France’s Election Season Kicks Off With Le Pen Sparring on Islam
(Bloomberg) -- French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin and nationalist leader Marine Le Pen faced off in a televised debate to start an election season culminating in President Emmanuel Macron’s expected bid for a second term.
While Le Pen was toughest on illegal immigration and with a call for an outright ban on the Muslim veil, the two politicians often found themselves aligned on security matters and France’s unique form of secularism, known as “laicite.”
The almost 90-minute debate Thursday night offered National Rally chief Le Pen -- Macron’s top competitor for the presidency -- a chance to seek the upper hand in a discussion of her favorite themes. For Darmanin, it was an opportunity to try and yank the rug out from under the far right.
Ahead of regional elections set for June and the presidential vote in April 2022, televised debates will be more important than usual because Covid-19 restrictions have made traditional campaigning more difficult. While Macron hasn’t declared he’s running in 2022, his teams have begun preparing his campaign. France’s traditional right and left parties that imploded in 2017 have yet to pick candidates.
Darmanin, from the once-dominant conservative Les Republicains, was appointed interior minister in July. With tough talk on religion, policing and immigration, he’s been key in helping Macron and his La Republique En Marche party reach out to undecided voters who might be leaning toward Le Pen.
Yet the 38-year-old minister is a polarizing figure, and his defense of the police amid rising accusations of racism and rough behavior has been especially controversial. Just 20% of voters in an Elabe poll for Les Echo said they had a positive image of him, with a little less than half of those right-leaning.
That’s a risk for the broadly centrist president, and Darmanin also used the debate to try and soften his image for more liberal viewers. He defended citizenship rights of children born in France to immigrant parents. When Le Pen called for the Muslim veil to be banned, he mocked her for suggesting security forces should become “clothing police.”
Le Pen and Darmanin have been sparring in parliament for about two weeks as members debate legislation put forward by Macron’s party, championed by Darmanin, that they say is designed to boost the French republic’s values and fight radicalism.
The “separatism” bill includes restrictions on home schooling and extends a ban on wearing religious symbols by civil servants to all public-sector workers. While there has been criticism it stigmatizes Muslims, Le Pen says it doesn’t go far enough.
Four years ago, after Le Pen failed to win the presidency, far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon appeared to be Macron’s chief rival. But Le Pen has reclaimed her position, tapping into anxiety over a wave of Islamist violence last year that began with the beheading of a school teacher and culminated in a murder at a church, as well as widespread anger over economic and regional inequalities and the French leader’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis.
While the the debate’s tone was mostly congenial, Le Pen repeatedly accused the government of “limiting personal freedoms” and portrayed their views on Islam as similar, saying “I could have written your book.”
Darmanin denied the characterization and attacked Le Pen as “vague,” including on immigration figures. It was a reference to a Macron-Le Pen debate in 2017 in which she made factual errors.
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