ANALYSIS: We can expect more violence during French presidential campaign

The first election rally by French far-right runner Eric Zemmour was marred by several violent incidents against anti-racism protesters, the media and even the candidate himself. Is this a worrying sign of things to come during the French presidential election campaign?

Demonstrators hold flares during a rally to protest against French far-right 2022 presidential candidate Eric Zemmour in Paris
Demonstrators hold flares during a rally to protest against French far-right 2022 presidential candidate Eric Zemmour in Paris, on December 5, 2021 on the day of his first official campaign rally.

French police in Paris were on high alert in Paris Sunday.

They feared violent clashes between far-left and anti-racism protesters and supporters of the controversial far-right presidential candidate Eric Zemmour who was holding his first campaign rally outside the capital

Whilst there was no mass trouble there was enough incidents to worry French authorities and the public about what might lie ahead over the next few months during what promises to be a highly divisive election campaign.

Firstly a man appeared to lunge at Zemmour as he walked through the crowd to get to the stage. His motives were not clear but it left the anti-Islam, anti-immigration candidate with a wrist injury.

Then in scenes many commenters said were reminiscent of a Donald Trump rally, supporters of Zemmour assaulted several anti-racism protestors when they stood on chairs to reveal T-shirts spelling out ‘Non au Racisme‘.

Punches were thrown along with chairs whilst one supporter of Zemmour was seen hitting on of the female protesters. The protesters from SOS Racisme were chased out of the venue with at least two of them seen bleeding from wounds.

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. Journalists from investigative site Mediapart reported that they were assaulted by Zemmour’s followers.

READ MORE Who’s who in the crowded field vying to unseat Macron in French presidential election

In all 62 people were detained, including the man who grabbed the far-right candidate. 

Reactions to the violence and the possibility of further trouble has been mixed.

In comments published in Le Monde, Antoine Diers, a spokesperson for Zemmour’s new party – La Reconquête – played down Sunday’s violence. “If there was an excessive use of force, I regret it, but I find that with all the provocations that we experience, we are truly very calm,” he said.  

Others on the right of French politics have been lukewarm, at best, in their condemnation of the violence.

Valérie Pécresse, who is running for the presidency as the candidate of The Republicans told France Inter: “Provocations in meetings exist and they are never very nice. I have had them, like everyone else. We should ban violence in rallies as much as possible – in both senses because the extreme left is sometimes ultra-violent at rallies.”

READ MORE Zemmour rally near Paris marred as anti-racism activists attacked during protest

Christophe Castaner, the former Interior Minister and head of Macron’s LREM party in the National Assembly, was one of the chief critics of Sunday’s incident.

“We can see clearly that the far-right, whether it has the face of Eric Zemmour or anyone else, does not change,” he told Europe 1. “The far right is carried by violent attacks against its opponents and by the violence of attacks against France.” 

Is the violence and protests on Sunday a worrying sign of things to come in France over the next five months

France hasn’t seen major acts of violence during a presidential campaign since Jean-Marie Le Pen ran as the National Front candidate in the 1990s. 

While, SOS Racisme have yet to declare that they will continue to protest at Zemmour rallies, it is likely that demonstrations will continue. On Sunday, thousands marched against the candidate in Paris and elsewhere in the country. 

Erwan Lecoeur, a specialist on the French far-right, says its likely that the Zemmour campaign will continue to provoke trouble. 

READ ALSO France’s Zemmour gives finger to critic as campaign woes mount

“The Eric Zemmour campaign has been stirring up hatred for months, with violent [verbal] attacks of entire population groups like Muslims, immigrants, migrants and women. It is surrounded by people who are prone to violence and who practice violence. So yes, we can expect that violence will be an element throughout this presidential campaign,” he said. 

“Chaos and confusion is in his interest. It allows him to cast himself as a victim of ‘the system’ which is determined to shut his campaign down, to divide his opponents and to create an unhealthy climate that allows Zemmour to impose his idea of a ‘nascent civil war’, in which he presents himself as a defender of the Christian West, and the only one able to rouse the French fighting spirit.” 

“There is a very dangerous phenomenon that has spread across democratic societies for years and seems to be erupting in France. When we look at other countries, we cannot say that the worst is impossible. In India, Hindu-nationalist-fascists are in power and there have been outbursts of violence with many deaths. In the United States and Brazil, violence has been a major driver that has overwhelmed politics.”

READ ALSO Zemmour’s fake French history has a dark and long-term motive

Sunday’s violence is yet the latest example of controversy to have shone a global spotlight on Zemmour’s campaign – this is probably just what the candidate wanted. 

Zemmour has a very successful media operation,” said Claire Sécail, a social scientist specialising in political communication. 

“He plays the devil card to capture media attention. We can see that it has propelled him into the public eye.”

Current polls place Zemmour third after Emmanuel Macron and between Marine Le Pen. He would have to gain at least seven percentage points in public support to stand a chance of making the second round of the 2022 presidential election.

It is yet to be seen whether Zemmour will even collect enough signatures of support (parrainages) from elected officials to be able to legally run for the presidency.  

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Macron, Scholz and Draghi meet Ukrainian president in Kyiv

French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi have met the Ukrainian president in Kyiv, after the trio travelled overnight by train from Poland.

Macron, Scholz and Draghi meet Ukrainian president in Kyiv

The three leaders left in the early hours of Thursday, arriving into Kyiv on Thursday morning. After a visit to the heavily-bombed town of Irpin, they met Ukraine’s leader Volodymyr Zelensky.

It is the first time that the leaders of the three European Union countries have visited Kyiv since Russia’s February 24th invasion of Ukraine, and the visit comes as Kyiv is pushing for membership of the EU.

Macron has been paying a two-day visit to Romania and Moldova to discuss the ongoing crisis caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

There had been widespread speculation in France that he would combine the trip with a visit to Zelensky in Ukraine, but this was not confirmed until Thursday morning.

In a joint press conference with Romanian president Klaus Iohannis, Macron reiterated his desire that Ukraine should win the war, but added that eventually negotiations between Ukraine and Russia will be necessary.