VILLEPINTE – Anti-racism activists were beaten up 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 that highlighted his anti-migrant and anti-Islam views.
As his supporters cheered and waved French flags in a northern suburb of the capital, thousands of others took to the streets of Paris to denounce his xenophobic platform.
France is holding its presidential election on April 10, with a runoff if needed on April 24. Zemmour has drawn comparisons in France to former U.S. President Donald Trump because of his rabble-rousing populism and ambitions of making the jump from the small screen to national leadership. The 63-year-old with multiple hate-speech convictions unveiled his campaign’s slogan: “Impossible is not French,” a quote attributed to Napoleon.
“If I win that election, it won’t be one more (political) changeover, but the beginning of the reconquest of the most beautiful country in the world," Zemmour said.
Supporters at the rally sang France’s national anthem, shouted “Zemmour, president!” and “We will win!” while brandishing the tricolor French flag. AP reporters saw some activists dressed in black with “No to racism” on their sweaters being beaten up by people at the rally and brutally taken out of the room. The scuffles continued outside the room between anti-racism activists and security guards.
“I’m not racist," Zemmour said. “We are defending our country, our homeland, our ancestral heritage (to) ... transmit our children France as we have known it.”
Reporters from a French television show were booed and insulted by Zemmour’s supporters ahead of his speech, leading them to be briefly escorted outside the room by security guards. They came back soon afterward but Zemmour harshly criticized 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.
Zemmour wants foreigners to “assimilate” French culture rather than keeping their identities. He wants to ban parents from giving children foreign names and restrict choices to typical French names Zemmour also wants to end nationality being acquired by birth on French soil and to deport foreign criminals and foreign jobseekers who don’t find employment within six months.
“France is back, because the French people stood up. The French people stand up against those who want to make it disappear,” he said.
His campaign rally Sunday, which was initially supposed to be held in a Paris concert hall, was moved to a bigger exhibition center in Villepinte for security reasons due to the protest against him by over 50 groups, including far-left political parties, unions and anti-racist groups. Police had feared clashes with Zemmour's far-right supporters.
In the Paris neighborhood of Barbes, thousands took to the streets Sunday, marching behind a banner reading “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 multi-millionaire. 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.”
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.
His rally came one day after France's main conservative Republicans party on Saturday picked its presidential candidate. Valérie Pécresse, the head of the Paris region and a former minister from 2007 to 2012, as its presidential candidate.
French President Emmanuel Macron, who defeated 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 Mélenchon, who is seeking the presidency for the third time, also staged a rally on Sunday, gathering several thousand 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.
Those attending rallies for Zemmour and Mélenchon were not required to show French COVID-19 health passes, in line with a decision from the Constitutional Council that said the passes should not be used to restrict access to political meetings.
Wearing a mask is mandatory in French public gatherings, yet many Zemmour supporters defied the restriction.
Coronavirus infections have jumped in France over the last few weeks, with daily new cases getting close to 40,000 on average and virus-related hospitalizations and deaths rising again.
Associated Press journalists Boubkar Benzabat and Patrick Hermansen in Paris, Florian Brunet and Philippe Marion in Villepinte contributed to the story.