French investigate violence that erupted at far-right rally

Supporters of French far right presidential candidate Eric Zemmour wave posters and French flags during the candidate’s first rally, Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021 in Villepinte, north of Paris. Anti-racism activists were beaten up Sunday as far-right former French TV pundit Eric Zemmour held his first presidential campaign rally near Paris, a few days after he formally declared his candidacy in a video that highlighted his anti-migrant and anti-Islam views. As his supporters cheered and waved French flags in a northern suburb of the capital, thousands of others took to the streets of Paris to denounce his xenophobic platform. (AP Photo/Rafael Yaghobzadeh)

LE PECQ, France (AP) — French prosecutors opened an investigation Monday into violence that erupted at the first official campaign rally of a far-right candidate who has shaken up France’s presidential race.

The prosecutors’ office said police detained around 60 people after fists and chairs flew and anti-racism activists were left bloodied at candidate Eric Zemmour’s rally Sunday with thousands of supporters north of Paris.

Campaign group SOS Racisme condemned savage beatings that targeted its activists at the rally. It was Zemmour’s first since the 63-year-old far-right author and former TV commentator with repeated convictions for hate speech officially launched his run for the French presidency last week.

France is holding a presidential election on April 10, with a runoff if needed on April 24. President Emmanuel Macron is expected to seek a second term but he has yet to declare his candidacy. The far-right leader who Macron defeated in 2017, Marine Le Pen, is also running again.

SOS Racisme’s president, Dominique Sopo, likened the violence at Zemmour’s rally to white supremacist attacks against civil rights activists in the United States. The group said five of its members were injured after they were punched, thrown to the ground and had chairs thrown at them. Blood ran down the face of one activist from a cut on her head.

People at the rally “were so drunk with hate, so open with their hatred and their violence, that they’re not bothered about beating people and women bloody with cameras present,” Sopo said. “This candidate unleashes hatred in his wake.”

As well as the violence targeting SOS Racisme campaigners, the prosecutors’ office said it also is 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 off. Zemmour injured a wrist in the incident, his campaign said.

The man was still in custody on Monday, the prosecutors’ office said. The security manager for Zemmour’s campaign filed a police complaint on behalf of the candidate against the alleged attacker.

Zemmour’s campaign blamed his opponents for the violence. Antoine Diers, a spokesman for the newly created party mobilizing behind the candidate, said campaigners provoked Zemmour’s supporters by displaying T-shirts that spelled out “No to racism.”

“We are committed democrats,” Diers said. “They are allowed to demonstrate against us — outside.”

Other French presidential candidates include Valérie Pécresse of France’s main conservative Republicans party; Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo for the Socialist party; Yannick Jadot for the Greens; and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the far-left leader of the Rebel France party.

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