Hate speech trial opens for French far-right pundit

World News

A woman walks past a poster of hard-right political talk-show star Eric Zemmour reading in French ” Our Trump” in Biarritz, southwestern France, Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021. Provocative anti-immigration commentator Eric Zemmour is drawing national attention in France as he floats a possible presidential bid that could shake up the campaign for the April election. ( AP Photo/Bob Edme)

PARIS (AP) — A far-right TV pundit who is expected to run for the French presidency goes on trial Wednesday for allegedly inciting racial hatred with his comments on unaccompanied migrant children.

Eric Zemmour, who has two prior hate speech convictions, is being tried on charges of “public insult” and “incitement to hatred or violence” against a group of people due to their ethnic, national, racial or religious origin.

The essayist and commentator on former political talk shows is widely expected to soon announce his candidacy in France’s April presidential election. Adopting an attitude much like former former U.S. President Donald Trump, Zemmour is finding fervent audiences for his anti-Islam, anti-immigration invective in the early stages of the race.

Zemmour previously was convicted of incitement to racial hatred after justifying discrimination against Black and Arab people in 2010, and of incitement to religious hatred for anti-Islam comments in 2016. He was respectively sentenced to pays court costs and a 5,000-euro ($5,660) fine.

The trial opening Wednesday focuses on September 2020 comments he made on French news broadcaster CNews about children who migrate to France without parents or guardians. If found guilty, he faces a sentence of up to one year in prison and a 45,000-euro ($51,000) fine.

“They’re thieves, they’re murderers, they’re rapists. That’s all they are. We must send them back,” Zemmour said. “These people cost us money.”

Zemmour was not present Wednesday at the Paris court. In a statement, he denounced “an attempt to intimidate (him)” from prosecutors and anti-racist groups. He maintained his comments and said he won’t attend the trial “because the political debate doesn’t take place in courts.”

The verdict is expected to be delivered at a later date.

The head of the managing board of Canal +, CNews’ parent company, Jean-Christophe Thiery, is also on trial in the case, as the person legally in charge of the television show. The French media watchdog, the Superior Audiovisual Council, imposed a 200,000-euro fine in March on CNews for broadcasting comments inciting hatred.

Civil plaintiffs in the case include several local councils representing divisions handling child care and anti-racism groups including SOS Racisme, the Human Rights League and the International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism.

“We refuse for these comments to be trivialized and to target foreign non-accompanied minors who come to seek protection in France, as well as all those who work to help them,” said the departmental council of Seine-Saint-Denis, north of Paris.

Zemmour’s lawyer, Olivier Pardo, argued in favor of nullifying the charges and suggested the trial is politically motivated, noting that the local councils represented at the Paris court are headed by a leftist majority.

Zemmour is also set to go on trial on charges of “racial insult” after he told another TV pundit, Hapsatou Sy, that her first name was “an insult to France.” Sy has filed a formal complaint. No trial date has been set.

Zemmour has repeatedly said he wants to ban parents from giving children foreign names, similar to an 1803 law restricting choice to typical French names, mostly of Christian origin.

Zemmour has also been tried in several other cases, where he was acquitted.

A Paris court in February acquitted Zemmour on a charge of contesting crimes against humanity — illegal in France — for arguing in a 2019 television debate that Marshal Philippe Petain, head of Vichy’s collaborationist government during World War II, saved France’s Jews from the Holocaust.

In its verdict, the court said Zemmour’s comments negated Petain’s role in the extermination. But in acquitting Zemmour, it said he’d spoken in the heat of the moment.

Yet Zemmour in recent weeks has repeated similar comments and lawyers contesting his acquittal plan to cite that point as evidence when their appeal is heard in January.

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