Investigation launched into brawl at French far-right rally

French prosecutors have opened an investigation into violence that erupted at the first major campaign rally held by the far-right French presidential candidate Éric Zemmour.

Shortly after Zemmour began speaking on Sunday evening, some of his supporters attacked a group of protesters from the campaign group SOS-Racism who had entered the rear of the venue wearing T-shirts reading “No to Racism”.

The prosecutors’ office said police detained about 60 people after the brawl at a meeting hall in Villepinte, in a north-eastern suburb of Paris.

One man was filmed repeatedly punching a female protester, and another woman was led out with blood running down her face. Five protesters were injured in total.

“We didn’t imagine it would get this out of hand,” Dominique Sopo, the president of SOS Racisme, told France Info radio on Monday “The fact of going to a meeting in the French republic with T-shirts bearing the phrase “No to Racism” is now a provocation? I’d like to remind people that we’re a republic and in a republic, normally, you are able to say “No to Racism” everywhere.”

He added: “You either have to be drunk with racism or be certain of your omnipotence to be able to act like that in front of cameras. It’s absolutely astonishing and it shows what this candidate is and what the public he draws is and who the militants who gathered there are.”

Sopo said his organisation would also be lodging a police complaint.

As well as the violence targeting SOS Racisme campaigners, the prosecutors’ office said it was also investigating a fracas that involved Zemmour himself. Video images showed a man surging out of the crowd with arms outstretched as the candidate walked through throngs at the rally. The man appeared to briefly lock arms around Zemmour’s neck before he was pulled away.

Zemmour suffered an injury to his wrist and a doctor signed him off work for nine days.

A Zemmour campaign spokesperson, Antoine Diers, told BFM-TV the acts of violence “did not matter” and that the anti-racism protesters had come looking for trouble. He also praised Zemmour’s “bravery”.

Two journalists fronm the investigative online media outlet Mediapart said they also received punches at the rally.

Eliot Blondet, a photographer from the AbacaPhoto agency, who was at the rally, tweeted that the press came under a hail of projectiles and that in the melée he had photographic equipment stolen. One Zemmour supporter, he wrote, had looked him in the eye, pushed him and said: “I forgive no more. I kill.”

In his speech, Zemmour, who has been described as France’s Donald Trump, railed against “elites”, whom he pitted against “the French people who have been here for a thousand years and wish to remain masters in their own country”. Judges, he said, were “under the orders of militant journalists” who “want to steal democracy … we won’t let them”.

References to the media were greeted with boos from the crowd, some of whom aggressively jostled journalists and photographers present.

A far-right former television pundit and journalist, Zemmour declared last week he would be standing for the two-round presidential election next April. On Sunday, he announced the name of his party Reconquête (Reconquer), and on Monday his team said he had picked the former army general Bertrand de La Chesnais as his campaign manager.

Zemmour is standing on an anti-immigration, anti-Islam programme and has announced he will stop benefits for non-Europeans and foreigners who remain unemployed for more than six months. He has set up his campaign headquarters in the smart 8th arrondissement of Paris. Among his election team is Michel Loussouarn, a former soldier, who is in charge of setting up the new party and organising local groups across the country.

Polls show the most likely election scenario next year is a second round run-off vote between the far right Rassemblement Nationale leader, Marine Le Pen, and Emmanuel Macron, a repeat of 2017, and Zemmour knocked out in the first round. However, four months from the poll, the outcome remains uncertain.

Sunday’s meeting was seen as an occasion for Zemmour to rally his troops after opinion polls showed support for him falling off last month.

The social scientist Antoine Bristielle, of the prestigious Jean-Jaurès Foundation, suggested Zemmour’s populist agenda was not high on the list of French people’s priorities, which he said were spending power and the environment.

“The real worry is the inability of other political parties to show a more attractive future and to reassure the population,” Bristielle said. “This pessimism is central to building the combat in the extreme right. It’s like Make America Great Again. We can see clear parallels between Zemmour and Trump. And at the moment, this message from the right is all we are hearing.”

Zemmour saved his most caustic vitriol for Macron, launching into a brutal and contemptuous tirade against the president, whom he described as a “plastic mannequin”, a “ghost”, an “automaton who wanders a labyrinth of mirrors”, a “mask without a face” and an “adolescent”.

“Find me a single French person who can explain what Emmanuel Macron this. There isn’t one, not even him. Nobody knows who he is because he is nobody. Emmanuel Macron doesn’t interest us because he is fundamentally uninteresting,” Zemmour said.

Gabriel Attal, the government’s spokesperson, dismissed the attack. “While he’s giving people the finger in the street, Emmanuel Macron is overseeing Josephine Baker’s entry into the Panthéon,” Attal said.

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