Fighting as France's Zemmour launches presidential campaign

Violence erupts as anti-racism activists protest at rally to launch Eric Zemmour's campaign

SOS Racisme activists clash with supporters of Eric Zemmour at the end of the campaign rally in Villepinte. AFP

French far-right presidential candidate Eric Zemmour launched his presidential campaign in front of thousands of cheering supporters on Sunday at an event marred by fighting.

Mr Zemmour, 63, an author and television commentator, announced on Tuesday that he would run in next April's election, joining the field of challengers seeking to unseat centrist President Emmanuel Macron.

He held his first event at an exhibition centre in a suburb of Paris where thousands cheered every mention of reducing immigration and booed at every reference to Mr Macron.

French far-right presidential candidate Eric Zemmour delivers his speech at his first rally, in Villepinte, north of Paris, on Sunday. Reuters

"The stakes are huge. If I win it will be the start of winning back the most beautiful country in the world," Mr Zemmour told the crowd.

Fighting broke out and chairs were thrown at activists when they stood up with "No to Racism" written on their T-shirts. At least two of them were bleeding as they were ejected from the auditorium.

"We wanted to do a non-violent protest," said Aline Kremer from the group SOS Racisme, which organised the demonstration. "People jumped on them and started hitting them."

A crew from the Quotidien nightly TV news was also booed and removed by security, as speeches hostile to the media continued.

The rally was regarded as a chance for Mr Zemmour to regain momentum after opinion polls showed support falling over the past month as he tried to maintain suspense about his intentions.

"We're hoping that by announcing his candidacy and with this meeting that it will relaunch him a bit," said Maxence Mike, 22, a student member of the "Generation Z" support group.

Mr Zemmour, who has two convictions for hate speech, claimed there were 15,000 people at the rally, although organisers had previously talked of 12,000.

Polls show that voters believe Marine Le Pen, the veteran leader of the far-right National Rally party, would make a more competent president than Mr Zemmour.

The latest surveys suggested he would be eliminated in the first round if the election were held now, with Mr Macron tipped to win ahead of Ms Le Pen, but analysts warn that the outcome remains highly uncertain.

The crowd at the rally – of all ages, but with far more men than women – responded most enthusiastically to Mr Zemmour's speech on immigration, race and Islam.

He pledged to reduce immigration to almost nil if he were elected, dramatically toughen up the naturalisation process and expel failed asylum-seekers and illegal immigrants.

Mr Zemmour again stressed the danger of French people being "replaced" by immigrants, echoing a theory known as the "great replacement", which is popular with white supremacists.

The idea was on many supporters' minds.

"You just need to go out in the street to see it," Helena, 60, a civil servant from the Paris suburbs, said at the rally. "When I take transport I barely hear anyone speaking French."

Supporters of French far-right media figure and 2022 presidential candidate Eric Zemmour wave French flags during a rally in Villepinte, near Paris, on December 5. AFP

Fabrice Berly, 54, a photocopier technician also from the Paris suburbs, said he no longer recognised his neighbourhood as the place in which he grew up.

"I can see the replacement going on around me," Mr Berly said.

Jacques Ohana, 65, a Paris surgeon, said he liked the way Mr Zemmour spoke and thought that he had already succeeded in making immigration one of the main topics of the election campaign.

"What's important for me is that the others are focusing on his topics," Mr Ohana said. "Whether he's elected or not, he's already won the campaign."

France's right-wing Republicans party picked the President of the Ile-de-France Regional Council, Valerie Pecresse, as its nominee on Saturday after a primary dominated by talk of immigration and crime.

Police were on alert for far-left activists and anarchists who disrupted Mr Zemmour's trip last weekend to the southern of port city of Marseille, which ended with the candidate showing the middle finger to a female protester.

Riot police massed outside the arena and searched people's bags as they arrived.

In Paris, about 2,000 people marched to protest against a candidacy denounced as racist and divisive.

"It's important to show that we won't let fascism gain ground," said Simon Duteil, a spokesman for the Solidaires union.

Mr Zemmour has had several influential figures on the far right distance themselves from him, including his main financial backer.

Updated: December 6th 2021, 8:05 AM