Le venin dans la plume: Édouard Drumont, Éric Zemmour et la part sombre de la République (Poison in the Pen: Édouard Drumont, Éric Zemmour and the Dark Side of the Republic), by Gérard Noiriel, La Découverte, 240 pp, €19, ISBN: 978-2348045721
The idea that politics, and historical instances of particular political positions, can normally be analysed in terms of the concepts of left and right ‑ that there is a fundamental opposition between these poles but also a gradation of intermediate positions between two “extremes” ‑ has been with us for a long time. The words were first used politically in reference to the seating arrangements in the French national assembly in 1789, when those who defended the traditional powers of the king sat on the right of the assembly while those who challenged those powers in favour of greater popular sovereignty took up positions on the left. In the tumult of the revolutionary years other labels were to emerge, the Montagne (for the most radical element) the Plaine or Marais (for the moderates) and the Gironde (one-time radicals later wishing to slow the pace of change, wiped out in 1793 as a result of the manoeuvres of the Marat faction). Though the Girondins have on occasion been described as “centre-left” it can be argued that the division between left and right did not really take on flesh in French history until after the restoration of the monarchy in 1814, after which point the political forces in the country could be divided between those who wished to undo the changes wrought by the French Revolution and those who sought to defend as many of the revolutionary “gains” as possible. This was a fundamental cleavage which was to prove long-lasting.
It should be added, however, for the benefit of those who tend to equate the left with socialism, that the latter was a very weak force throughout most of the French nineteenth century. What was called the left might be in favour in a general way of liberty and a cautious and gradual broadening of participation in the affairs of the nation (the right, correspondingly, saw democracy as tending towards “mob rule” and valued order); the left might also sponsor “progressive” measures like compulsory free primary education; but the most durable and bitter rift between left and right at this time was not over wealth but religion, with the right wishing to restore the Catholic church to as many as possible of the privileges and possessions it had enjoyed before 1789 and the left ‑ like the republican firebrand Léon Gambetta (“le cléricalisme: voilà l’ennemi!”) ‑ wishing to hunt it out of public life. With a restricted – or, when not restricted, frequently manipulated ‑ franchise and only a very small industrial working class, France continued to be dominated throughout the nineteenth century by property-owners large and small and its governments served their interests. Income tax was not successfully legislated for until 1914 and women got the vote only in 1945. The country, it seems, despite having given us liberté, égalité and fraternité, and the concept of the left (la gauche), remained for a long time a very conservative place.
Whatever about their appropriateness in the context of the French nineteenth century, or the qualifications and clarifications that their use might require, the terms left and right have largely retained their use value in describing the politics of liberal democracies in the twentieth and twenty-first. Indeed a stylised hemicycle representing the classical shape of a parliamentary legislative chamber is still the device used to graphically illustrate election results in most European countries. The placing of the political parties around the hemicycle is normally fairly uncontroversial: thus in Germany (starting on the left) we have The Left party (Die Linke), the social democrats (SPD), the Greens, the Christian democrats (CDU/CSU), the Free Democrats (FDP) and Alternative for Germany (AfD). There is little doubt here that Die Linke is to the left of the social democrats and AfD to the right of the Christian democrats, though there may be some question about the Greens, some of whose spokespersons insist that their party is neither right nor left: does that then mean they’re in the middle? Also the FDP, a strongly pro-free-market and pro-business party, might have been located some years ago closer to the centre than it is today (even though back in the 1950s it was for a time infiltrated by old Nazis). A further sign of the complexity of the subject might be the proliferation of qualifying adjectives we now employ in addition to the primary left and right designations: far left, hard left, radical left, soft left, centre left, centre right, far right, radical right, extreme right, ultra right, alt right etc. Another curiosity is that while most upholders of left-wing positions have little problem being described as left – if the word itself is not an element in the party designation then an equally clear signifier, such as “socialist” or “Labour”, will be. Being “left” is not normally felt as a handicap or embarrassment: indeed Keir Starmer, at the time of writing the favourite to become the next British Labour Party leader, has recently felt it advisable to insist loudly on his personal leftness. By way of contrast, the word “right” would seem to be regarded as almost toxic: the mainstream right-wing (or centre-right) party in the United Kingdom is the Conservatives, while in France it is the Republicans, in Germany the Christian Democratic Union, in Spain the People’s Party, in Sweden the Moderates; in Denmark, most curiously of all, it is Venstre (Left). Even those groups which all analysts agree on placing on the “populist” or extreme right are keen to avoid the word: in France we have Rassemblement National (National Rally), in Spain Vox (Voice), in Germany Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany), in Italy the Lega (the League), in the Netherlands the Partij Voor de Vrijheid (Freedom Party). Why are leftists so proud of being left while rightists seem so sheepish about their affiliation?
The history of the French left is not without interest, and it certainly has figures of some stature: Jean Jaurès, leader of the newly unified socialist party in the early twentieth century, Léon Blum, prime minister in the 1930s, and, more recently, François Mitterrand, president for fourteen years in the 1980s and ’90s and sponsor of a huge raft of reforms, whose successive socialist governments delivered significant improvements in living standards, equality and civil rights. Yet for all the appeal of these leaders, if I was offered the chance to specialise in the history of either the French left or the French right I would choose the latter, chiefly on the grounds that, though the company may often be uncongenial, the complex movements of ideas and ideologies, many of which seem quite bizarre today, the shifting strategies of the political and intellectual leadership and the significant interactions of politics with literature make for a fascinating study – to which the volume and quality of the historical literature on the subject amply attests.
Gérard Noiriel is a distinguished French historian, director of studies at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris and the author of a number of books on the history of immigration into France, on racism, and the history of the French working class. His latest work, Le venin dans la plume (Poison in the Pen), is a comparison of the ideas and methods of two figures who chronologically stand wide apart: the nineteenth century antisemitic propagandist Édouard Drumont (1844-1917) and the contemporary publicist Éric Zemmour (b 1958), whose chief stock-in-trade consists of a robust version of traditional French nationalism and Islamophobia. Both are intensely political figures, but neither is or was primarily a politician: Drumont was a pamphleteer, journalist and newspaper editor, and, only briefly, a parliamentary deputy, from 1898 to 1902. Zemmour, a journalist, broadcaster and author of a number of popular books, has been courted by various politicians and political parties, including Laurent Wauquiez, at the time (early 2019) leader of Les Républicains, the mainstream centre-right formation in France and heir to the Gaullist tradition. He was also offered third place on the European Parliament list “Prenez le pouvoir”, supported by Marine Le Pen’s far-right party Rassemblement National: the group won twenty-three seats. Zemmour, however, has so far declined all invitations to become a public representative, preferring to concentrate instead on what he has called his “Gramscian” work in the field of culture and ideas.
Gérard Noiriel’s book arose from a sharply argued opinion piece published in Le Monde in September 2018 in response to the appearance of Zemmour’s latest book, Destin français, in which he accused professional historians (that is university historians) of having, “following the logic of the mafia, occupied the positions of power and taken control of the levers of the State”, thus implementing the principle enunciated in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: “Who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present, controls the past.” And the purpose of seizing and exercising all this power? Nothing less, it seems, than to “euthanise France”.
As regards the supposed influence of the academic historian, Noiriel remarked in Le Monde that it was rather rich, given the popular reach of the media networks in which Éric Zemmour has been so prominent, to attribute such ideological power to university teacher-researchers, a professional group which is “for the most part shunned by large media organisations, which publishes its texts in specialised reviews and spends its time in archives and lecture halls”, starved of sunlight and far from the bright lights of the television studio. But the type of “pamphleteering journalist” exemplified by Zemmour, he argues, loves to adopt the pose of the outspoken hero whom those he denounces will inevitably try to silence:
This profile was born in the 1880s with Édouard Drumont, the founder of antisemitic nationalism, at the very moment when parliamentary democracy is first being established in our country … [Drumont] accuses the Jews of forming a nation inside the nation because their religion impels them to hate Christians. He affirms that the Jews have taken power in the banks, in the civil service, in politics, yet no one dares say so since the real French are afraid of reprisals. Drumont adds that the naive notion of the rights of man is going to bring about the ruin of the nation by making things easy for the invaders. It is against this foreseeable catastrophe that he is standing up bravely “to say out loud what the French are thinking privately”.
Édouard Drumont’s book La France Juive (1886), a “pamphlet” of 1,200 pages in two volumes which combined elements of traditional Christian antisemitism, popular anti-capitalism and nineteenth century “scientific” racism, was a publishing sensation in its day which earned for its author an estimated 100,000 francs (about €360,000 in today’s money) before 1891. This income, together with the support of a number of financiers, enabled him in 1892 to establish his own newspaper, La Libre Parole (Free Speech). Éric Zemmour combines regular slots on a number of radio and television programmes, including the popular talk shows Ça ce dispute and On n’est pas couché, with newspaper and magazine columns (Le Figaro Magazine) and the publication of a series of very successful books outlining his views on French actuality (Mélancolie française , Le Suicide français  – a sad story of decadence and decline) and history (Destin français  ‑ a stirring tale of vision, heroism and the valiant struggle for national survival against alien enemies). It is not known how much he earns from all of this but one suspects he is not poor: Le Suicide français is thought to have sold at least 300,000 copies and Destin français almost 100,000 copies in its first few months. With each book retailing at €20 to €25, the royalties can hardly be negligible.
It is Gérard Noiriel’s thesis in Le venin dans la plume that, mutatis mutandis, the rhetorical strategies and ideologies of Drumont and Zemmour are largely identical. What has had to be changed between the 1880s and the 2010s is of course the identity of the enemy of the nation: in the first instance it is “the Jews” and in the second “the Muslims”. Noiriel, let us be clear, is not arguing that there has been an equivalence between the historical effects of antisemitism, in the 1880s or afterwards, and those of what has come to be known as Islamophobia, a more recent phenomenon. His point is simply that, as can be illustrated by a close examination of the ideas and tropes of the two prominent polemicists he has chosen, living more than a hundred years apart, there is a remarkable similarity between their methods, in each case based on the populist scapegoating of a minority in the interests of a politics of assertive nationalism.
Let us proceed to examine some of those tropes and ideas, adding in, where it may be useful, some brief historical context by way of connective tissue linking the French far right of the 1880s and that of the 2010s.
Voltaire, a leading figure of the Enlightenment and generally seen as a deist (rather than an atheist), is said to have remarked: by all means let us discuss the possibility that God does not exist, but let me first send my servants home lest I have my throat cut in bed. Edmund Burke, for his part, believed that “true religion has, and must have, [a] large mixture of salutary fear”: Burke did not think fear was the essential element of religion, but it remained an indispensable one nevertheless. The royalist pamphleteer Antoine de Rivarol (d 1801), dismissing, or perhaps sidestepping, the Enlightenment view of religious doctrine as being largely composed of fable and invention, wrote: “It is not a question of establishing whether religion is true or false but rather whether it is necessary” – necessary, that is, for social cohesion, which effectively meant the subordination of the majority in the interests of “order” and the preservation of the wealth and status of the possessing classes.
It would have been the settled, if not always acknowledged, view of most of the traditional landowning classes during the French nineteenth century – and very probably of much of the middle classes too – that religion was as comforting to the poor as it was vital for the rich. The great mistake of the revolutionaries (and their intellectual antecedents in the Enlightenment) had been to think that society could be remade by that fallen creature man, ab initio and from “abstract” principles such as equality and the rights of man. Conservatives believed both that the shape of society had been ordained by God (with rulers directly anointed by him) and that if it were to evolve at all it must do so only slowly, in an “organic” way.
One consequence of the theologically inflected world view of French conservatism was that since society was largely a matter for God rather than man to dispose of, make and remake, it was politically rather enfeebled. Change – the return of things to how they once splendidly were – might eventually come, but alas only in God’s good time. The restoration of the monarchy under Louis XVIII in 1814 did not mean a return to the status quo: the king in fact was a quite able politician who understood the necessity to attempt a reconciliation between France’s various political traditions; the still vigorous ultra party in parliament thus found itself, during his reign, more royalist than the king himself. His successor (and brother), Charles X, was a more reactionary figure and was eventually forced to abdicate in 1830 in favour of his cousin, the constitutionally inclined Louis-Philippe, significantly “king of the French” rather than “king of France” – and France’s last monarch.
The push and pull between constitutional and absolutist, or left and right, forces in French politics was to continue into the mid-century and beyond, with no complete victory for either side but against a background of what seemed to be a general slow ebb of royalist sentiment. A number of circumstances were to come together in the 1870s and 1880s, however, which energised the reactionary right, giving it a new ideological orientation and, equally welcome, new enemies. The catastrophic decision to declare war on Prussia in 1870 led to rapid military defeat, national humiliation and regime change. The insurrection known as the Commune, a partially working class response to that defeat and to the Prussian siege of Paris, led to the bloody repression of the communards in May 1871 (six thousand deaths, in fighting and summary executions of the rebels, is the lowest estimate) and a long-lingering fear among the possessing classes of what “the reds” might do if they were given the chance. The catastrophe of defeat led to the exile to England of the ailing emperor, Napoleon III, in 1871. The republican regime which replaced the emperor, and which lasted from 1870 to the German invasion of 1940, was frequently plagued by scandals and often attacked by its right-wing opponents as venal, corrupt and ineffective. Finally, the annexation of most of Alsace and parts of Lorraine, agreed in the Treaty of Frankfurt which ended the Franco-Prussian war, led to considerable migration to Paris and other urban centres from “the lost provinces”, much of it from Jewish citizens who felt they would enjoy greater civil rights by opting for France rather than being absorbed into Germany.
In 1881 the newly established journal La Croix (The Cross), published by the Assumptionist order, wrote: “The Jews are not popular in France; their hypocritical tricks have a way of annoying us.” If Catholic antisemitism was, for the moment, largely a matter of a (racial) hostility built on theological foundations it was soon to merge with other currents drawing on nationalism and xenophobia or the new pseudo-discipline of “racial science”. All were to come together, in a great gush of words and sensational “revelations”, in Drumont’s 1,200-page La France Juive.
This work, morally and financially supported by the writer Alphonse Daudet and the Jesuit priest Stanislas du Lac, who had brought the middle-aged Drumont back to Catholicism, addressed itself to the real French, those who felt that despite their long, deep and semi-mystical relationship to the nation, they were now being cast aside by “new people” whose values were suspect, if not non-existent. The historian Michel Winock quotes the journalist Louis Veuillot, writing in 1870, to illustrate the sense of exclusion, victimhood and aggressive self-pity felt at the time by the Catholic right. The sentiments expressed would not need much recasting to be loudly applauded in certain quarters a hundred and fifty years later:
I, a French Catholic Christian, as old as our ancient French oaks and as deeply rooted, am constitutionalised, deconstitutionalised, reconstitutionalised, governed, regulated and robbed by intellectual and moral vagabonds. Renegades or foreigners, they do not share my faith, my prayers, my memories or my hopes. I am at the mercy of the heretic, the Jew, the atheist, and some composite of all the above which is not far off the brute beast.
It was to this sizeable audience of the disgruntled, upper class Catholics who felt they no longer counted politically in the way that they should and middle class Catholics who felt that their religion was under attack (as indeed it was) from the aggressive bourgeois anti-clericalists who now ran the state, that Drumont addressed his message. “Everywhere,” he told them, “you will find the Jew attempting to destroy, directly or indirectly, our religion.” Divorce, he argued, was a Jewish institution, introduced into French law by a Jewish deputy (Alfred Nacquet); the practice of cremation was being promoted by an engineer called Salomon, while another Jew (Camille Sée) was bent on introducing secular secondary education for girls (scandale!). Drumont protested that he had nothing against any religion – qua religion – but his observations on Jews seem to merely put a contemporary insulting spin on medieval Christian prejudices. The Jews, he writes
hate Christ in 1886 just as they hated him in the time of Tiberius, and they subject him to the same insults: whipping the crucifix on Good Friday, profaning the host, defiling holy pictures: such were the delights of the Jew in the Middle Ages and these are his great joy today. Once he attacked the bodies of children; today it is their souls, with atheist education; once he killed by bleeding to death, now he poisons: which is better?
An important part of Drumont’s armoury was also what has been termed economic antisemitism, that is campaigning, largely with a somewhat poorer audience as target, on the basis of hostility to the Jew as capitalist, the capitalist as Jew. France, “honest and hardworking”, it was alleged, had suffered since the Revolution from oppression by the Jews. When they were confined to the ghettoes they merely lent money at exorbitant interest; now liberated, they had taken control of the entire banking sector. In a period of frequent financial collapse and stock market scandal, the effect of Drumont’s tireless propaganda was to obscure complex realities: in his world there seemed to be no poor Jews and indeed few non-Jewish capitalists. Echoing Gambetta, he declared: “Le juif: voilà l’ennemi!” La France Juive supplied the names of thousands of Jews, or “persons of Jewish origin” in business and the names of those non-Jews who traded with them. Racial “science” taught Drumont that the Jew was physically and morally different, that there had always been a fundamental conflict between Aryan and Semite. The two races had nothing in common, the Semite being “mercantile, avaricious, scheming, subtle, cunning”, while the Aryan was “enthusiastic, heroic, chivalrous, unselfish, straightforward, confiding to a fault”.
The most celebrated political “affair” in late nineteenth century France ‑ involving an army officer found guilty of passing secrets to the Germans, and a Jewish officer at that – had everything to interest Drumont, who had, from 1892, campaigned against allowing Jews into the army officer corps. The Dreyfus Affair dragged on from 1894, when Captain Alfred Dreyfus was found guilty of espionage on very flimsy evidence, to 1906, when he was finally cleared and reinstated in the army. The long-running controversy over Dreyfus’s guilt or innocence – and, perhaps more importantly the possible guilt of the higher echelons of the army if he had indeed been framed – deeply divided France throughout the twelve-year struggle, and for a long time after. Drumont was in early, arguing that all the evidence-based objections to Dreyfus’s guilt were beside the point: “It’s a question of race; all the logic-chopping is irrelevant.”
The Dreyfus Affair, which provoked a mammoth clash between the intellectual forces of “the two Frances” (the title of a Swiss study of 1905), was in the end to prove too momentous a business for a middling talent like Drumont. Bigger beasts entered the fray – on the left the writer Émile Zola, the politicians Georges Clemenceau and (belatedly) Jean Jaurès, supported by numerous scholars, writers and artists like Lucien Herr, Daniel Halévy, Émile Durkheim, Marcel Proust, Anatole France and Claude Monet; on the right the two major intellectual figures of Maurice Barrès and Charles Maurras, the writers Jacques Bainville, Léon Daudet and Jules Verne and the painters Edgar Degas and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. One of the lasting residues of the clash of ideas surrounding the Dreyfus Affair was the word intellectual (intellectuel), which first came into use at this time: it was a term of disparagement coined by the right. Barrès defined it thus: an intellectual is “an individual who persuades himself that society should be founded on logic and who fails to realise that it is in fact built on more fundamental necessities, which may well not be amenable to individual reason”.
With the eventual vindication of Dreyfus the political and intellectual hard right was to be the loser in this phase of the struggle, but if it seldom came close to political power in the first forty years of the twentieth century it did retain a certain ideological coherence and managed to operate a sphere of extra-parliamentary action which at times could seem to pose a danger for democracy. Action française, originally founded in 1898 as a republican nationalist organisation, quickly adopted a monarchist platform (calling for the restoration of the “Orléanist” pretender to the French throne). Under the influence of Charles Maurras it adopted a profile that was counter-revolutionary, anti-democratic, antisemitic, anti-Protestant, antimasonic and xenophobic. Forging a durable political alliance between Catholics hostile to the republic (though Maurras himself was not a believer), the old landowning classes, elements of the army and sections of the upper bourgeoisie, AF was to be the dominant force of the extreme right in France for forty years, its paramilitary youth wing, Camelots du roi, many of them students recruited from “the best” Parisian homes, providing it with muscle in the street battles it enthusiastically sought out with socialists and communists.
Action française, and the Camelots, were to be particularly active, along with other anti-parliamentary “leagues”, in the violent attack on the chamber of deputies in February 1934 and also in the attempted lynching in February 1936 of the Jewish socialist leader Léon Blum (shortly to become prime minister), who was pulled from his car and badly beaten on the boulevard Saint-Germain in central Paris. They were certainly a threatening force and there were times, particularly in 1934, when it seemed democracy might wobble. The far right did not seek power by parliamentary means and thus its strength was not tested (or measured) by this means. One can certainly deduce, on the basis of the results of the general elections of 1932 and 1936, that in the decade of fascism, both the left (socialists and communists) and the centre (Radical Party) were at this time strong in France and the right rather weak.
The only way for the far right to accede to power was on the back of a cataclysm, which duly came with the German invasion of France in 1940 and the ensuing collaboration with the occupiers of various elements of French political, administrative and intellectual life, some from the traditionalist (conservative, antisemitic) right and others actively fascist and pro-Nazi. The subject of the collaboration has been well-covered by historians (see http://drb.ie/essays/getting-by) and is too large a subject to be dealt with here. After the war and the defeat of Nazism the political future did not, naturally, look too bright for the far right. Some leading figures were prosecuted and jailed (with a few executed and a good few more shot in score-settling, mostly by the communists).
Jean-Marie Le Pen (born Jean Louis Marie Le Pen, he later “promoted” the Marie to attract Catholic voters) cut his political teeth in the populist “Poujadist” movement (after Pierre Poujade, a bookseller/stationer with roots in wartime collaborationist politics) of the mid-1950s. Originally channelling a revolt of small shopkeepers against taxation and big business, Poujadism soon added familiar elements of race hatred and antisemitism into the mix. The party enjoyed a meteoric rise, coming from nowhere to win 2.4 million votes in 1956 and electing forty-one deputies (among them Le Pen), but not so long after suffered an equally rapid collapse.
Le Pen spent the 1960s and ’70s in the wilderness of the world of the extremist groupuscule. For a long time the most vital issue seemed to be whether the chief force of the ultranationalist right would be his Front National (FN) or his rivals’ Parti des Forces Nouvelles (PFN) – think People’s Front of Judea and Judean People’s Front. The momentum appeared, eventually, to be with Le Pen’s party. In the legislative elections of 1981 the candidates of the FN received 0.18% of the vote, well ahead of the 0.11% garnered by the other parties of the extreme right.
In such a situation of abject failure on the party political front, the far right was relieved to turn to the cultural sphere, hoping, it was said, to win minds if not votes. The so-called “new right” attempted to give a fresh gloss to some old themes, with a sturdy intellectual defence of social inequality, the superiority of certain races, the vital role of elites and the importance of the Greek and Roman heritage (much of the work done under the auspices of the Groupement de recherche et d’étude pour la civilisation européenne [GRECE]). Their ideas were afforded particular hospitality in the columns of the weekly Le Figaro Magazine. The “new right” intellectuals, in a perhaps teasing way, liked to refer to their work as Gramscian, a reference to the Marxist new left hero Antonio Gramsci, who had argued (from his prison cell) that a prolonged period of cultural struggle for ideological hegemony in society might have to precede the political struggle for state power.
And yet, unlikely as it might have seemed at the time, things were looking up politically too for the far right. The Parti Socialiste, which won the presidential and subsequent legislative election in 1981, had campaigned on the ambitious slogan of “Changer la vie” (Change Life). In spite of the important and valuable reforms that Mitterrand and his prime ministers managed to introduce they seemed powerless to change the underlying rules of economics or magic away structural unemployment. An encouraging 62% of French people thought things were, in general, getting worse in an opinion poll in 1983, well up on the 40% of two years previously. In the following year, the list led by Le Pen in the European elections won 11.2%. After almost thirty years out in the cold the far right was suddenly back in business.
Legislative elections in France are a poor guide to how the country is thinking since the electoral system, through the use of a first and second round of voting (with the stragglers eliminated), enables, indeed encourages, a squeezing of the extremes, with voters invited in the second round to hold their noses and vote for the remaining candidate they dislike least. This procedure, called discipline républicaine, tends to minimise the parliamentary representation of the far right (and perhaps also the radical left). Presidential elections (first round) provide a more enlightening picture of what is actually going on: and in these Jean-Marie Le Pen jumped from 14% in 1988 to 17% in 2002, falling back quite significantly in 2007; the torch was then passed to his daughter, Marine, who worked to slightly soften the party’s image and progressed from 18% in 2012 to 21% in 2017. Though the daughter was less inclined to run off at the mouth than her father and steered clear of the antisemitic “jokes” he so obviously enjoyed, the message was still essentially the same: France for the French, out with the foreigners, particularly the dark-skinned ones, and enough of being told what to do by Brussels or the Germans.
Éric Zemmour, in his early years a freelance journalist who moved around – and on one occasion was moved (from Le Figaro) after writing that “most of the drug dealers are blacks or Arabs” – entered into his ideological stride, after two books profiling mainstream right-wing politicians, with Le Premier Sexe (2006), a jeremiad on the supposed feminisation of French society, its title of course recalling Simone de Beauvoir’s famous work. Mélancolie française (2010) argued that France was, or could have been, the new Rome. Napoleon had a good shot at it, but, by a whisker, did not manage to subdue la perfide Albion. In present times France was failing to impose its language on all its residents, a tragic error which recalled the fall of Rome to the barbarians. Le Suicide français (2014) relates the decline of France over forty years to the ascendancy of the generation of 1968, a decadent cohort who have had nothing to contribute to la grande nation but derision, deconstruction and destruction. According to Nicolas Truong in Le Monde, Zemmour’s book amounted to little more than a five-hundred-page denunciation of France’s craven acceptance in this era of feminisation, “halalisation”, xenophilia and self-hatred. If one adds that Zemmour has insulted French citizens of foreign origin who do not give their children proper Christian names, that he has argued that Muslims simply cannot be assimilated to French society, that he deplores the “castrating” influence of “the gay lobby” and the women’s movement, that he was a signatory to a petition opposing the criminalisation of the clients of prostitutes (“Touche pas à ma pute!”), that he is a sworn enemy of “humanrightsism”, which he portrays as a fatal weakness before the fifth column at home and a new form of imperialism abroad, that he has declared that all Muslims, whether they admit it or not, regard jihadis as good exemplars of their faith, one can see that there is scarcely any box of prejudice, whether of the ancient counter-revolutionary variety or the modern saloon bar kind, that he is reluctant to tick.
Noiriel’s book received some hostile reviews in France, based on the idea that his comparison of Drumont and Zemmour was an attempt to equate antisemitism (and we all know what that led to) with Islamophobia (a contemporary ideological tendency still in its infancy of whose possible future development we can know nothing but which some of the reviewers seemed to find marginally respectable). Le venin dans la plume does not make such an equation. What it does is compare the tropes and methods of two talented but fairly unscrupulous propagandists, separated by one hundred and forty years but both engaged in inviting their countrymen to look for the cause of their dissatisfaction, their unhappiness, their national malaise, by focusing on a “foreign” threat to the nation that in actuality largely consists of poor people trying very hard, and not always succeeding, to get by in a tough world. Gérard Noiriel’s book raises some interesting questions about “Islamophobia” and the current state of mind and likely future political orientations of the frequently ghettoised and excluded Muslim population of France. Naturally enough ‑ since that is not its brief ‑ it doesn’t answer all of them. The question, however, is certainly worth another book, indeed perhaps more so than the well-covered Dreyfus Affair or the already well-documented antisemite seer Édouard Drumont.
Enda O’Doherty is joint editor of the Dublin Review of Books.