In October, Eric Zemmour, the best-selling French author and media personality who has won a devoted following by applying a throwback intellectual sheen to a familiar populist xenophobia, overtook France's far-right standard-bearer, Marine Le Pen, in the polls for this April's presidential election. He officially declared his candidacy at the end of November and held his first campaign rally in Paris last Sunday. The event, originally scheduled for the 9,000-seat Zenith arena, quickly needed to be relocated to the much larger Parc des Expositions, a massive conference center in the Parisian suburb of Villepinte, a short cab ride from Charles de Gaulle Airport and half an hour by train from Gare du Nord.
As I made the trek with two American friends, I reflected on a time several years prior, when I had recognized Zemmour in the street: a small and slender man with dark, thinning hair and tanned skin, dressed in a quality navy suit, a cellphone pressed against his ear. Paris is a small and dense capital that comprises for France all the various functions--politics, finance, fashion, art, media, entertainment--that in the United States are divided among New York, Washington, and Los Angeles. Sooner or later, you see everyone. The memory underscored just how improbable the speed and magnitude of Zemmour's transformational ascent has been, from a provocative but mainstream journalist the sighting of whom did not elicit tremendous emotion to the figure I was about to witness electrify a seething and violent mob.
We'd approached the hall from the wrong direction and found ourselves wandering the immense property in the rain, past a bend in the parking lot where a dozen black rams stood incongruously on a grassy hillside. I fell into conversation with the sole other attendee in sight, an older man who identified himself as Gabin Abina, a native of Cameroon, a Gaullist, and a member of a group called The Friends of Eric Zemmour. Abina appreciated the politician's ability to tell the truth, he was happy to explain. As an outsider, Zemmour was not a product of "la bouillabaisse politique" (a more appetizing-sounding version of "the swamp" in Washington, D.C.). "He is saying things that we've been saying since the '90s," Abina continued--quite simply that immigrants must assimilate, must "adapt themselves" to France. "French culture has been mine since I was in Africa." In Abina's view, the media, in deeming Zemmour (who is Jewish) an anti-Semite and a xenophobe, have tried to paint him as something he is not. "Racism is everywhere in France, but it's also in Africa," he answered when I asked him what it was like to be a Black supporter of Zemmour. "You have racists there. I was born there. There's racism everywhere. There is also racism on the left."
It turned out Abina would be the first and the last supporter of African descent I noticed that day. On the way inside the venue, I bought a student newspaper from a group of volunteers. The headline read: "Immigration With Regard to the National Interest." The cover image was an improbable illustration of a boatload of confused-looking people representing all manner of nonwhite ethnicities, huddled together, a blazing sun setting ominously behind them. Doors had opened at 1 p.m. The event was set to begin at 2:30. It was approaching 3 now. Thousands of attendees gripping or draped in tricolor flags milled about. The crowd skewed surprisingly young and middle-class, evincing none of the scruffiness of the gilets jaunes uprisings, the previous populist movement that shook the French establishment for a solid year prior to COVID-19. Norah Jones sang lazily through the loudspeakers. It would have been easy to forget we were at a right-wing political gathering were it not for the bands of wound-up young men who periodically combed through the crowd, surrounding and questioning, it seemed, anyone who looked like an Arab.
At nearly 5 o'clock, stylish promotional videos--footage of pre-campaign rallies Zemmour had held recently in the provinces--began to play. In Bordeaux, a group of high-school students displayed a banner reading ZEMMOUR MEILLEUR CRU 2022 ("best vintage"); in Corsica, speaking before a glistening Mediterranean backdrop, Zemmour declared that France is "already plenty diverse." Listing Savoy, Brittany, Normandy, and other regional cultures, he assured his audience, "We have all the diversity we need!" Soon, a hodgepodge of speakers came to the stage. The first, a brown-skinned "son of immigrants," generated an ovation with the line "Assimilation is anti-racism." Another accused President Emmanuel Macron of being a "progressivist, multiculturalist, transhumanist who liquifies our society." A 22-year-old noted the need to "return to France her pride." All referred to the country as some variation of "the most beautiful nation on earth." One politician, Paul-Marie Couteaux, noted that in his 27 years of friendship with Zemmour, the two have only ever "spoken about books about the history of France." He concluded that Zemmour, who is "not a political man but a man of the state," must be made "king of France," which met with surprising approval.
The French tend not to like kings, or even presidents who get too "Jupiterian." They certainly don't hold politicians in reverence. Last summer, at a meet-and-greet in Tain-l'Hermitage, a man who claimed to be incensed over France's "decline" impulsively slapped Macron across the face. In a similar situation, another man in a handshake line once violently yanked then-President Nicolas Sarkozy by his jacket, nearly dragging him to the ground. That evening, as Zemmour at last made his way to the stage via a path cut directly through the center of the audience, a young Arab man lunged forward and seized him in a powerful headlock before security could release him. The man later claimed he lost balance while reaching out for Zemmour, and meant no harm. His social media accounts suggest he may be a fan. At any rate, Zemmour composed himself quickly, continuing to the stage and even winking at Sarah Knafo, his 27-year-old campaign director--but something in the atmosphere shifted.
"No false modesty," he began. "The stakes are immense." Almost immediately, an enormous commotion broke out. It was impossible to see everything that was happening. Dozens of supporters streamed to the back of the hangar-like space in pursuit of something. Like the audience members all around us, we stood on chairs to get a better look. Zemmour pressed on, without reacting, but no one in my vicinity was listening. One of my friends reported that he'd seen people thrown under what looked like black tarps and then beaten. A cordon of the young enforcers prevented onlookers from approaching. As people began streaming out of the exits, we were overtaken by a wave of young men, some of whom had removed their leather belts and fashioned them into weapons. They were repelled by an even larger number of police officers in riot gear at the building's entrance. It was then that we noticed the objects of pursuit: a young man and two young women, all three bleeding profusely from head injuries, and now flanked by police officers and relentless TV journalists. These were nonviolent protesters from the group SOS Racisme.
We were steered by the police into the train station and onto the RER platform, where we boarded alongside Zemmour supporters who had moments ago been whipped into a frenzy over the prospect of halting immigration. Stop by stop, as we commuted back to the Gare du Nord, the composition of the car was physically reconfigured as it filled with precisely the kinds of faces that Zemmour had warned symbolized a new reverse colonization. Here was a microcosm of "replacement" happening in real time as white faces were dispersed, surrounded, then rendered almost invisible by the time we reached Paris. I wondered what those supporters were now thinking. What would they like to do to these people should they have their way in April? Back at home, catching the rest of the speech that we had missed, we heard the beginning of a not-so-subtle answer. Zemmour had named his new political party Reconquest, evoking the medieval expulsion of Muslims from the Iberian Peninsula.