PARIS: 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.

Zemmour, a 63-year-old author and television pundit, announced on 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.

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, said.

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.

Published in Dawn, December 6th, 2021

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