Catholics for Zemmour

Letter from France
French far-right presidential candidate Éric Zemmour, right, holds Marion Marechal’s hand as he arrives on stage during a campaign rally in Toulon, France, March 6, 2022 (AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias).

This April’s presidential election in France was set to be a civilizational battle, a do-or-die, last-quarter fight for national identity and survival. But the Russian invasion of Ukraine has forced the media cycle to catch up, at least momentarily, with studies showing that most French people just don’t care about the supposed threat of wokisme. Instead of American campus culture, a supposed rise in petty crime, or the number of police officers that a candidate plans to recruit, the French would rather hear about solutions for underfunded hospitals and schools, climate change, and the cost of living—a fact that has mostly been lost among the nexus of editorial boards, production studios, and communications teams who, until the outbreak of an actual war, had preferred the narrative of a culture war.

President Emmanuel Macron deserves at least part of the blame. Since taking office in 2017, he has presented himself as liberal democracy’s dutiful rampart with one hand, while using the other to triangulate with a ferociously confident Right. The political crisis this has caused might be best captured by the earnest astonishment and disbelief on Marine Le Pen’s face in February 2021 when Gérald Darmanin, the interior minister, accused her in a televised debate of being “soft” on Islam. It’s difficult, though, to out-demagogue the far Right. One year later, Le Pen is part of a triumvirate challenging Macron from the Right, herself positioned somewhere between the more centrist-friendly Valérie Pécresse and the proto-fascist Éric Zemmour. Their collective strength—now stalled, it would seem, by international crisis—looms over an electoral cycle where it has become common to hear matter-of-fact references to a tide of Africans submerging Europa. 

But craven opportunism on the part of Macron can explain only so much of what’s happening. France’s new Right is the result of one of the forgotten revolts that marked the country’s grueling 2010s—forgotten, at least, by this American journalist, someone wistfully inclined to view his adopted country as the perennial homeland of 1789, égalité, and all that. To be a French conservative over the winter of 2012 and 2013, however, when hundreds of thousands of your like-minded citizens took to the streets for weeks of extended protests, was to witness the advent of a new politics.

The Manif pour tous (“protest for everyone”) seemed to come out of nowhere. In November 2012, Socialist president François Hollande introduced a bill legalizing same-sex marriage, hoping for an easy victory with his progressive base after a series of retreats on fiscal austerity. What followed, however, was an upsurge of conservative organizing and mobilization, the likes of which France had not experienced for decades. 

Between late 2012 and spring 2013, a different France—conspicuously wealthier, whiter, and more Christian than the rest of the country—stormed the streets of major cities. Bucking the assumption that mass-protest politics was the exclusive domain of left-wing social movements, as many as 1 million people reportedly attended the largest Parisian demonstrations in early 2013 according to organizers. Drawing out many cultural conservatives who felt ignored as the newly elected government embarked on a major reform of a key social institution, the marches also saw the revival of a dormant ecosystem of right-wing groups, from royalist clubs and integralist sects to old anti-abortion networks. The center-left establishment weekly Le Nouvel Observateur tellingly confessed: “We thought they had ceased to exist, but really we just didn’t see them.”

Between late 2012 and spring 2013, a different France—conspicuously wealthier, whiter, and more Christian than the rest of the country—stormed the streets of major cities.

Some of these protestors were from the generation of French Catholics who came of age spiritually and politically during the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Many of them were especially galvanized by the former’s 1997 Paris rendition of World Youth Day. Fifteen years later they now gathered in the same parks and public spaces to protest the gay-marriage law. “What founded the culture of Europe, the search for God and the availability to listen to him,” Benedict XVI claimed during the conclusion to his  2008 speech before the Paris Collège des Bernardins, “still remains today the foundation of any true culture.” 

But the “eldest daughter of the Church” was now in crisis. The twenty-first century’s moral minority was raised in observant households at a time when the country at large was undergoing a spectacular drop-off in all forms of Catholic observance. “The breakdown of practice, the collapse of baptism, rupture in the transmission of faith,” Le Figaro journalist Jean Sévilla lamented in 2015. “This is a historic turning point whose significance we can barely measure as long as the majoritarian age groups were born while the French, even if they didn’t have a direct relation with the Church or manifested a distinctive anticlericalism, had been raised in the Christian tradition: until the 1960s, 90% of the French were baptized.” 

Against this backdrop, the Manif pour tous exposed a very specific—and powerful—segment of the country’s elite. Flocking to city centers from well-appointed suburbs and neighborhoods, like those in the western districts of Paris, the protest crowd mirrored the slow transformation of Catholic identity and practice into a cultural artifact for families on the right-side of the social divide. In contrast to the steady drop-off in rural and working-class regions, those practicing Catholicism were now proportionally wealthy, better educated, and closer to urban areas.

The Manif pour tous, in other words, was a slightly chicer Tea Party. Forget trucker hats; think Canada Goose in the winter months, sailor-striped crew necks and tired salmon trousers for early spring. Any list of the figures who emerged in 2013 is peppered by long-winded names: Ludivine de la Rochère, Guillaume de Prémare, Madeleine Bazin de Jessy. Nobility three hundred years ago, perhaps, they were now suburban professionals, middle managers, and small business owners for the most part, or their children. They had some money and property, but larger reserves of entitlement. This was an explosive brew for a class whose anxieties were compounded by the declining competitiveness of French capitalism. 

The 2013 law eventually passed, of course. Few, even on the “right of the right,” seriously consider trying to roll it back today. In the name of national unity, Le Pen’s program calls for a “moratorium” on what the French call “societal” questions. Zemmour has likewise been evasive. “The Manif pour tous, above all bourgeois, failed because the lower classes didn’t feel involved,” he told a packed crowd in Versailles last October. “We need to find axes that unify these two social groups. The subjects that unite are identity in the broader sense and immigration.”

But almost all the young conservatives I’ve spoken with recall being politicized that spring. Two young Zemmour activists I had lunch with a few weeks ago became active Catholics in the years that followed. One of them asked me, bemused, “Do you think I’m homophobic? I work up by the Porte de Clignancourt, you go up there and you’ll see with all the Muslims what homophobia really is.” Short of doing away with the law, they now train their crosshairs on what Éric Zemmour has termed the “LGBT lobby”—a decadent fifth column, supposedly hegemonic within the Parisian cultural elite, sapping the vigor of heterosexual Frenchmen.  

Last summer, a major “bioethics” law passed parliament, liberalizing medically assisted pregnancies for lesbian couples and single women. Barring a few scattered actions lead by nostalgics for the heady days of 2013, the law passed without a blip, a silence that cannot be chalked up to the politically muffling effects of the pandemic, or to a French Church embroiled in sex-abuse scandals. From time to time, a magazine will run a feature on a young gay adult who, as a child, was taken by their parents to the marches. 

The real significance of ‘Manif pour tous’ is to be found in the type of right-wing politics that it made possible.

The problem is that the Manif pour tous was always about much more than gay marriage. In his 2014 book, Le Mai 68 Conservateur, the political scientist Gaël Brustier aptly equates the protests to a “conservative 68,” a nationalist’s riposte to the generation-minting left-wing uprising of the late 1960s. The Manif pour tous’s real significance, in other words, is to be found in the type of right-wing politics that it made possible, one that has only ballooned in influence and power since. 

Ten years later, its offspring are omnipresent in conservative media and politics, making up the most identifiable faces of the Right’s cocky young guard. On the conservative chain CNEWs, in the pages of Le Figaro, Valeurs actuelles, L’Incorrect, and a handful of blogs, pundits like Eugénie Bastié, Alexandre Devecchio, or Charlotte D’Ornellas spar with progressive straw men. Their conservatism is “décomplexé,” meaning literally “without complex,” emancipated from the self-doubt imposed on the conservative mind since the 1960s and free to criticize the “great replacement” of white Europe. 

Marion Maréchal, Marine Le Pen’s 31-year-old niece, is in many respects the most representative figure of the Manif pour tous generation. Maréchal, as she is now known, split with her aunt’s more populist National Rally partly from the desire to privilege culture-war traditionalism over her aunt’s feints towards economic nationalism. She grew up in the wealthy western suburbs grouped around Versailles, the cultural counter-capital outside Paris that has long been home to a preserve of conservative cadres. 

 In November 2013, Madeleine Bazin de Jessy, Maréchal’s childhood classmate at the traditionalist Catholic school Institut Saint-Pie X, co-founded Sens commun, the main pressure group that emerged after the marches. “Common sense” or “decency” is a value that these people claim to have revived from George Orwell. The interest group has since been rebranded with the franker name of Mouvement conservateur. Boasting a network of committed activists, it was instrumental in securing the nomination of conservative François Fillon as leader of the center-right Républicains in the 2017 presidential campaign. 

In early December, however, the organization switched its affiliation from the established center-right to Éric Zemmour, France’s most notorious far-right polemicist who is now running as an independent candidate for the presidency. Longtime darling of the Manif pour tous generation, Zemmour is banking on accomplishing one of the movement’s long-hoped-for goals: a union of right-wing forces, transcending the division between the centrist, “republican” Right and Le Pen’s pseudo-populists. Marion Maréchal recently endorsed Zemmour, capping off a series of high-profile conversions from the established right-wing parties to the polemist’s new force, Reconquest! 

The reshuffling behind Zemmour is all the more remarkable given that his campaign has stumbled badly in recent months. Marine Le Pen has reconsolidated her position at the front of the right-wing pack. In fact, Zemmour seems very much at peace with his shrunken position in the polls. In Cannes on January 22, he seemed to be looking beyond this election to invite Pécresse and Le Pen supporters and surrogates to eventually join what he termed the “great adventure of the recomposition” of French conservatism. 

The Manif pour tous was the bridge to this alliance. Zemmour may not be the one to fully accomplish this shift, but in the long run I’d bet that its gravitational pull will finish things off. The bloated conservative wing of France’s upper-middle class, its real drivers, now have the missing vocabulary to out-maneuver Marine Le Pen—the defense of civilizational identity while France is besieged on all sides, and a nationalist movement culture to reabsorb and tame the lower orders. 

“Naïve” is how Paul Piccarreta described to me his encounter with the Manif pour tous crowd. This 32-year-old journalist hails from a working-class background in southern France, where he grew up in a family that converted to Christianity when he was a child. Reflexively inclined toward the Left, he studied at Paris’s private Institut Catholique, which threw him into a milieu that he called “a caricature of the old bourgeoisie and aristocracy, working together to maintain itself. They know they’re in decline, don’t have as much wealth as they might like, but they do have the social capital and network to keep themselves at a high level.” 

In 2015 Piccarreta co-founded Limite, a review of “integral ecology.” He rejects the common accusation that it was a Manif pour tous project. “My thinking was that we needed to create a publication that would provide people who participated in the Manif pour tous with a theoretical framework to think about what was really happening,” he said. “For me, this mostly meant dealing with economic and ecological questions, thinking about the limits of laissez-faire and the environmental catastrophe.” When Limite published a 2019 manifesto rejecting the homophobia and culture-war obsessions of the Catholic Right, co-founder Eugénie Bastié left the review. She is now “getting her revenge with Zemmour,” he quipped. 

“As I see it, Christianity really has a major potential to transform society,” Piccarreta, who has supported left-populist Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the past, told me. “Many on the Left know that the Gospel can be an extremely powerful political tool. Right-wing Catholics don’t cite it, they talk about other things, but rarely the Gospel itself. If you use it politically, you’re not going to become an Éric Zemmour.” 

Published in the April 2022 issue: 

Harrison Stetler is a journalist in Paris.

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