Posted on December 6, 2021

France on the Verge of Civil War

Christopher Caldwell, Claremont Review of Books, Fall 2021

At home in Paris one evening during the COVID spring of 2020, the conservative columnist and television pundit Éric Zemmour got a cell phone call from the president of France. Emmanuel Macron, frequent butt of Zemmour’s on-air contempt, was calling to commiserate. Zemmour had been accosted by a thug that afternoon while walking home from a fruit stand on the rue des Martyrs. The whole of political Paris was talking about it. For decades Zemmour, 63, has warned the public that France is being submerged by Muslim immigration and smothered by political correctness. In so doing, he has been acclaimed as a historian and author, and revered as a truth-teller. He has also been reviled in the press and hauled into court for inciting racial and religious hatred. Now he was being harassed in the street. That alarmed even Macron.

According to Zemmour, Macron used the phone call to defend his own vision of multi-ethnic France. He highlighted his good relationship with Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, who has been skeptical of mass immigration. He acknowledged that France, rocked by terrorist attacks over the past half-decade, had problems with the Islamic radicals known as Salafists. Then the two began to debate. “I told him the Salafists were just the tip of the iceberg,” Zemmour wrote recently, “that the key question was the number of Muslims, that we had to stop immigration.” In the course of 45 minutes of passionate back-and-forth, Macron told Zemmour that a president who spoke like that would drag the country into civil war. Zemmour cut him off. “I told him that if we continue to follow his policies we are headed for civil war in any case.”

Barely a year later, Zemmour is hinting that he himself will run to replace Macron in next April’s presidential elections.

From one perspective, Zemmour’s political ambition is crazy. He lacks experience, organization, and an obvious source of funding. Most of the country’s mainstream journalists despise him. The Conseil supérieur de l’audiovisuel (CSA), France’s national media regulator, recently forced him off the air by classifying him as a political actor rather than a journalist. But there is another perspective. Zemmour is gifted as a television presenter, though obviously not everyone’s cup of tea. He has a somewhat broader appeal as a writer—his captivating histories shoot to the top of the bestseller lists. {snip} His latest book, published in September, is an autobiographical reflection on the last 15 years of French politics called La France n’a pas dit son dernier mot (“France hasn’t said its last word”). The idiomatic title conveys the theme of a potential Zemmour candidacy: the country is down but not out.

Zemmour is not the only Frenchman who has lately been preoccupied with civil war. The best-selling philosopher Michel Onfray said a year ago that France is already in the midst of one. And last spring a thousand retired military officers, including 20 generals, published an open letter to Macron in the newsweekly Valeurs actuelles, warning that antiracism, Islamism, and disrespect for law enforcement were bringing about the collapse of public order. “Soon the growing chaos might end in civil war,” they wrote, “and the dead, for whom you will bear the responsibility, will number in the thousands.”


“Demographic laws are iron laws,” Zemmour told an interviewer last summer. In this belief, he is in line with those hard-headed mid-20th-century French demographers (such as Alfred Sauvy) and historians (such as Pierre Chaunu) who warned that their country’s reproductive resources were limited. Because French people did not have a lot of babies, France could not afford to welcome immigrants as open-heartedly as its more sentimental citizens might wish. That was the background to Charles de Gaulle’s reluctant decision to abandon France’s Algerian possession to independence. “The Arabs are Arabs, the French French,” he explained to an aide in March 1959. “Do you think the French body politic can absorb 10 million Muslims, who tomorrow will be 20 million and the day after 40 million?” De Gaulle joked that the likely outcome of maintaining the link to Algeria was that his village, Colombey-of-the-Two-Churches, would be renamed Colombey-of-the-Two-Mosques.

But laborers arrived from North Africa all the same. Unsurprisingly, they underbid both the unionized industrial workers and the small shop owners who made up much of the French workforce. In December 1978, under President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, France’s council of state permitted the immediate families of those already arrived to join them, on the grounds that anyone who happens to be on French soil has a right to a satisfying family life. The migration now took on aspects of a colonization.

In 2011, French president Nicolas Sarkozy picked up the torch of neoconservative democracy promotion, by then dropped even in the United States. Goaded and inspired by celebrity philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, he devised the NATO invasion of Libya to topple the government of aging strongman Muammer Gaddhafi. The dictator and his sons were murdered but no stable regime replaced them. Libya has become the hub of a massive mafia-run exodus from sub-Saharan Africa that is already changing the face of French society. France’s overseas departments (not colonies or possessions, but actual parts of France) have become migrant magnets, too. The population of heavily Muslim Mayotte, just off the African coast, has ballooned from 15,000 in 1950 to 280,000 today, about half of them immigrants from elsewhere in the region. Government demographers expect Mayotte’s population to triple again, to 760,000, by mid-century.

France is more and more Muslim, especially in its cities. In the past ten years, according to sociologist Pierre Vermeren, the giving of Muslim names to newborns has tripled. Up to a fifth of the soldiers in the French armed forces are Muslim.

Naturally this upheaval impacts the lives of non-Muslims. In several books, the sociologist Christophe Guilluy—who, like Zemmour, grew up in Montreuil—has described the dislocation that inequality and globalization have wrought on the French-born working class. As France’s urban economy shifted from manufacturing and farming to services and finance, Guilluy explains, workers were priced out of private housing by yuppies and bullied out of public housing by immigrants, who have turned many housing projects into Islamic strongholds. That process pushed the working class into France’s exurbs and rural areas. There, making ends meet (or not) can come down to the price of gasoline. In 2018 and 2019, the so-called “yellow vests” (gilets jaunes) protests, focused on high gas prices and metropolitan contempt, briefly threatened to chase Macron from office.


In this light, the “civil war” that Zemmour talks about might be understood as something like the polarization that has marked American politics since midway through the Obama Administration. On one side are the “winners” of globalization—the super-rich and protected minorities. On the other are globalization’s losers—the newly precarious middle and working classes. That is partly the way Zemmour understands it: “We are living through a moment of the sort that we have lived through often in our history,” he writes in his newest book, “where the people no longer recognize themselves in the elites, the political parties, or…‘the system.’”


Many French solutions to the problems of immigration and Islam appear doomed to fail. A case in point is the belief that laïcité—the system of secularism imposed at the turn of the last century to topple the Catholic Church from its position of cultural and educational dominance—might work to tame Islam as well. To show that education is free, champions of laïcité defend civics classes for small children that subject the prophet Mohammed to robust democratic debate. To show that women are free, they build public swimming facilities, like the refurbished Butte aux Cailles pool in the 13th arrondissement, with mixed-sex showers.

They are barking up the wrong tree. The problem with Islam is not that it dominates the country’s official institutions but that the population of its adherents is growing by leaps and bounds. Last summer, Causeur magazine released a set of maps that the government consulting group France Stratégie had been using. They showed a growth of immigrant populations in all French cities that was almost incredible. In vast stretches of Seine-St-Denis, burial place of France’s kings and queens, 70-80% of the children under 18 are born of immigrants from outside of Europe. (“There are 135 different nationalities in Seine-St-Denis,” the Socialist interior minister Jean-Pierre Chevènement once remarked with black humor, “but one of them has pretty much died out.”) The same goes for Limoges and other provincial cities that would, until recently, have been considered sleepy. The maps sent shock waves through France when they were published, but what is most striking is that the outrage took the government consultants by surprise. They had been using the maps for two years to develop plans to fight residential segregation. It had apparently not occurred to them that, in the public’s view, the main problem was not the distribution of the immigrant population but the sheer size of it.

Faced with an increasingly anxious public, Macron has sought to strike a populist tone. His interior minister Gérald Darmanin, and his education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer, are both conservatives of a sort. In the wake of the George Floyd riots and demonstrations in the United States, Macron made a forthright announcement that France “will tear down none of its statues.”

But that has done little to change the country’s mood. Among the major Western countries that sought to develop an effective COVID vaccine, France alone failed—France, the country of Louis Pasteur. In a wide-ranging poll last summer, Le Monde found that three quarters of the citizenry believe France is in decline. The belief is held by overwhelming majorities of every age group, and of every political party except one: Macron’s La République en Marche (LREM). That in itself is a problem. The country appears to be ruled by the wildly atypical sliver of its population that believes everything is hunky-dory. By 68 to 32, members of LREM and top executives believe globalization is good for France. Members of all other parties and people at all other income levels disagree. Only 26% of French people trust the media. Only 16% trust political parties. One element in Le Monde’s study was a departure from what French polls have tended to show over the last few decades. Suddenly, 79% of French people want a “real leader to reestablish order,” while 86% say “authority” is a concept unjustly maligned, and half want to re-institute capital punishment. Odd that Macron has chosen this very moment to enlist the United Nations in writing a ban on the death penalty into international law.

If Zemmour stands for anything, it is reconnecting the French public to big decisions over the future of France, particularly when it comes to immigration. “Our people…must be able to make decisions on who is part of it and what its future will be,” he wrote recently. “It must be able to decide whether to end family reunification for immigrants and birthright citizenry, and whether to limit the right to political asylum—without an oligarchy of French and European judges standing in its way.”

That is the sound of a second shoe dropping. The question of “who belongs” is an indication that when Zemmour talks about civil war, he means something more than the Trump-era clash between insiders and outsiders. He is questioning, among other things, whether Islam and Christian-derived secularism can co-exist on the same soil. At the end of the summer the magazine Marianne described a private meeting in which Zemmour reassured a group of businessmen that, if elected, he would not rock the economic boat. He would not try to take France out of the European Union, or out of its common currency, the Euro, ill-advised though he might consider both these things. He has other priorities. “If I get into power, it will be to deal with one thing,” Zemmour reportedly told his listeners. “The clash of civilizations.”


Open mention of the clash of civilizations as a subject for government policy has until recently been confined to what in France is called the “extreme Right.” As long as World War II cast its shadow over European political life, it was fairly easy and uncontroversial to say who the extreme Right was. It was quarantined in an outrageous reactionary party called the National Front, founded in 1972 by Jean-Marie Le Pen, a classically educated and crudely eloquent lawyer, war veteran, and businessman. Le Pen had been indignant over de Gaulle’s abandonment of Algeria in the face of guerrilla war, and sympathetic to those colonial officers inclined to resist his policy of decolonization.

As such, he and the movement he led could reasonably be described as imperialist, nationalist, and even (in sentiment, at least) putschist. On top of that, Le Pen, without giving vent to any specifically anti-Semitic characterizations or theories, delighted in baiting those who placed anti-Semitism at the center of World War II, and of the repentance that necessarily followed. He called the Holocaust a “detail” of the war. This attitude not only tainted him morally, it seemed to tie him to the side of collaboration and defeat.

And when migration from North Africa began in earnest, he did not euphemize, or seek to pass off as a policy disagreement, his revulsion at the prospect of sharing the country with an alien culture. The category of “racism” was not much used at the time, but in the absence of an alternative explanation, it seemed to describe him well. Le Pen was never close to power, though he shocked the country in 2002 by making it to the second round of the presidential elections. He and his voters were excluded from politics by a tacit agreement of all other parties, an arrangement known as the cordon sanitaire.


Zemmour is deeply insightful and deeply offensive. He is the one thing to the extent that he is the other. In the autumn of 2019 he spoke to a “Convention of the Right” sponsored by Marion Maréchal in Paris. He gave a brilliant and embittered speech in which he warned: “The question before us is the following: ‘Will young French people accept to live as a minority in the land of their ancestors?’ If so, they deserve to be colonized. If not, they will need to fight for their liberation.”

That line brought the house down. It also brought legal charges against Zemmour for “incitement to hatred.” {snip}