French readers follow the herd. They believe in prizes. When a French author wins the Goncourt or the Nobel, people rush to bookstores and send his books rocketing to the top of the bestseller lists. But today the French have other things on their minds. President François Hollande is France’s least popular leader since World War II. His poll ratings are even lower than Barack Obama’s. A gay marriage law he rushed through the National Assembly in 2013 has continued to bring enraged (and previously apolitical) protesters into the streets in 2014. Hollande’s Socialist party lost 150 cities in last spring’s municipal elections. In elections for the European parliament, which took place at about the same time, the National Front became France’s largest party. The working-class group, long tarred as fascist, took twice as many seats as the Socialists, who fell to third.
Although the French novelist Patrick Modiano won the Nobel in October, he has lately been bumped off the charts by Eric Zemmour, a talk-show pundit who is persona non grata among the country’s intellectual establishment. Zemmour’s Le suicide français (Paris: Albin Michel, 534 pages, 22.90 euros) is made for the moment. It argues that, since the French student uprising of May 1968, women’s libbers, Muslim migrants, crooked bankers, and overzealous judges have brought France to ruin. To judge from the reaction to Zemmour’s book—which sold a quarter-million copies in the fortnight after publication despite furious condemnations in all of the daily papers—large parts of the French public think he is right.
It is tempting to look at Zemmour as a television hothead in the Bill O’Reilly mold. He is that, at times. But his book has a great ambition, too. As Paul Johnson did in his magisterial Modern Times (1983), Zemmour takes a half-century of events that have been shrouded in progressive clichés and places them in a more logical relationship. His method is the one that historian Richard Reeves uses in his biographies of U.S. presidents. Zemmour will take an episode in France’s political or cultural life, describe the long train of events that made it possible, and extrapolate to its consequences. These are generally episodes that show the French choosing to do away with something they had formerly cherished: the release of director Bertrand Blier’s sexual picaresque Les valseuses in 1974; the 1993 law abandoning the list of approved (usually saints’) names that had been in force for two centuries; President Jacques Chirac’s abolition of military conscription in 1996; the introduction of affirmative action in one of France’s elite universities that same year; the booing of the “Marseillaise,” the French national anthem, by North African immigrant spectators during a game against Algeria in October 2001, weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center; the lack of any commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Austerlitz (1805), perhaps the greatest victory of Napoleon, who until that point had been revered almost as a demigod in French popular culture; and so on.
Zemmour’s idea of France is built around its great nation-builders: Richelieu, Napoleon, and above all General (later president) Charles de Gaulle. It was de Gaulle who rescued French honor after the country’s surrender and occupation in World War II and unified the postwar nation around a narrative of its fight against the Nazis—even if that narrative was mythological, the fight having been in large part confined to Communists, various Christians, and the general himself. De Gaulle’s conservatism was different from conservatism elsewhere. He was attached more to the grandeur of the French nation, less to liberty and small government, and he neither admired nor trusted the United States. After his death in 1970, French politicians made their peace with the free market and a less ambitious view of their country’s destiny. Its intellectuals came to treat their fathers as a bunch of collaborators. Zemmour now sees the post-de Gaulle consensus as an unpatriotic sellout. “We were taught to love what we used to hate,” he writes, “and to hate what we used to love.”