French far-right presidential candidate Eric Zemmour has launched his presidential campaign in front of thousands of cheering supporters at a Paris event marred by fighting during his speech.
Zemmour, a 63-year-old author and veteran 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.
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He held his first event at an exhibition centre in a suburb of Paris where thousands cheered every mention of reducing immigration and booed every reference to Macron loudly.
“The stakes are huge: if I win it will be the start of winning back the most beautiful country in the world,” Zemmour told the crowd.
Violence breaks out
Fighting broke out and chairs were thrown at activists when they stood up with “No to Racism” written on their t-shirts, with at least two of them seen bleeding as they were ejected from the auditorium.
A crew from the popular but critical Quotidien nightly TV news show were also booed and removed by security, with hostility to the media a feature of the speeches at the event.
The rally was seen as a chance for Zemmour to regain momentum after opinion polls showed support for him falling during the last month as he attempted to maintain suspense about his intentions.
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 currently believe Marine Le Pen, the veteran leader of the far-right National Rally party, would make a more competent president than Zemmour.
The latest surveys suggest he would be eliminated in the first round if the election were held now, with Macron tipped to win ahead of Le Pen, but analysts have warned 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 Zemmour’s rhetoric on immigration, race and Islam.
He promised to reduce immigration to almost zero if he were elected, dramatically toughen up the naturalisation process, and expel failed asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants.
Zemmour again stressed the danger of French people being “replaced” by immigrants, echoing a theory known as the “great replacement” that is popular with white supremacists.
France’s right-wing Republicans party picked the boss of the Paris region Valerie Pecresse as its nominee on Saturday after a primary dominated by talk of immigration and crime.
Massive police presence
Police were on alert for far-left activists and anarchists who disrupted Zemmour’s trip last weekend to the southern port city of Marseille, which ended with the candidate showing the middle finger to a woman who was protesting.
Riot police massed outside the arena and searched people’s bags as they arrived.
In Paris, approximately 2,000 people marched to protest a candidacy denounced as racist and divisive.
“It’s important to show that we won’t let fascism gain ground,” Simon Duteil, a spokesperson for the Solidaires union, told the AFP news agency.
As well as a series of recent missteps, including the middle-finger incident, Zemmour has seen several influential figures on the far-right distance themselves from him, including his main financial backer.