French TV Pundit Weighing Presidential Run Goes on Trial for Calling Migrant Kids Thieves

The trial for Eric Zemmour, far-right TV pundit who is considering running for president of France, began Wednesday for allegedly inciting racial hatred with comments he made about migrant children.

The trial focuses on comments Zemmour made in September 2020 on France's CNews about children who migrate to France without parents or guardians.

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

The Associated Press reported that Zemmour faces charges of "public insult" and "incitement to hatred or violence" against a group of people based on their ethnicity, nationality, race or religion. If found guilty, he faces a year-long prison sentence and a $51,000 fine.

The civil plaintiffs in the trial include local councils representing divisions for child care, and anti-racism groups like SOS Racisme, the Human Rights League and the International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism.

Zemmour is widely expected to announce his candidacy in the French presidential election soon, already having a wide audience in support of his anti-Islam and anti-immigration sentiments.

The political commentator has two prior hate speech convictions, according to the AP. The convictions are related to comments he made justifying discrimination against Black and Arab people in 2010, and for anti-Islam comments in 2016.

Zemmour did not attend Wednesday's trial. In a statement, he said he denounced it as "an attempt to intimidate [him]." He said he would not attend "because the political debate doesn't take place in courts."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Eric Zemmour, TV pundit
French far-right TV pundit Eric Zemmour, expected to run for the presidency, stands trial Wednesday in Paris for inciting racial hatred after comments on unaccompanied migrant children. Above, Zemmour poses prior to a televised debate with French far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon on September 23 in Paris. Bertrand Guay/Pool Photo via AP, File

"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.

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.

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, in which 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.

Eric Zemmour, France, presidential election
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. Above, a woman walks past a poster of Zemmour reading in French "Our Trump" in Biarritz, southwestern France, on October 28. Bob Edme/AP Photo