The Trump Playbook Hits France

By over-indexing on coverage of the far-right pundit Éric Zemmour, the media risk amplifying him.

An illustration of Éric Zemmour
Getty; Adam Maida / The Atlantic

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A television star eyes a presidential run as an outsider ready to take on the political establishment. Unlike his competitors, he doesn’t shy away from religious or racial provocation, nor does he hide his penchant for conspiracies. He is a vocal opponent of immigration, political correctness, and feminism. To his supporters, he is a familiar face who isn’t afraid to “tell it like it is.” To detractors, he’s an inflammatory populist set on dividing the country. The media’s wall-to-wall coverage makes him an inescapable presence.

This isn’t Donald Trump, though it might be France’s version of him. Éric Zemmour, a far-right pundit who has gained ground in recent polls ahead of the country’s presidential election next year, has yet to descend from his proverbial golden escalator to announce his candidacy. But the overwhelming coverage of him in the French media, as well as his increasing presence in the international press, suggests that it’s only a matter of time before he does.

That Zemmour has managed to attract outsize attention relative to the rest of France’s presidential hopefuls is a testament to his ability to remain provocative—a skill that he has honed over the course of his career. Like Trump, he has vexed his way onto front pages and prime-time news broadcasts simply by being the most outrageous voice in the room. The goal, it would appear, is to drum up enough momentum to bolster his anticipated candidacy. And so far, the French press has proved happy to oblige.

The media have been here before. Although the American media did not create Trump (like Zemmour, he was a household name long before he was ever a candidate), they did grant him a disproportionate level of coverage, bestowing upon him more attention and legitimacy than they’ve given any of his competitors. With six months left until election day (still a long way away, by French standards), France’s contest has scarcely begun. Yet by over-indexing on a single candidate—or, in Zemmour’s case, a potential candidate—French journalists look doomed to repeat the mistakes of their counterparts on the other side of the Atlantic.

Much of the media’s fascination with Zemmour seems to be excited by his similarities with Trump, a comparison that the 63-year-old Frenchman appears all too happy to embrace. In an interview with The New York Times, he claimed that the cover of his latest book, France Has Not Yet Said Its Last Word, was modeled after the former American president’s book Great Again, which, like Zemmour’s, was published in the run-up to a presidential election. He also played up some of their other apparent commonalities: their status as political outsiders, as well as their shared concerns over immigration and trade.

Zemmour isn’t quite the outsider he claims to be, though. Born in the suburbs of Paris to a Berber Jewish family from Algeria, he studied at Sciences Po, a training ground for the French political class, before becoming a journalist. During his decades-long career, he worked for Le Figaro, France’s center-right newspaper of record, and CNews, the country’s equivalent of Fox News.

What separates him from much of the rest of the French elite is his radical worldview. In addition to his incendiary comments about immigrants and Muslims (he has twice been convicted of inciting racial hatred), he also peddles in historical revisionism (falsely claiming that France’s wartime Vichy government, which openly collaborated with Nazi Germany, saved French Jews) and conspiracy theories (he is a proponent of “the great replacement,” an ethno-nationalist theory popularized by the French writer Renaud Camus that claims that indigenous white Europeans are being replaced by nonwhite immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa).

Having witnessed the rise of Trump, the French press knows the perils of turning Zemmour into some kind of political spectacle or, worse yet, normalizing his extreme views. “Should we start asking ourselves some questions, or do we continue to be manipulated?” the French journalist Salhia Brakhlia quizzed her colleagues in response to a tweet by Zemmour, which included a photo of him being swarmed by reporters that he captioned, “My friends, the journalists.”

“We’ve been having big debates within the newspaper about how we should cover him,” a senior editor at one of France’s center-left dailies, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, told me. Part of the calculus comes down to the fact that Zemmour isn’t technically a candidate (he still needs to secure the support of at least 500 mayors across the country in order to be eligible). The other factor is the growing buzz around his campaign. According to the French media watchdog Acrimed, there were 4,167 mentions of Zemmour in the French press in September alone—the equivalent of 139 mentions a day. During the same period, Zemmour received more than 11 hours of airtime, Robin Andraca, a journalist based in Paris who tracks Zemmour’s television appearances relative to those of rivals, told me. By comparison, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo received two hours of airtime. Marine Le Pen, Zemmour’s main competitor for far-right votes, got even less, at a little more than an hour.

The way Andraca sees it, the media “cannot resist” divisive figures such as Zemmour, because they make for compelling television and good stories. “You are pretty sure that he’s going to say something very racist, very problematic, but then it’s okay because you can talk about that thing for two days,” Andraca surmised. “That’s magical for journalists.”

In this way, French journalists are falling into the same trap as their American counterparts. By rewarding Zemmour’s extremism with more airtime, as the U.S. press did with Trump ahead of the 2016 election, they send the implicit, if unintentional, message that only the most radical rhetoric is worthy of being reported on. The consequences of this when Trump ran were twofold: Not only did it overrepresent more extreme views in the public debate, but it also encouraged politicians to be more outlandish. Even today, “people like Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Josh Hawley of Missouri, and Ted Cruz of Texas get much more attention in the media than more moderate senators who actually make up the majority of the Republican Party in the Senate,” Tom Rosenstiel, a press critic who teaches journalism at the University of Maryland, told me. “It’s a lesson we know but haven’t learned.”

Zemmour isn’t simply attracting the lion’s share of media attention. He is effectively setting the terms of France’s presidential debate, much like Trump did. By overwhelming journalists with a seemingly endless stream of news (or, as the former president’s one-time chief strategist Steve Bannon crudely put it, by endeavoring to “flood the zone with shit”) and by exhausting public attention, Trump succeeded in turning the press into a kind of pulpit. “The agenda of Zemmour is what we’re talking about in France today: immigration, security, Islam,” ​​Thomas Snégaroff, a Paris-based journalist and historian, told me, noting that even in many interviews that don’t include Zemmour, his opponents are asked to react to things he’s said.

Not all coverage of Zemmour is complimentary, of course. In fact, much of what is written about him is critical, especially as it relates to his more incendiary views. But if there’s one lesson that the press ought to have taken from the Trump era, it’s that whether coverage is critical hardly matters. “We’re accustomed to the idea that bad coverage is bad for the president, but in the way that Trump operated, it reversed itself, and negative coverage became for him proof with his base that ‘these people are critical of me because they hate you,’” Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University and the author of the PressThink blog, told me. “What I would say to the French is, as soon as you see that happening, where the very criticism that you try to level against this candidate gets incorporated into his pitch, you are in the danger zone and you’ve got to reconsider your practices.”

Here lies the fundamental tension facing the French press right now. To dedicate too much time and space to Zemmour would be to give him the clout that he no doubt craves, and signal to audiences that he is more deserving of their attention than other potential candidates. To ignore him, however, would be to risk falling short of its journalistic duty to report on and scrutinize a viable contender for the French presidency: Two recent polls showed Zemmour winning anywhere from 16 to 17 percent of the national vote, second only to President Emmanuel Macron and, crucially, outflanking Le Pen. (One of the surveys also found that more than six in 10 French voters think the media spend too much time on Zemmour.)

Other factors drive the French media’s editorial decision making. For one thing, someone who is seemingly everywhere is difficult to ignore. ​​As the country’s minister of justice bemoaned last week, Zemmour is like a weather forecast—“every day there is something new.” What’s more, coverage of him is lucrative: A recent issue of Paris Match, which featured a photo of Zemmour embracing his 28-year-old political adviser and alleged mistress on its cover, reportedly became one of the weekly magazine’s recent best sellers.

But perhaps the main reason that the French media are so saturated with Zemmour coverage is because, out of the dozen or so candidates vying for the presidency (including notable figures such as Hidalgo and the former Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier), he is the most contentious. “He knows how to control the media agenda,” Benjamin Haddad, the senior director of the Europe Center at the Atlantic Council think tank, in Washington, D.C., and, like Zemmour, a graduate of Sciences Po, told me. “He says something horrible and then everyone talks about it … It’s this vicious cycle that is very difficult to break.”

Zemmour’s latest stunt, which drew widespread coverage and condemnation, was to point a sniper rifle at journalists while attending an arms fair in Paris, laughing and telling reporters to “back off.” More instructive is another controversy: Zemmour recently pledged that, if elected, he would seek to reimpose a 19th-century ban on foreign names such as Mohammed (no such restrictions currently exist, barring a few exceptions). It was reaction-inducing, perhaps by design. But it wasn’t new. In fact, the topic of French names has long been a pet issue of his. In 2016, he publicly criticized a government minister for naming her child Zohra, after her mother, rather than choosing a traditionally French Christian name. He leveled a similar diatribe two years later against a fellow journalist, purportedly telling her that her Senegalese name was “an insult” to France.

Some news outlets, in France and around the world, published stories on Zemmour’s name comments. Others, however, made the decision not to. “That is something we didn’t cover,” the editor at the center-left newspaper told me, on the grounds that it was not new and was, instead, “ridiculous.”

How the French media cover Zemmour will ultimately come down to these kinds of editorial choices, whether he declares his candidacy, and how long he retains his position in the polls. But these factors are related. The more incendiary Zemmour is, the more likely he is to draw media attention, and the more likely he is to remain in the public debate.

The way some journalists see it, Zemmour might already be too big to ignore. “If we don’t talk about Zemmour today, we will be accused of not talking about something we don’t like,” Snégaroff said, and likened the French media’s relationship with Zemmour to that of Frankenstein and his monster. “He was made in large part by us, and now he’s here. So what do we do?”