Zemmour, a 63-year-old author and television commentator, announced Tuesday that he would run in next April’s election, joining the field of challengers seeking to unseat centrist President Emmanuel Macron.
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.
One protester who threw a punch at Zemmour as he entered the hall to give his speech was quickly ejected and arrested by police.
“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.
NON AU RACISME
Nos militants étaients présents au meeting de #Zemmour à Villepinte pour dire non au racisme de manière pacifique. La vidéo, d'une violence inouïe, parle d'elle même, nos militants se sont fait frapper et insulter pour avoir rappelé notre lutte antiraciste!✊🏿✊🏾✊🏼 pic.twitter.com/5cvZadNGh8
— SOS Racisme – #PanthéonDesOubliés (@SOS_Racisme) December 5, 2021
Fighting broke out and chairs were thrown at activists from the group SOS Racisme 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.
« On est venu faire une action pacifique » explique une militante, le visage en sang. #ZemmourVillepinte @SOS_Racisme était venu afficher le message « Non au racisme » dans la salle du meeting de #Zemmour. https://t.co/pqUqc2waUT pic.twitter.com/G34IQZKTor
— Clément Lanot (@ClementLanot) December 5, 2021
“We wanted to do a non-violent protest,” Aline Kremer from the group SOS Racisme, which organised the stunt, told AFP. “People jumped on them and started hitting them.”
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.
Socialist party head Olivier Faure blamed Zemmour for what he said had been an assault on peaceful campaigners. “Does anyone have any doubt now what motivates the Villepinte activists?” he tweeted.
The rally was seen as a chance for Zemmour to regain momentum after opinion polls showed support for him falling over the last month as he attempted to maintain suspense about his intentions.
“We’re hoping that by announcing his candidacy and with this meeting that it will relaunch him a bit,” said Maxence Mike, a 22-year-old student member of the “Generation Z” support group.
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 warn 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 vowed to reduce immigration to almost zero if he were elected, dramatically toughen up the naturalisation process, and expel failed asylum-seekers and illegal 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 supremicists.
The idea was on many supporter’s minds.
“You just need to go out in the street to see it,” Helena, a 60-year-old civil servant from the Paris suburbs, told AFP at the rally. “When I take transport I barely hear anyone speaking French.”
Fabrice Berly, a 54-year-old photocopier technician also from the Paris suburbs, said he no longer recognised his neighbourhood as the same place he grew up in.
“I can see the replacement going on around me,” he said.
Jacques Ohana, a 65-year-old Paris surgeon, said he liked the way Zemmour spoke and thought that he had already succeeded in making immigration one of the main topics of the election campaign.
“What’s important for me is that the others are focusing on his topics,” he said. “Whether he’s elected or not, he’s already won the campaign.”
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.
Police were 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, around 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 AFP.
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.