’t a strategic element of Maréchal’s public persona. In Toulon, every supporter I spoke to offered up some euphemism when asked what they thought of her presence there that evening, then, when pressed, said what they really meant: “So young! So pretty!” Maréchal plays it both ways. By all accounts she is a serious and studious person. But she was 22 when she was elected to the National Assembly in 2012, and photos of her from that time, long blond hair swept to one side or, better yet, blowing in the wind against a backdrop of pastoral France, her face fixed in an expression of concern or confident command, are still used frequently by right-wing groups.

Éric ZemmourCredit…Photo illustration by Matthieu Bourel

After she left the party, Maréchal co-founded a new school based in Lyon, the Institute for Social Sciences, Economics and Politics (ISSEP), and became its director. ISSEP, an unaccredited private institution offering advanced degrees in business administration and public policy with a conservative orientation, opened its doors in 2018. (Around that time, Maréchal dropped “Le Pen” from her hyphenated last name.)

ISSEP operates inside a small commercial building across the street from a funky urban-renewal project near the river at the southern edge of Lyon. When I went there to meet Maréchal, I was prepared to be greeted coolly, the usual reaction of a Le Pen to a journalist from what would be regarded in France as a mainstream, center-left publication. But Maréchal met me at the door with a smile. She introduced me to the administrative staff and to a handful of students working at cafe tables in the back. She was extremely casual, in gray skinny jeans and a white cable-knit sweater, her hair in a low ponytail. I’d attended several events where she was on the program, and I never saw her ill at ease. “Distance creates prestige,” Maréchal said, echoing de Gaulle, when I remarked that she had been out of politics for five years but everyone was still talking about her. “They’re projecting their fantasies onto me.”

Early on, Maréchal established a reputation not only as a nationalist but also as a Catholic. The Le Pen dynasty had always been secular, a tradition that Maréchal bucked after spending two years at a Catholic school in Saint-Cloud, the upscale western suburb of Paris where Jean-Marie Le Pen owns an estate. Maréchal went on to study law at the University of Paris but was unable to complete her degree after she was elected to the National Assembly.

In 2015, she enrolled in a seminar at a private institute in the Seventh Arrondissement of Paris, a neighborhood populated by “tradis,” traditional Catholic bourgeois families. Two years earlier, many of the students at the institute had joined young Catholic conservatives organizing against a law that legalized same-sex marriage. More than 150,000 people mobilized in the streets of Paris in protest, in a demonstration called Manif Pour Tous, or Protest for All. Maréchal supported Manif Pour Tous right away. By contrast, Marine Le Pen did not join in. Le Pen “always said that she wasn’t on the right or the left,” Maréchal told me. Maréchal saw things differently, and this made her welcome in conservative Parisian circles in a way that Le Pen was not. She became particularly good friends with Jacques de Guillebon, a Catholic writer with Corsican roots and a talent for skewering liberal conventions.

De Guillebon was also friendly with a cohort of young right-wing intellectuals who became prominent media figures in the aftermath of Manif Pour Tous.“At that moment, we realized that our beliefs were shared by a large number of people, and there was a need to go and defend those beliefs in the media,” Geoffroy Lejeune, the 33-year-old editor of the far-right weekly magazine Valeurs Actuelles, told me. “And the media, the big television networks, realized that this represented something in the country, and they needed to allow us to speak.” Lejeune and other young conservatives staked out their positions on TV and in magazines. Maréchal, who had been in the National Assembly for about a year, became a political patron.

De Guillebon, who was enjoying the perks of success, introduced Maréchal into networks where Zemmour was also a frequent V.I.P. “Paris is the center of everything,” Maréchal told me. “It’s not that way in every European country, but Paris is the economic, cultural and political center of the country. And when you’re politically nonexistent in Paris, it’s very complicated to succeed.”

Maréchal thrived in this milieu; unlike her grandfather, who came from a small fishing village, she was not an arriviste but the scion of an entrenched dynasty. “She knows the codes,” Charlotte d’Ornellas, a journalist at Valeurs Actuelles, told me. Crucially, Maréchal also “had a hunger for intellectual questions,” says Eugénie Bastié, another young conservative journalist who worked with Zemmour. “She cultivated that dimension of herself, a depth that her aunt doesn’t have.” Le Pen famously floundered in a debate against Emmanuel Macron in 2017, an embarrassment from which she struggled to recover. “We have this need for our political figures to be intellectuals,” Bastié said. “Someone who doesn’t make us ashamed.”

Yet Maréchal still possesses the Le Pen hardness. She can rally the masses with the kind of primal emotion that can only be credibly acquired from a sense of grievance, from the experience of being treated as a social pariah as the Le Pens still are in some circles. This was the elusive ideal: to be both intellectual and woman of the people. The speech that Maréchal delivered in Toulon displayed an ability to wrap the words of the nativist in elegant rhetoric. She observed that, of the three traits of the French Republican trinity, “liberté, égalité, fraternité,” only the last couldn’t be imposed by law. “Fraternité is a sentiment of attachment,” she said, and concluded, “it is fragile.”

During last fall’s primaries, nearly 40 percent of French voters expressed a preference for a candidate promoting far-right ideas. Remarkably, nearly everyone I spoke with agreed, more or less, on how France had arrived at this point. “If public opinion is at this level, it’s because Zemmour has been talking about it for such a long time,” Erik Tegnér, a 28-year-old who runs Livre Noir, a new right-wing media outlet on YouTube, told me.

Like their American counterparts, Zemmour and Maréchal like to denounce the liberalism of cultural institutions, namely the media and academia. Paradoxically, they cite Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist philosopher, and his theory of “cultural hegemony” to explain how beliefs expressed by the ruling class trickle down to become cultural norms. They have taken up the battle of ideas within mainstream institutions with zeal. Zemmour, the son of North African Jewish immigrants, has long had a platform from which to trumpet the importance of assimilation and being French: He was formerly a columnist at France’s most important conservative daily newspaper, Le Figaro, as well as a longtime TV talk-show host and a regular radio commentator. In 2019, he was given a prime-time spot on CNews, the Fox News-like channel owned by the magnate Vincent Bolloré.

Last October, CNews invited Renaud Camus, the source of the “grand remplacement,” or “great replacement,” conspiracy theory (which has been picked up across the Atlantic by commentators like Tucker Carlson), onto its Sunday evening show. Camus’s argument holds that the white French population is being replaced by a nonwhite, non-French population. “More and more these last few years, thinkers and polemicists, people with a huge impact, have contributed to an opening of what we call the Overton window,” Tegnér said, referring to a shift in what’s considered acceptable discourse. D’Ornellas, of Valeurs Actuelles, agreed, pointing out that 15 years ago, the term “ ‘identity’ was absolutely a dirty word. Now it’s pretty much normal to talk about it.”

Some of this shift in French public life can be traced to the Islamist terror attacks that have devastated France, beginning in 2015. In January of that year, 12 people were murdered at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, which regularly published cartoons of Muhammad, by two brothers who regarded these depictions as violations of the Islamic strictures forbidding representations of the prophet. Ten months later, a group of young Muslim men, many of whom had traveled to the Middle East to join the Islamic State, staged a coordinated assault on the Bataclan concert hall and other venues in and around Paris that left 130 people dead. In the emotional aftermath, there was a public outcry about young Muslims not integrating into French society.

Many of those “who were supposed to be on the left decided that fighting for the Republic, for laïcité, goes beyond right and left,” says Éric Fassin, a sociologist at the University of Paris 8 and a frequent left-wing commentator. Prominent left-leaning intellectuals formed a collective to battle Islamist extremism. This was to be done, they argued, by reinforcing the principle of laïcité, commonly translated as “secularism,” the French legal doctrine that protects private religious practice from state interference — and that, since the 1980s, as French Muslims became a more visible public presence, has been interpreted to mean that public life should be free from overt religious expression.

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.

Most of the supporters I’ve spoken to at Zemmour’s events since last fall have tried to convince me that he is a mainstream conservative, as if by virtue of not being a Le Pen, he couldn’t possibly be on the far right. In reality, Zemmour is one of the most prominent promoters of grand remplacement. He has asked whether “young French people will accept to live as a minority on the land of their ancestors,” a concern Maréchal shares. Recently, she noted that it was possible that “in 2060 the historic native people could be minorities on French territory.” Maréchal told me that the identity question is central to the election, that “for the French it is a vital question, they feel it in their flesh, a vital threat that gives them anxiety.” She explained that it was “because they have the feeling that in several years France will no longer be France, because the population will have largely changed, it will be majority-Muslim, it will no longer be France as we’ve known it.” She went on: “Often, Muslim women who wear the full-body veil or burqa are reproached: ‘If you want so much to live like in Afghanistan or in Iraq, then go live in Afghanistan or Iraq.’

“This kind of provocation,” she continued, “gives the French the feeling that they’re trying to impose a foreign culture, against the most basic traditions, the visibility of the face in public, and the equality of men and women. So, if you want to attack that on the pretext of individual liberty, it’s an insult to what we are, to our way of life, to our country.”

Officially, France promotes an “assimilationist” model. This means that anyone can be French, so long as they adopt French cultural norms. The origins of this code date to the 19th century, when the French government, in order to form a cohesive nation-state, imposed unifying measures on different regional identities. “French culture,” in other words, was created. This history has made the French more willing to accept that the state should play a role in countering fragmentation and individualism. This helps explain why centrists like Macron inveigh against American “identity politics” even when they don’t embrace far-right talking points. “We have a need for unity,” Bastié, the conservative journalist, told me, noting that the role of the Catholic church in public life had also been reduced in the name of these principles. In this context, the fact that Zemmour is of North African Jewish heritage works to his advantage. “He knows what he’s talking about,” Maréchal told me. “He has legitimacy. He is the son of immigrants, he knows what it means to assimilate, to give up part of your identity in order to become French.”

But it would be a mistake to conclude from this that the emerging French right is interested in neutral statism; on the contrary, it wants to assert the primacy of a particular notion of Frenchness — part historical, part phantasmagorical. “I think people on the right are exasperated by the idea that we put all the religions on the same level,” Bastié said. “The right has turned the page on this kind of relativism. We have a specific Judeo-Christian heritage that we must assume. Only Europe and the West refuse to assume their own heritage. A Muslim country would never say that its heritage isn’t Muslim.”

The French far right, like its American counterparts, has taken an interest in the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban. Orban’s calls for a Europe that rejects multiculturalism and asserts its “Christian heritage” were always meant to attract the attention of Western European conservatives. Zemmour and Maréchal visited Budapest together last fall, and Marine Le Pen made a showy campaign stop there. But their support for Orban and his allies in the Polish government goes beyond rhetoric. On matters of immigration and asylum, E.U. law, which regulates the qualifications for asylum in member states, takes precedence over the laws of nations. The right claims that this prevents France from enacting the kinds of immigration controls it believes are necessary. As a result, many right-wing politicians support the Central European governments’ refusal to abide by E.U. directives on immigration and their fight to assert their sovereignty, currently playing out in E.U. courts. Right-wing candidates have promised that, if elected, their first move would be a referendum to insert a national-sovereignty clause into the Constitution. “We need to offer a democratic response to people on all these questions of immigration, security, crime,” Bastié told me. “If there’s no democratic response, there could be a temptation to topple over into something else — a refusal of democracy.”

The French electoral system is set up in such a way that Zemmour almost certainly cannot win. If no candidate gains an outright majority in the first round of voting, the two top candidates move on to a second round of voting, in which the winner must clear 50 percent. It is highly unlikely that Zemmour, or any far-right candidate, can cross that threshold. But he may accomplish his goals nonetheless. The real reason for Zemmour’s candidacy, Lejeune, the editor of Valeurs Actuelles, told me, was to lay the foundation for a future movement. The defections from Le Pen’s party were happening because “they think that even if Zemmour loses, Le Pen is going to lose no matter what,” Lejeune told me. “So he will leave behind a base that’s much more inclusive than the National Front on its own.” Pécresse’s center-right party has also been sinking in the polls and is at risk of becoming obsolete. Which makes it even more likely that Zemmour and Maréchal, whether she runs again for public office or not, and regardless of vote tallies, are setting the tone for whatever comes next.

Marine Le Pen.Credit…Photo illustration by Matthieu Bourel

Most French Muslims would most likely say that they are not surprised by the harsh turn in the national mood, but they are no less disturbed by it. Some have been trying to mount an organized response. Last fall, Felix Marquardt — a half-American, half-Austrian Paris-born author, former media strategy consultant and semiprofessional networker who converted to Islam when he married a Tunisian woman — decided to bring together prominent French writers and artists who are Muslim to counter the frenzy over immigration.

Marquardt persuaded an acquaintance to host a gathering of French Muslim intellectuals and a few other guests at his flat in the Seventh Arrondissement. The top-floor apartment sits in an immense amphitheater-shaped building across the street from Les Invalides, the palatial monument housing the tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte, whose golden dome filled the living-room window.

Marquardt had invited a young philosopher and historian named Mohamed Amer Meziane to give a presentation on his recently published book, in which he argued that Europe, and France specifically, give themselves credit for having modernized during the 19th century. But this was the period of France’s imperial adventures in the Muslim world, which — not coincidentally, he argued — racialized the concept of “religiosity,” rendering it “uncivilized.” After Meziane finished, Marquardt opened up the discussion. Yassine Belattar, a well-known Paris comedian, observed that he thought the upcoming election would break relations among the French. “It’s a referendum for or against Muslims,” he said.

Marquardt had also invited to his dinner some non-Muslim friends he thought would be sympathetic to this group. That turned out to be not quite right — they weren’t unsympathetic, but they were defensive. In response to Meziane and Belattar, one such guest stated that there was only one question to be answered, with a simple yes or no: Was being Muslim more important to them than being French? Everyone was citing a survey from 2020 which suggested that 57 percent of young Muslims believed that the law of God was superior to the law of the French Republic. The salon erupted. Marquardt became defensive, feeling, as he later told me, responsible for having invited his Muslim friends there only to see them treated with a standard that would never be applied to Catholics. “If you were a believer, would it be Jesus or Macron, the decisive influence in your life?” he shouted. “Answer that!” From there the evening unraveled. Another of Marquardt’s invitees, a young Muslim academic, stood up and left the room.

For all that the French declare that their system, which claims to be race-blind, offers a defense against the kind of tribal identity politics they condemn in the United States, it is rare to hear Muslims spoken of as part of an “us.” As the French political scientist Patrick Weil wrote recently, in the aftermath of World War II, many of those residing in the French colonies came to France as workers. Some were already French citizens, but they were not treated as such. They “discovered that their part in French history was neither known nor shared,” Weil wrote. “Even though they were fully French, they and their children were often discriminated against. Their citizenship was no guarantee.” In the postcolonial era, when ideas about social hierarchy have been overturned, a generation whose ancestors were born under colonialism but who are themselves French-born and highly educated are not keen to be instructed on how to be “French.”

Zemmour, a self-styled historian, has nonetheless continued to do so. In many of his books, pop histories whose conclusions have been vigorously contested by academic historians, he displays a famously juvenile fandom of Napoleon and promotes an imperial conception of power. In 2018, he said that he dreams of a French Vladimir Putin, a man who “takes a country that was an empire, that could have been a great power, and tries to restore it.” He also wrote in his 2016 book that “Ukraine does not exist.” At a reading of Zemmour’s that I attended last fall, before he officially declared his candidacy, he gave a long, wide-ranging address, in which one of his many applause-provoking lines was that “Russia is not our enemy.” After Putin invaded Ukraine in late February, however, Zemmour condemned the war and even acknowledged that, in predicting it would never happen, he had been wrong.

Putin’s Russia has always been the model for the kind of conservative Christian civilizational state that Zemmour and Maréchal espouse, one ruled by a strong leader who patronizes the church, enforces traditional values and unapologetically rebuffs any kind of rights-based progressivism. In 2019, Maréchal condemned European sanctions imposed on Russia after it illegally annexed Crimea in 2014 and traveled to a Moscow-organized forum there. Le Pen’s party has taken loans from a Russian bank; in 2017, in an attempt to bolster her standing, she met with Putin. When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Le Pen’s campaign moved quickly to trash a trove of campaign leaflets that featured a picture of Le Pen and Putin shaking hands at the Kremlin.

There is a long antidemocratic history in France, and the extent to which it persists as a political force is underappreciated by Americans. The French Revolution of 1789 overthrew both the monarchy and the aristocratic order that preceded it; but there is a deep-rooted reactionary right that never fully accepted the new republic. It is a sentiment that still resonates in the bourgeois Parisian circles that Maréchal and Zemmour frequent. Maréchal has remarked that France and the Republic are not necessarily the same thing, that the Republic is just one regime, and “France preceded the Republic.”

There is nothing to suggest that Maréchal or Zemmour, or Le Pen for that matter, in any way support the recent actions of the Russian government. After Russia invaded Ukraine, Maréchal said that Putin had caused the war. But French voters are clearly questioning their judgment and their loyalties. In March, the polls shifted significantly as prospective voters flocked to Macron.

Zemmour has always claimed that to be French means to own, to absorb, to love France’s history. At the rally in Toulon, the speakers who introduced Zemmour and Maréchal, some of them former National Rally members, spoke of France’s past “imperial grandeur” and the war in Algeria.

The spirit seemed to carry out into the street. After the event was over, along the palm-lined boulevard in front of the stadium, a small altercation broke out. A couple of young men who tried to get into the event had been turned away. They were jousting with an elderly woman who had attended, and somehow they all ended up taking out their identity cards. She looked white; the young man who was talking to her looked Arab. She was born in Algeria; he was born in France. Yet she told him that though she ate couscous and knew rai, a genre of North African pop music, she was still more assimilated into French culture than he was.

The woman wandered away, shaking her head. I stayed to talk to the young man, Salahedin Hamzi, who is 17. He showed me his ID, marked “République Française.” “I have to prove 10 times a day that I’m French,” he said, gesturing to his face. “When I was little, everyone was the same, but as I got older I was made to understand that I wasn’t French.” He was excited and a little agitated from the encounter, and he launched into a long but thoughtful explanation of why Zemmour’s diagnoses were wrong and dangerous and showed that he didn’t understand France’s problems at all.

As I stood talking with Hamzi and recording him on my phone, every few minutes someone — a police officer or a male attendee from the event — came over to ask me if I was OK. “You see?” Hamzi said to me. I did. At one point, he was telling me about how, when France was liberated from Nazi occupation in 1944, many of the soldiers that freed Toulon were from the French colonies. What people didn’t understand was that colonial history was French history, he said. As he talked, another Zemmour supporter walked up to check on us. “Did you know about the liberation of Toulon?” Hamzi asked him. The man did not. “It’s OK, it’s not your fault,” Hamzi said. “But you should look it up.” The man said he would. He suggested that Hamzi come to one of Zemmour’s rallies, that they weren’t what he might expect. Hamzi muttered something about being familiar with Zemmour already. I wondered what would happen if they each did what the other had suggested. But I doubted that either of them would.

Elisabeth Zerofsky is a contributing writer for the magazine who has reported across Europe. Her features include articles about politics in the banlieues of France and on American conservatives’ infatuation with the prime minister of Hungary.

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