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

PARIS — French far-right presidential candidate Eric 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. Zemmour announced that he would be launching Reconquete (French for “reconquest”), a party that aims to call itself the new party. This term refers back to the historic period in which Christian forces attempted expulsion of Muslims from Iberian Peninsula. His pledges to reduce immigration to nearly zero, expel illegal immigrants and asylum seekers, were cheered by flag-waving supporters.

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. Five members of SOS Racisme were reported to have been injured.

Zemmour, a provocative former political commentator, has elicited comparisons to the strategies and sentiments that helped Donald Trump win the U.S. presidency. Pre-election polls have shown him third behind Marine Le Pen and President Emmanuel Macron.

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. Political figures across all political spectrums expressed solidarity with Macron in that instance and called the incident an attack on democracy.

“The absence of condemnation by the government is unworthy and disturbing,” Eric 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. According to the publication, three officers were assigned to Zemmour on a regular basis. Additional staff members were present at 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. Far-left demonstrators attempted to seize control of a venue Zemmour was scheduled to address at a Nantes event. To disperse protesters, police used tear gas.

The extent of protection assigned to Zemmour at such an early stage of the campaign is unusual. During the last phase of French presidential elections, candidates are automatically entitled to state protection. However, if the candidate is deemed at high risk, they can receive protection from the state at any time.

“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. The attack was not fatal and she won the election. Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s former presidential candidate was almost murdered during a campaign event three years later.

But Sunday’s incident may also highlight safety issues that are more unique to France. Diot stated that leading French politicians and their staff generally place less importance on safety at campaign events than U.S. politicians.

“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. According to L’Obs magazine, he has partnered with private security personnel in order to increase the security of his events. According to the L’Obs magazine, volunteers verify identities of those who sign up for 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.

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