The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Far-right French presidential candidate put in headlock by protester at rally

On Dec. 5, fighting broke out and chairs were thrown at anti-racism activists at a campaign rally for Éric Zemmour. (Video: The Washington Post)
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PARIS — French far-right presidential candidate Éric Zemmour was among the several people injured on Sunday at his very first campaign event, forcing him to take an early break from the trail and signaling the intensity of polarization heading into an April election.

Video appeared to show a man lunging toward Zemmour as the candidate walked toward the stage at a rally in the Paris suburb of Villepinte, grabbing him by the neck and momentarily placing him in a headlock before security officers intervened.

The incident initially went largely unnoticed by the crowd of about 13,000 people, and Zemmour went on to deliver a speech lasting nearly an hour and a half. He announced he was launching a new party called Reconquête, French for “reconquest” — a term that recalls the historical period when Christian forces battled to expel Muslims from the Iberian peninsula. Flag-waving supporters cheered his pledges to slash immigration to almost zero if elected, and expel unsuccessful asylum seekers and illegal immigrants.

Campaign officials later said that Zemmour’s wrist was injured in the scuffle and that a doctor had ordered him to rest for nine days.

A suspect was detained, though authorities did not immediately comment on that person’s motives or background.

Separately, French prosecutors said police detained about 60 people in connection with a brawl at the same campaign event.

Video of that portion of the evening shows Zemmour supporters throwing white plastic chairs at protesters wearing anti-racism T-shirts. SOS Racisme, an activist group, said five of its members were injured.

Zemmour, a provocative former political commentator, has elicited comparisons to the strategies and sentiments that helped Donald Trump win the U.S. presidency. He has been running third in pre-election opinion polls, behind President Emmanuel Macron and the more established far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

He has frequently been accused of inciting hostility toward journalists, critics and politicians through his divisive and conspiratorial rhetoric. He also has been convicted of provoking racial hatred toward Muslims — and is on trial for describing unaccompanied child migrants as “thieves,” “killers” and “rapists.”

Perhaps in part because of that context, condemnations of Sunday’s attack on him were sparse. The muted reaction was in stark contrast to an episode in June, when a man appeared to slap Macron at a public event. In that case, political figures from across the spectrum expressed solidarity with Macron and framed the incident as an attack on democracy.

“The absence of condemnation by the government is unworthy and disturbing,” Éric Ciotti, a right-wing politician with the Republicans party, said Monday morning.

Zemmour was under police protection even before he announced his candidacy, because of past threats, according to L’Obs news magazine. The publication reported that three protection officers had been assigned to him on a constant basis, with more staffers present during his events.

Before officially entering the presidential race, Zemmour had been touring the country to promote his latest book, and his speeches in recent weeks prompted numerous and at times violent protests. During an event in Nantes, far-left protesters attempted to storm a venue where Zemmour was set to speak. Police officers deployed tear gas to disperse the crowds.

The extent of protection assigned to Zemmour at such an early stage of the campaign is unusual. Candidates are automatically eligible for state protection during the final phase of French presidential election campaigns. But likely or confirmed candidates, like other private individuals, can be offered protection at any point if they are deemed to be at a highly elevated risk.

“One knew that Zemmour faced significant threats and that he may run, so a security detail was put in place way in advance,” said Jean-Pierre Diot, a former bodyguard of President Nicolas Sarkozy and the vice president of France’s Federation of Close Protection.

In Europe and beyond, controversial candidates have often been considered to be particularly exposed to possible attacks. In 2015, Germany’s prominent pro-refugee mayoral candidate Henriette Reker was stabbed by a right-wing extremist just one day before the vote. She survived and won the election. Three years later, Brazil’s then-presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro was stabbed and almost killed during a campaign event.

With echoes of Trump, far-right commentator Éric Zemmour announces bid to become French president

But Sunday’s incident may also highlight safety issues that are more unique to France. Leading French politicians and their teams generally put less of a priority on safety during campaign events than, for example, U.S. politicians do, Diot said.

“In France, it’s the protocol that’s decisive,” he said, “even when the security detail says: Stop, there’s a problem.”

Zemmour’s team so far appeared to have put greater emphasis on security than many competing campaigns, however. He has worked with private protection personnel to provide additional security at his events, according to the L’Obs magazine. Volunteers reportedly verify the identities of anyone signing up to attend his events.

It remained unclear if those precautions were also taken ahead of Sunday’s rally, which drew a far larger crowd than prior events.

Pannett reported from Sydney.

Read more:

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