French far-right leader Marine Le Pen today proposed a ban on Muslim headscarves in all public places, seeking to build on a record recent poll putting her almost neck-and-neck with President Emmanuel Macron.
The hijab policy, which would be contested in court and would almost certainly be ruled unconstitutional, saw the 53-year-old return to a familiar campaign theme 15 months from the country’s 2022 presidential election.
‘I consider that the headscarf is an Islamist item of clothing,’ Le Pen told reporters at a press conference where she proposed a new law to ban ‘Islamist ideologies’ which she called ‘totalitarian and murderous.’
Since taking over from her father, Le Pen has run twice for the French presidency, losing badly in 2017 to political newcomer Macron in a defeat that she took months to recover from.
She faced controversy at the time after she cancelled a meeting with Lebanon’s most senior Muslim cleric in Beirut because she objected to covering her hair.
Her ‘political gesture’ against the Grand Mufti was aimed at asserting French secular values in Lebanon, where the main religions are Islam and Christianity.
But recent polling shows her closer than ever to her ultimate prize and has led to a rash of new speculation about whether the anti-EU, anti-immigration populist could finally enter the Elysée Palace.
Despite recent setbacks for fellow ideologues such as Donald Trump and Matteo Salvini in Italy, a survey reported earlier this week showed her within striking distance of Macron.
The poll conducted online by Harris Interactive suggested that if a final-round presidential run-off were held today Le Pen would garner 48 percent while Macron would be re-elected with 52 percent, Le Parisien newspaper reported.
It suggested National Rally leader Le Pen would narrowly beat Macron in the first round, gaining 26 to 27 percent of the votes against his 23 to 24 percent.
If accurate, the survey indicates that Macron and Le Pen are set to duel for the presidency for the second time.
The margin, the narrowest ever recorded, set off alarm bells in the French political mainstream as the dual health and economic crises caused by the coronavirus pandemic sweep across the country.
‘It’s the highest she has ever been at,’ said Jean-Yves Camus, a French political scientist specialised in the far-right, while adding that it was ‘too early to take the polls at face value’.
He said Le Pen was benefiting from frustration and anger over the pandemic, with France on the verge of a third lockdown, but also the beheading of a French school teacher by an Islamist last October.
‘It had a major impact on public opinion,’ the expert from the Jean-Jaures Foundation told AFP. ‘And in this area, Marine Le Pen has an advantage: her party is well known for its position denouncing Islamism.’
The beheading of Samuel Paty in a town northwest of Paris rekindled bitter arguments in France about immigration and the threat of Islamism, while causing a major international crisis for Macron.
The secondary school teacher was attacked in the street by an 18-year-old extremist after he showed satirical cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed to pupils during a civics class on free speech.
Two weeks later, a 21-year-old Tunisian national stabbed three people to death in a church in the southern city of Nice.
Macron came out strongly in support of the right to free speech – saying ‘we will not stop drawing cartoons’ – while French media and even city authorities defiantly re-published the caricatures, which are offensive to many Muslims.
The French leader was denounced as Islamophobic by detractors abroad, particularly Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and anti-France protests took place in many Muslim-majority countries from Bangladesh to Lebanon.
In response to Paty’s death, Macron’s government shut a number of organisations deemed Islamist and drafted law legislation initially called ‘the anti-separatism bill’ which cracks down on foreign funding for Islamic organisations.
Macron’s leadership has also been under scrutiny over labour disputes that sparked huge protests beginning in 2018, as well as his handling of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
These challenges are unlikely to be fully resolved in the fifteen months before the next election and will be inherited by the next French president.
Another challenge is a growing wave of Euroscepticism in France, which could see voters favour Le Pen.
While she has dropped her calls for France to leave the EU amid a party rebrand following Macron’s 2017 victory, the National Assembly member is a strong advocate for EU reform.
With campaigns yet to get under way, the results suggested by the poll could change dramatically but they appear to show gains for the far-right compared with previous surveys.
A June 2020 poll carried out by Ifop-Fiducial placed Macron at 55 percent in the second round of voting against Le Pen at 45 percent.
If re-elected after a campaign that is expected to be centred on jobs, the pandemic and the place of Islam in France, 43-year-old Macron would be the first president since Jacques Chirac in 2002 to win a second term.
Under France’s presidential system, the top two candidates in a first round of voting progress to a second-round run-off where the winner must get more than 50 percent.
A Le Pen win ‘was improbable three and half years ago,’ veteran political commentator Alain Duhamel told the BFM news channel this week.
‘But today I wouldn’t say that it is probable, but I’d say, without any pleasure, that it seems to me to be possible.’
A re-run of the Macron-Le Pen contest of 2017, which all polls currently show as the most likely outcome, could increase the abstention rate and disillusionment with the French political system.
Turnout in the second round in 2017 was 74.6 percent, its lowest level since 1969, because many voters from the left declined to cast a ballot.