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POLITICS

Thousands attend Paris rally for far-right presidential candidate Zemmour

Thousands of supporters of French far-right presidential candidate Eric Zemmour gathered at a stadium outside Paris on Sunday to kick off his first official campaign rally, with police on high alert over the risk of clashes with protesters.

Thousands attend Paris rally for far-right presidential candidate Zemmour
Supporters at the demo gather at an exhibition space in the Villepinte suburb of Paris to support Eric Zemmour's candidacy. Photo: Julien De Rosa/AFP

Zemmour, a 63-year-old author and television pundit, announced Tuesday that he would run in next April’s election, joining the field of challengers seeking to unseat centrist President Emmanuel Macron.

Waving French flags and chanting “Zezu President!” or singing the Marseillaise national anthem, fans waited amid flyers proclaiming an anti-immigrant candidacy “so that France remains French.” The rally is also a chance for Zemmour to regain momentum after stumbling in opinion polls following his dramatic entrance into French politics in September.

“We’re hoping that by announcing his candidacy and with this meeting that it will relaunch him a bit,” said Maxence Mike, 22, student from the Paris suburb of Montargis and member of the “Generation Z” association.

“There’s a malaise in France, a crisis of civilisations and security problems, and for now he’s the only one with the courage to pose these problems clearly,” said Jacques Ohana, a 65-year-old Paris surgeon, who noted that, like Zemmour, he had north African origins.

Around 19,000 people have signed up for the event, according to Zemmour’s campaign, leading him to swap a concert hall for a larger capacity exhibition space in the Villepinte suburb northeast of the capital.

Photo: Sameer Al-DOUMY / AFP

Police are on alert for far-left activists and anarchists who disrupted Zemmour’s trip last weekend to the southern of 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, a few hundred 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 AFP.

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Momentum fades

Until now, Zemmour had been travelling the country doing promotional events for his latest book — “France has not said its final word” — which served as a thinly disguised pre-campaign tour.

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. 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, who is viewed as highly divisive and arrogant by a large majority.

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 warn that the outcome remains highly uncertain.

Zemmour launched his bid for the presidency on Tuesday in a highly unusual video posted on YouTube, which saw him read a speech into an old-fashioned microphone while seated at a desk and barely looking into the camera. It was intended to recall the famous June 1940 address by war hero General Charles De Gaulle to carry on with resistance to the Nazi occupation of France.

Over images of riots, Islamic prayers and terror attacks, Zemmour warned that France was in danger of being “conquered” or “colonised” by immigrants and that French people were being “replaced.”

His friend Robert Menard, a far-right mayor of the southern town of Beziers and an influential figure in far-right circles, called the rally on Sunday “an audacious bet. He needs to pull it off.”

Menard described the YouTube video as being of “apocalyptic darkness” and said Zemmour would need to begin outlining concrete proposals.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

‘Police should have stopped Koran-burning demos after the first day’

Swedish police underestimated the level of violence that awaited them and should have called a halt to Danish-Swedish extremist Rasmus Paludan’s demos as soon as it became clear the riots were spiralling out of control, argues journalist Bilan Osman. 

‘Police should have stopped Koran-burning demos after the first day’

Speaking to The Local for the Sweden in Focus podcast, out this Saturday, Osman said she understood why the police had allowed the demonstrations to go ahead in the first place but that the safety of civilians and police officers should have taken precedence when the counter-demonstrations turned violent. 

“Just to be clear, I don’t think it’s an easy question. I think everyone, regardless of views or beliefs, should have the right to demonstrate,” said Osman, who writes for the left-wing Dagens ETC newspaper and previously lectured for the anti-racist Expo Foundation.

“I understand people who say that violence [from counter-demonstrators] shouldn’t be a reason to stop people from demonstrating. I truly believe that. But at the same time: was it worth it this time when it’s about people’s lives and safety?” 

Police revealed on Friday that at least 104 officers were injured in counter-demonstrations that they say were hijacked by criminal gangs intent on targeting the police. 

Forty people were arrested and police are continuing to investigate the violent riots for which they admitted they were unprepared. 

“I think the police honestly misjudged the situation. I understand why Paludan was allowed to demonstrate the first day. It’s not the first time he has burned the Koran in Sweden. When he burned the Koran in Rinkeby last year nothing happened. But this time it was chaos.” 

Osman noted that Rasmus Paludan did not even show up for a planned demonstration in her home city of Linköping – but the police were targeted anyway. 

“I know people who were terrified of going home. I know people who had rocks thrown in their direction, not to mention the people who worked that day, policemen and women who feared for their lives. So for the safety of civilians and the police the manifestations should have been stopped at that point. Instead it went on, not only for a second day but also a third day and a fourth day.” 

On the question of whether it was acceptable to burn Islam’s holy book, Osman said it depended on the context. 

“If you burn the Koran mainly to criticise religion, or even Islam, of course it should be accepted in a democracy. The state should not only allow these things, but also protect people that do so. 

“I do believe that. Even as a Muslim. That’s an important part of the freedom of speech. 

A previous recipient of an award from the Swedish Committee Against Antisemitism for her efforts to combat prejudice in society, Osman drew parallels with virulent anti-Semitism and said it was “terrifying” that Paludan was being treated by many as a free speech campaigner rather than a far-right extremist.  

“If you are a right-wing extremist that wants to ethnically cleanse, that wants to cleanse Muslims from Sweden, and therefore burn the Koran, it’s actually dumb to think that this is a question about freedom of speech. When Nazis burn everything Jewish it’s not a critique against Judaism, it’s anti-Semitism.” 

Anti-Muslim sentiment in Sweden tended to come in waves, Osman said, pointing to 9/11 and Anders Behring Brevik’s attacks in Norway as previous occasions when Islamophobia was rampant. Now the Easter riots had unleashed a new wave of hatred against Muslims that she described as “alarming” and the worst yet. 

“I do believe that we will find a way to coexist in our democracy. But we have to put in a lot work. And Muslims can’t do that work alone. We need allies in this.” 

Listen to more from Bilan Osman on the April 23rd episode of Sweden in Focus: Why Sweden experienced its worst riots in decades.

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