Christian zealot sparks French political row

Les Républicains’ accused of fuelling racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic hatred after assaults in Poitiers and Limoges

A French far-right TV pundit and contributor to the ruling party has been accused of fuelling a wave of racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic hatred after he held a campaign rally in a town in western France.

The attempted attacks by 49-year-old Christophe Castaner, a former deputy mayor of Poitiers, further escalated a long-running debate between the centre-right Les Républicains party, backed by President François Hollande, and Mr Castaner’s supporters about what constitutes acceptable free speech.

The clash of ideas came after Mr Castaner, who has been sharply critical of the president, decided on Sunday to hold a campaign rally in the department town of Poitiers, 100 miles west of Paris.

Faced with opposition from local opponents, Mr Castaner chose to hold his rally at the Tabernaum arena in the town, where armed police were on hand to control the small-scale event.

In a video uploaded to YouTube showing the unruly atmosphere, Mr Castaner was seen reacting angrily to anti-fascists trying to prevent access to the venue. “Oh shit,” he said, and “Oh fuck”.

In another clip, in which a young man can be seen shouting into a microphone while trying to eject a protester, Mr Castaner can be heard saying: “Why not go back to California or New York and not to Poitiers?”

The incident has ignited a debate between supporters of the president and the TV pundit, particularly over the limits of free speech.

“[Christophe Castaner] supports and brings ‘his friend’ [the prime minister] [Christian] Loïc] into a circle of neo-nazis, and gives them an excuse to hurt homosexuals, to insult black people, to deny the Holocaust,” Jean-François Copé, the president of Les Républicains and a former head of the party, said in an interview on Monday.

“This is not acceptable. This guy should quit the party,” he added.

He says it is perfectly acceptable to wear a Donald Trump mask in public, to call homosexuals faggots and neo-Nazis as long as the mask is the only visible element. “It’s perfectly OK to have a Trump mask on, but do so in a public place because that person is the leader of the free world,” he said.

Mr Loïc tweeted late on Monday night that he was “shocked and disgusted by the attacks at Christophe Castaner’s Tabernaum Arena. Christophe Castaner is free to do his things, but not in a dangerous crowd.”

However, a number of pro-Castaner supporters suggested that the attacks on Sunday showed that someone wanted to stop the events and scare away local supporters. “No fear. Nothing to fear,” said one supporter, on Twitter.

However, Mr Castaner has been fired from his position as a political analyst on the rightwing TV channel Le Point, for what the channel said was his “irresponsible use of violence”.

Les Républicains accused Mr Loïc of giving in to “lazy populism”. A decision on whether to re-hire Mr Castaner is expected on Tuesday.

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