French far-right pundit Eric Zemmour announces presidential bid

French far-right pundit Eric Zemmour announces presidential bid
Hardline criticism of Islam and immigration has made him a polarising figure in France

Far-right commentator Eric Zemmour will run in France’s 2022 presidential election, confirming his political ambitions after dominating the headlines for weeks with provocative comments on immigration.

Zemmour, a former journalist who has been convicted for inciting hatred, becomes the top contender to challenge Marine Le Pen, leader of the more established far-right National Rally, for a place in a second round against President Emmanuel Macron.

The 63-year-old polemicist, who has sometimes been likened in France to former US president Donald Trump, has courted controversy in recent weeks after showing the middle finger to a protester and suing a gossip magazine.

“For a long time I was happy with the role of journalist … but I no longer trust that a politician will have the courage to save the country from the tragic fate that awaits it,” Zemmour said on Tuesday in a video posted on social media.

As the video showed women with headscarves and Black men in the metro, Zemmour said: “You feel like you are no longer in the country you once knew … you are foreigners in your own country.”

“We must give back the power to the people, take it back from minorities that oppress the majority,” he added.

His hardline criticism of Islam and immigration has made him a polarising figure, drawing support both from Le Pen’s voter base and from the mainstream conservative right, while also alienating others in France.

After a meteoric rise in opinion polls over the past weeks, with several surveys forecasting he would make it to the election’s run-off round, his popularity has been slipping.

At this stage, most opinion polls forecast that Macron and Le Pen will face each other in the second round next April, which Macron would be likely to win in a repeat of the election of 2017.

But Zemmour led Le Pen for a while in recent weeks, and the race for the number two spot is still neck-and-neck in some surveys. There is plenty of time for the race to change again by April.

“So far, it was a warm-up. The real race begins,” said an email by a spokesperson for the “Friends of Eric Zemmour,” sent to his supporters ahead of the video’s publication.

Zemmour’s campaign has been stalling after various mishaps.

One was at the weekend, when he was photographed giving the middle finger to a protester following a tumultuous campaign stop in Marseille. He also sued gossip magazine Closer after it claimed he was expecting a baby with his chief political aide.

Opinion polls also show he has shocked some voters with provocative comments – from saying children shouldn’t be given foreign-sounding names to claiming that the French government which collaborated with the Nazis during World War II had protected Jews. And he has lost the backing of some high-profile supporters, French media say.

The presidential candidate went on trial in Paris earlier this month on charges relating to inciting racial hatred after he called unaccompanied child migrants “thieves, killers and rapists”.

This combination of pictures created shows a woman gesturing to Zemmour, then him gesturing back, on a visit to Marseille

He was previously convicted of hate speech after justifying discrimination against Black and Arab people in 2010, and of incitement to religious hatred for anti-Islam comments in 2016.

Zemmour’s rise has been paved by Macron having crushed the country’s long-standing two-party duopoly with a 2017 run in which the socialists and conservatives that had dominated French politics since the Second World War were sidelined.

Whether by intent or not, Macron has created a political reality in which voters under France’s two-stage presidential election system will most likely be offered a choice between him and the candidate of the far right, whether it’s Le Pen or Zemmour.

Politicians on both the right and left have been increasingly embracing far-right ideas about immigration and Islam, and their willingness to expand the acceptable limits of French discourse has legitimised Zemmour’s campaign.