PARIS (AFP) — Far-right polemicist Eric Zemmour was preparing his first political rally as an official contender for the French presidency Sunday, after last week’s controversial campaign launch.
Police and other observers fear that his rally, at an exhibition center in Villepinte north of Paris, could be marred by clashes with counter-demonstrators.
The meeting comes five days after he finally declared himself a candidate with a campaign video loaded with anti-immigrant rhetoric and doom-laden warnings about the future.
On Saturday, his team unveiled the campaign’s official slogan: “Impossible is not French,” a quote attributed to Napoleon.
Zemmour, a 63-year-old writer and political commentator on television, is counting on a strong turn-out Sunday to show he is a credible contender to unseat President Emmanuel Macron.
He has been working hard to outflank veteran far-right leader Marine Le Pen.
And as the right-wing Republicans chose moderate Valerie Pecresse as their presidential candidate Saturday, he got to work wooing those among its members who had backed a more hardline leader.
In an open letter to supporters of the Republicans’ defeated second-round candidate Eric Ciotti, he invited them to join him at Sunday’s rally.
“We are so close and have so much in common,” he wrote.
Olivier Ubeda, a senior member of Zemmour’s team, said 19,000 people had already signed up for Sunday’s meeting, which had originally been scheduled to take place at a major Paris venue.
It was moved to an exhibition center north of the capital due to what he said was the surge in interest for Zemmour but also, he said, for security reasons. A counter-demonstration has been announced in Paris for Sunday.
A group of around 50 associations, trade union groups and political parties, called for the protest against Zemmour — who has been convicted for inciting racial hatred, and whose platform is anti-Islam and anti-immigration.
One police source told AFP that both the protest and Zemmour’s rally at Villepinte were considered possible flashpoints.
Police expect several thousand protesters to attend the Paris demonstration against Zemmour, and a few hundred far-left activists at Villepinte, where they fear clashes with Zemmour’s supporters.
Stephane Troussel, the socialist president of the Seine-Saint-Denis region that covers Villepinte, has launched a petition to try to convince the conference center’s owners to cancel Zemmour’s meeting.
Noting Zemmour’s convictions in an opinion piece for the French weekly Journal du Dimanche, Troussel wrote: “The Republic is not a neutral regime. Racism is not an opinion but a crime.”
Zemmour waited several months before officially declaring his candidacy last week, running a kind of virtual campaign as he toured the country promoting his latest book.
While in September and October, he performed strongly in opinion polls, he has since appeared to lose momentum.
When on Tuesday he finally confirmed he was running, the accompanying campaign video was criticized across the political spectrum.
And after a grilling on TF1’s television’s flagship news program the same evening, he accused journalist Gilles Bouleau of “intellectual fraud” for having quoted his books “out of context.”
The clash was just the latest in a series of setbacks for Zemmour’s campaign.
A British charity cancelled an event he had planned in London. In Geneva, several hundred protesters turned out when he appeared there.
At home, he also encountered a hostile reception in the French Mediterranean port of Marseille last week, where demonstrators forced him to change his schedule.
Photographs of an exchange of obscene gestures there with one protester did little to improve his image.