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Presidential race in France shaken up as far-right TV commentator launches campaign


The presidential race in France is being shaken up by an unexpected but not unknown candidate - longtime right-wing journalist and TV pundit Eric Zemmour. He is now taking his incendiary rhetoric on the campaign trail, where he's being met by eager crowds. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley went to a rally near Paris and brings us more.


ERIC ZEMMOUR: (Speaking French).

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: "They thought they'd muzzle us by sticking us out here, far from their upscale neighborhoods and their media. But they were wrong," Zemmour told the crowd.


BEARDSLEY: Fearing clashes with anti-fascist demonstrators, authorities did move Zemmour's rally to a convention hall out near the airport. But this only added to the feeling among Zemmour supporters that they're being muzzled by the elites in power.



BEARDSLEY: Sixty-four-year-old retired policeman Jacques Severine says they came out to defend the values of France.

JACQUES SEVERINE: (Through interpreter) Everything is being trashed - our traditions, way of life, culture. And no politician in the last 40 years has had the courage to stop it. There are cities that no longer look like France anymore. Immigrants no longer assimilate. They impose their way of life.


BEARDSLEY: Zemmour's campaign video played on giant screens, contrasting images of France's cultural and historical riches - Notre Dame, Versailles and Joan of Arc - with more recent scenes of migrant encampments and hooded youths wreaking chaos on city streets. Zemmour has framed next April's election as a struggle for the soul of France.


ZEMMOUR: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: The wiry, bespectacled intellectual is not your typical populist. He's the son of immigrants who came from Algeria in the 1960s during that country's war of independence from France. And while antisemitism has long been a feature of the French far right, Eric Zemmour is Jewish.


ZEMMOUR: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "They say I'm a racist," he jokes with the crowd. "Me - a little Berber Jew from the other side of the Mediterranean."


BEARDSLEY: Twenty-four-year-old Antoine Cohen is a member of Generation Zemmour, the campaign's youth wing. He says Zemmour is different because he's not a professional politician.

ANTOINE COHEN: (Through interpreter) He's the one who best understands what's at stake - the great replacement and the great downgrading. We're exiles in our own country. And France is slipping internationally because of globalization and the loss of sovereignty.

BEARDSLEY: Many supporters here have come from the mainstream right, which they say has let them down. Others voted Marine Le Pen, the long standard-bearer of the far right in France. But they say she's watered down her ideology and is not sharp enough to take on Macron. Political analyst Christian Makarian says Le Pen has been blindsided by Zemmour.

CHRISTIAN MAKARIAN: She cannot criticize openly Eric Zemmour because she knows that a significant part of Eric Zemmour's audience is supposed also to vote for her.

BEARDSLEY: Makarian says the French electorate has moved to the right in recent years, but their voting power lags behind because the mainstream and far right are not united. He says that can't happen as long as the Le Pen family dynasty holds on to the far right like its personal property. But Zemmour is changing that, he says, and making far-right views more acceptable to conservative voters.

MAKARIAN: He's potentially the game-changer of the right. If he succeeds in beating Marine Le Pen, for instance, it will change the rules inside the right camp.

BEARDSLEY: President Emmanuel Macron, a centrist, is counting on the unelectability of Marine Le Pen if they face off in the second round of next year's vote. But if the right camps come together, says Makarian, Macron knows he will be beaten. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLOCKHEAD'S "CARNIVORES UNITE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.
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