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French far-right candidate Eric Zemmour launched his presidential campaign in front of thousands of cheering supporters waving the tricolore on Sunday at an event marred by fighting during his speech.
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 Villepinte, a suburb of Paris where thousands cheered every mention of reducing immigration and booed every reference to Macron.
"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.
One protester who threw a punch at Zemmour as he entered the hall to give his speech was quickly ejected and arrested by police.
Fighting broke out and chairs were thrown at activists who stood up with "No to Racism" written on their T-shirts. Blood was visible on at least two of them as they were ejected from the auditorium.
"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."
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
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.
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.
Fading in polls
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 rally 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 suggest 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 beat Le Pen in the second round, 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 that if elected he would reduce immigration to almost zero, dramatically tighten 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 supremacists.
The idea was on many supporters' 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 public transport I barely hear anyone speaking French."
Zemmour 'has narrow base of electoral support' in crowded field on French right
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 Zemmour had already succeeded in making immigration one of the main topics of the election campaign.
"Whether he's elected or not, he's already won the campaign," he said.
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 to the southern of port city of Marseille last weekend, which ended with the candidate showing the middle finger to one protester.
VIDEO: 🇫🇷 Police officers carry out checks and make an arrest ahead of the first presidential campaign rally by French far-right candidate Eric #Zemmour at the Parc des Expositions in Villepinte, on the outskirts of Paris pic.twitter.com/Q0tFKNuU5z
— AFP News Agency (@AFP) December 5, 2021
Riot police massed outside the arena and searched people's bags as they arrived.
In Paris, police said around 2,000 people — 10,000 according to organisers — marched to denounce Zemmour's campaign.
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.