VILLEPINTE, France — 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 highlighting his anti-migrant and anti-Islam views.
Zemmour, who is the son of Algerian Jewish migrant parents, is one of France’s best-known and most controversial commentators, who has made his name by warning about the “colonization” of the country by Muslims, whose religion he views as “incompatible” with French values.
Zemmour has drawn comparisons in France to former United States president Donald Trump because of his rabble-rousing populism and his ambitions of making the jump from the small screen to national leadership in France’s presidential election in April.
The 63-year-old with multiple hate-speech convictions unveiled his campaign’s slogan: “Impossible is not French,” a quote attributed to Napoleon.
“What’s at stake is huge,” Zemmour said. “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.”
Supporters at the rally sang France’s national anthem, shouted “Zemmour, president!” and “We will win!” while brandishing the tricolor French flag.
Some activists who were dressed in black, with “No to racism” on their sweaters, were 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.
Reporters from a French television show that covers politics 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.
The rally, which was initially to held in a Paris concert hall, was moved to a bigger exhibition center in a northern suburb of the capital for security reasons, as a protest against Zemmour took place Sunday in Paris, organized 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 popular Paris neighborhood of Barbes, thousands of demonstrators 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 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.”
Zemmour had 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 long said she would run for the French presidency next year.
His first rally came one day after France’s main conservative Republicans party 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 their 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 public gatherings, yet many Zemmour 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 getting close to 40,000 on average, and virus-related hospitalizations and deaths are again rising.