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Formal complaint against far-right Zemmour over text to Jews in France

Lawyers for two associations say that the incident points to the campaign team having a ‘Jewish database’ that recalls the horror of the Holocaust and breaks the law on data use

The issue began after several members of the Jewish community in Paris unexpectedly received a text that appeared to come from Mr Zemmour Pic: Frederic Legrand - COMEO / Shutterstock

Two associations in France have made a formal complaint after text messages appearing to be from far-right former presidential candidate Eric Zemmour were sent to members of the Jewish community. 

The associations, l’Union des étudiants juifs de France (UEJF) and J’Accuse, brought the complaints to the Paris prosecutor’s office on April 11, accusing Mr Zemmour of unlawful use of data.

The issue began after several members of the Jewish community in Paris unexpectedly received a text that appeared to come from Mr Zemmour.

It said: “Hello, I’ve written this for you: Can we continue to live in peace for much longer in France? Read it at EZ2022.fr. Your children are counting on you! EZemmour.”

Credit: Screenshot / Le Monde

The link went to a campaign website for the far-right candidate, and a blog post titled: “Message from Eric Zemmour to people in France who identify as Jewish”. 

The post included references to “the expansion of Islam” and terrorism, denounced the “quiet generalisation of halal”, mentioned the names of a number of anti-Semitic murders, and spoke about the “vandalism of a number of Jewish tombs”. It also said it was opposed to circumcision and “ritual slaughter”.

A Jewish database

Some recipients were said to have been shocked by the message and the post. They said that it suggested that Mr Zemmour and his team had built up a database of Jewish people in France.

The lawyers for the two associations have stated: “A presidential candidate dared to create or fraudulently obtain a secret file of tens of thousands of Jews (or those deemed to be Jews) with their telephone numbers, constituting the most massive exploitation of nominative lists of Jews since the Vél' d'Hiv round-up.”

The “Vél’ d’Hiv round-up” is a reference to the “Rafle du Vélodrome d'Hiver” event, when more than 13,000 Jews were arrested in a mass round-up in Paris in July 1942, by order of the German authorities and with assistance from collaborating French authorities. 

They were held at the Vélodrome d'Hiver (Vél’ d’Hiv) stadium without food, water or sanitation, and then sent to the death camp, Auschwitz, by train, via internment camps in France as part of the Nazis’ ‘Final Solution’.

The president of the association J’accuse, Marc Knobel, told Le Monde: “This [text from Mr Zemmour] is vile, unacceptable and unforgivable. We are shocked and even alarmed that such a thing is possible. We know only too well what it means to build up a database of this kind of thing.”

Personal data use

The message has also brought into sharp relief questions on how personal data can be used during an election campaign.

Mr Zemmour’s team have admitted to using a “data broker” to obtain personal data. 

Data brokers collect data from a variety of sources and then compile databases that can be sold to clients - in this case, an electoral campaign team.

The team said that the broker had compiled a list of people who had expressed interest in “the subject of anti-Semitism in France and Europe”. The data came from “blogs, information websites or newsletters” on this theme, it said.

However, the use of such data is a controversial and sensitive subject. The use of data based on religion is even banned in many instances, in a similar way to the use of data based on political persuasion, or sexual orientation. 

There are some exceptions; such as if the individual has given consent for their data to be used.

Mr Zemmour’s team has claimed that these individuals had given consent for their data to be collected by the sources used, and for it to be used for political ends.

However, it is less clear if the individuals had consented to their data being used by a far-right political presidential candidate.

When contacted by Le Monde, communications and privacy body la Commission nationale de l’informatique et des libertés (CNIL) said it had received several reports linked to this text message, and that it was investigating. 

If the commission sees fit, it may carry out further checks on Mr Zemmour’s team, or of the data broker used. The commission has already questioned the team previously on data use.

If irregularities are found, the CNIL could then launch a sanction procedure, which could lead to a formal notice or fines for data misuse.

The ‘de-demonisation’ of the far-right

Eric Zemmour was a presidential candidate in the first round of elections in France. 

He is an extreme-right winger, who was described by commentators as helping to make far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, who has now gone through to the second round of the elections, “look moderate”.

Former Prime Minister Manuel Valls has been among those to highlight the dynamic Mr Zemmour brought to the campaigns. 

In an open letter, he said that it is “one minute to midnight” when it comes to the possibility of the country electing controversial, far-right candidate Ms Le Pen. 

He said: “Marine Le Pen won her match with Eric Zemmour. She has used him to make her rhetoric more acceptable. She has come out of it more moderate and reasonable [compared to Zemmour], who has nonetheless succeeded in spreading his poison in society. 

“Because of the cowardice of some and the naivety of many, she has been definitively de-demonised.”

Mr Valls said that the possibility of Ms Le Pen succeeding to the second round of the election is “a real risk”, and that many factors have made her appear a more credible candidate to some now, compared to in 2017.

Mr Zemmour, standing for his Reconquête ! party, secured 7.1% of the vote in the first round, equivalent to 2,485,757 votes. He came in fourth place overall.

This compared to 22% for third-place candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon of left-wing party La France Insoumise (7,714,574 votes); 23.1% for Ms Le Pen (8,135,456), and 27.8% for leader and incumbent Emmanuel Macron (La Republique en Marche, 9,784,985 votes).

Ms Le Pen and Mr Macron are now set to go head to head in the second round on April 24.

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