Anti-racism activists were beaten up on Sunday as far-right former French TV pundit Eric Zemmour held his first presidential campaign rally near Paris, a few days after he formally declared his candidacy in a video highlighting his anti-migrant and anti-Islam views.
Mr Zemmour has drawn comparisons in France to former US president Donald Trump because of his populism and ambitions of making the jump from the small screen to national leadership in France’s presidential election in April.
The 63-year-old, who has multiple hate-speech convictions, unveiled his campaign’s slogan, “Impossible is not French”, a quote attributed to Napoleon.
Supporters at the rally sang France’s national anthem, shouted “Zemmour, president!” and “We will win!” while brandishing the tricolour French flag. AP reporters saw some activists dressed in black with “No to racism” on their jumpers being beaten up by people at the rally and forcefully removed from the room. The scuffles continued outside the room between anti-racism activists and security guards.
Reporters from a French television show covering politics were booed and insulted by Mr Zemmour’s supporters ahead of his speech, leading to them being briefly escorted outside the room by security guards. They came back soon afterwards but Mr Zemmour harshly criticised the media in his speech.
“They are making up polemics about books I wrote 15 years ago, they snoop into my private life, call me all sort of names … My adversaries want my political death, journalists want my social death and jihadists want my death,” he said.
In the popular Paris neighbourhood of Barbes, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets on Sunday, marching behind a banner which read “Paris will silence the far-right”.
Pauline Salingue, a spokeswoman for the head of the New Anti-Capitalist Party, said people “shouldn’t be seduced by these so-called anti-system profiles. Zemmour is a multimillionaire, Zemmour earns tens of thousands of euros per month, so how can he pretend to represent the little people, as he likes to say? It is a very serious scam.”
Mr Zemmour has gained strength on France’s political scene in recent months, starting to siphon off supporters from far-right National Party leader Marine Le Pen, who has long said she would run for the French presidency next year.
French president Emmanuel Macron, who defeated Ms Le Pen in the 2017 presidential runoff, is expected to seek a second term but he has yet to declare his candidacy.
The far-left leader of the Rebel France party, Jean-Luc Melenchon, who is seeking the presidency for a third time, also staged a rally on Sunday, gathering several thousands of supporters in Paris.
Other presidential candidates on the left include Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo for the Socialist party and Yannick Jadot, a former Greenpeace activist, for the Greens.
Wearing a mask is mandatory in public gatherings, yet many of Mr Zemmour’s supporters at the rally in Villepinte defied the government restriction.
Coronavirus infections have jumped in France over the last few weeks, with daily new cases nearing 40,000 on average, and virus-related hospitalisations and deaths rising again.