There were still 100 people queuing outside the auditorium when the doors closed. Not bad for a man who hasn’t officially declared his candidacy yet.
Eric Zemmour is rocking France’s presidential race before it has even started.
And his rally in the small southern town of Béziers created a disturbing image for France’s far-right leader, Marine Le Pen. Polls suggest it is on track to challenge it for leadership of the nationalist far right in France.
The son of Algerian Jewish immigrants, Zemmour has long drawn attention for his controversial views, arguing, for example, that French Jews were protected by the state during World War II. In fact, the wartime French Vichy regime sent thousands of French Jews and Jewish refugees to Nazi extermination camps.
Now, he says, France is “submerged” by migrants and parents should be forced to give their children “French names”.
His speech in Béziers targeted the French education system, “infiltrated by Marxism, anti-racism and LGBT ideologies,” in his view.
As for the French media, he dismissed them as “a propaganda machine that hates France”.
“Paid with your taxes, they spit on you all the time,” he said. “They spit on French history and culture, and they spit on the French people, who they want to see disappear.”
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If the language was violent, it was not unexpected. Many in the audience here knew him for his role as an outspoken TV presenter and commentator for the French right-wing channel C-News.
Sitting in the front row was Christian, who had come by car from a nearby town with his family. He told me that they had never been to a political meeting before and that they did not belong to any political party.
But he liked Eric Zemmour.
“He says things as they are,” Christian explained. “It’s more down to earth [than other politicians]. It is fantastic that it is disrupting the French presidential elections. I think he’s a bit like Boris Johnson. “
After the demonstration, I asked Mr Zemmour how he would have handled Franco-British relations differently if he had been President of France.
“I respect the British,” he said. “They are a great people who deserve respect. I think the European Commission in Brussels does not respect them. They have never forgiven them for Brexit.”
Béziers was Marine Le Pen’s home field. It did very well here in the last presidential run, but as Eric Zemmour rose in the polls, it fell. A recent poll even beat her in the ballot with President Macron.
After years of “detoxifying” his party to win over a wider range of voters, Le Pen is now facing a challenge from the right as well.
But tonight in Béziers it’s not just the Le Pen fans.
Gérard told me he had never voted for Marine Le Pen.
“I was very interested in Macron,” he said. “But he’s not doing enough for safety. Zemmour attracts me now – I find that a little weird!”
President Macron has lost consensus on the left over the past five years as he responded to growing concerns about security and immigration and tried to win over the center-right.
The mayor of Béziers, Robert Ménard, is politically close to Marine Le Pen and is friends with both her and Zemmour.
Mr. Ménard told me he was pressuring them to join forces, to confront Emmanuel Macron.
“I explained to Eric, ‘You can’t win without Marine Le Pen, that’s impossible.’ And I said to Marine, ‘You can’t win without Eric,'” he said. “Divisions must not lead our field to defeat. For once, we could win.”
Despite all the attention surrounding Zemmour’s rapid rise, no poll has yet suggested that he or Marine Le Pen would beat President Macron in the runoff for presidency. Marine Le Pen had a disappointing result in the regional elections earlier this year.
However, French politics has shifted to the right in recent years. And politicians from Macron to Le Pen are intent on cutting the cake.
France’s main right-wing party, Les Républicains, has yet to decide on a candidate, a sign of how divided the right has become here.
The last presidential elections have redesigned the political map, excluding both traditional parties from the ballot.
It almost completely destroyed the socialists; many at Les Républicains fear that if they are not careful it could be them this time.
Meanwhile, it’s Zemmour, not Macron or Le Pen, who dominates coverage here.
We are at the beginning, there are still months to go before the official campaign, but the race for the future of France has already begun.
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