Far-right figure Eric Zemmour, touted as a potential president of France, was caught showing the middle finger to an angry woman who accosted him in Marseille. A minister later asked young people not to repeat the obscene gesture.
Zemmour, who is expected to officially announce his candidacy for the presidency early next month, arrived in Marseille on Friday as part of his promotional tour. He was met by a group of protesters that jeered and booed as the media personality was leaving the train station.
On Saturday, a woman approached Zemmour's car outside city hall and gave him the middle finger. Zemmour, who rolled down his window, quickly responded in kind. The obscene gesture was caught by an AFP photographer's camera.
According to AFP, Zemmour told the woman the finger was designed to go "very deep." His team later told reporters that the woman had duped Zemmour's security by posing as his supporter and was behaving aggressively.
Opponents jumped to slam the writer for the gesture. French European affairs minister Clement Beaune told LCI TV channel that the altercation has exposed the "true face" of Zemmour, as well as his "lack of respect, the divisiveness, the hatred and the violence."
"This man praises French civilization and identity, presents himself as a man of culture and aspires to lead our country," French member of the European Parliament Nathalie Loiseau tweeted.
Nadia Hai, the urban development minister, urged young people not to emulate Zemmour's gesture and to fight "uncivilities wherever they come from."
A source close to Zemmour told AFP that the gesture was "instinctive" on his end. "He told us, 'I was insulted, I was shown the finger so I responded'," the source explained.
Known for his fiery anti-migrant and anti-Islam rhetoric, Zemmour surged in the polls in October. At one point, around 18% of people said they would vote for him in the first round of the presidential election, scheduled for April 10. This would be enough for Zemmour to face President Emmanuel Macron in the second round. He was polling between 13% and 15% this month, according to recent surveys cited by French media.
Zemmour was fined several times in the past for inciting hatred against Muslims. He is currently on trial for calling child migrants "thieves, killers [and] rapists."