French firebrand Zemmour gets muted welcome in London

LONDON — There were no ecstatic crowds, no eager chanting during Eric Zemmour’s visit to London. Instead, the far-right firebrand with presidential ambitions addressed a few hundred French expats in a drab hotel conference center, mused at length about constitutional law and made muddled statements on whether French people abroad should return.

His two-day visit to London started on the wrong foot when the Royal Institution canceled an event two days before it was due to take place. Zemmour, whose rise could do serious damage to Marine Le Pen’s hopes of becoming president next year, also failed to meet any British politicians — or at least no one would admit publicly to meeting him.

On stage on Friday, Zemmour, who is officially on a book promotion tour, tried to make light of the difficulties.

“We were supposed to meet in the prestigious Royal Institution and here we are in an Ibis hotel,” he joked. “I suppose it suits our Republican spirit, we chopped off the heads of kings after all.”

In a speech and Q&A that lasted an hour, Zemmour spoke about the doomed pro-European ambitions of the French elite, the expat spirit of enterprise and, of course, Brexit.

“I think [Brexit] showed the vitality of the British people, who chose to take control of their destiny again,” he told the crowd. “They decided to stop submitting themselves to European judges, to European technocrats.”

“The British political class was tempted to ignore the democratic vote and in the end, they didn’t, and that’s admirable,” said Zemmour, who does not support a Frexit but wants to ignore EU rulings on immigration and state aid.

Visiting London was also an opportunity for Zemmour to lash out at one of his regular bugbears: the European Union. In an interview with the Telegraph, Zemmour warned that “without France, the EU is dead,” arguing that Brussels would bend to the will of France.

“If necessary I would close our borders with Italy, or Spain, whatever the Schengen Treaty says,” he added.

In the audience in London, many said they shared his tough stance on immigration and his views on patriotism, but were hesitant about his bid for the presidency, or disappointed by his performance.

“I like that he is such a character, even if some of what he says is over the top,” said Samantha, a French tax expert living in London who refused to give her surname. “But I’m waiting to see his manifesto … I’m not completely behind him.”

“He was affectionate with the expats … answered questions with style and is very authentic,” said Lydik Grynfeltt, who works in human resources, “but the audience was quite calm, the reactions a bit limited. It’s a shame.”

Officially, Zemmour is not yet running for the presidency but, according to POLITICO’s Poll of Polls, he is on course for 15 percent of the vote in the first round, just behind Le Pen on 17 percent, with Emmanuel Macron on 24 percent.

Money, money, money

The London trip may not have gone to plan for Zemmour, but there was another big reason for crossing the Channel … money, or more specifically campaign funding at a time when French banks are reluctant to lend to politicians.

During his visit, Zemmour took part in several lunches and dinners with up to 20 potential donors each time, according to a team member in charge of campaign financing. “A lot of them are donors who are disappointed with Emmanuel Macron,” said the team member, adding that they were receiving a mix of big and small contributions, “as much as Macron in 2017.”

In the audience at his speaking event, potential donors said they were considering opening their wallets for Zemmour.

“I don’t exclude [supporting his campaign] but I don’t know enough about his proposals,” said a banker who would not give his name for professional reasons. “It’s up to him to present a more structured manifesto.”

“I think that is why he hasn’t yet announced his candidacy, he is buying time because he is not yet on top of economic topics and he is trying to mug up on it.”

The clock is ticking though. On Saturday, Zemmour gave the clearest indication yet that he is running for the French presidency.

He wrote on Twitter “On December 5, the next page of the story begins [with a rally in Paris]. Come and write it with me.”

A member of his team confirmed that the tweet meant Zemmour will have announced his candidacy in time for the rally in Paris.

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