PARIS — Far-right French presidential candidate Éric Zemmour was found guilty of inciting racial hatred and fined $11,400 on Monday, adding another obstacle to a bid that has lost momentum in recent weeks but may leave a lasting mark on French politics.
Zemmour’s lawyer vowed to appeal the guilty verdict, which came less than three months before the first round of the election in April.
Accusations against Zemmour centered around his description of unaccompanied child migrants as “thieves,” “killers” and “rapists” during a debate on the CNews TV channel in September 2020.
Zemmour didn’t attend the criminal court trial in Paris. In a response Monday, he called the verdict “stupid” and “ideological.”
“There is an urgent need to drive ideology out of the courts,” he said in the statement.
Zemmour has been convicted several times over controversial public remarks, including for provoking racial hatred against Muslims, and a number of legal proceedings are still underway.
His critics say his convictions prove the extent to which his presidential campaign is based on racially charged sentiments. They worry that even if his presidential bid is unsuccessful, he may still contribute to the normalization of views that used to be seen as beyond the realm of decency in France.
The 63-year-old former political commentator surged in the polls late last year after the possibility of a presidential run captivated French media. Zemmour filled the airwaves by demanding a ban on foreign-sounding first names, blaming “Islamic colonization” for crime that makes life in some parts of France “unlivable” and complaining of an “invasion” by migrants.
The most recent legal proceedings against Zemmour have also highlighted the role France’s CNews TV station has played in amplifying his message, according to its critics. With its selection of topics and guests, the news channel has drawn comparisons to Fox News in the United States and prompted concerns that it is contributing to a deepening polarization in the country.
On the far right, the better-known Marine Le Pen and Zemmour, her competitor, would currently receive the combined support of around a third of the electorate in the first round of the election, which some see as an indication that the country has become more susceptible to far-right proposals.
In an incident that appeared to signal the intensity of the polarization, Zemmour was among several people injured at his first campaign event in early December after a man grabbed him by the neck and momentarily placed him in a headlock. Several members of an anti-racism group were also injured at the event amid tensions between the activists and pro-Zemmour attendees.
The strong sentiments that Zemmour’s candidacy has triggered may ultimately thwart his presidential ambitions, with a majority of voters describing him as a “danger to democracy.” In recent polls, he has come in fourth, behind President Emmanuel Macron — who is leading the race — Le Pen and the conservative Republicans party’s front-runner, Valérie Pécresse.
It is unclear whether Zemmour will be able to secure the support of at least 500 elected representatives — the threshold required of candidates who want to run in the first round of the election.
Zemmour also still faces a number of legal proceedings related to other past comments.
Later this week, there will be an appeal hearing over his remarks in 2019 that Philippe Pétain — who led Vichy’s collaborationist World War II government — had “saved” the French Jews. The remarks prompted accusations that Zemmour had disputed crimes against humanity, but he was acquitted last year.