French candidates spar over Islam’s place in a secular society
Paris - The place of Islam in France’s secularist society was a key issue for French presidential candidates in their first televised debate. Ironically, only one of the candidates, however, raised the issue of Islamist radicalisation.
The more extreme positions were expressed by far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. The head of the National Front was not after new converts as much as she was striving to reinforce positions of hostility towards Muslim presence in France and stress the notion of secularism under attack.
Le Pen said she wanted all religious symbols — including Muslim headscarves and Jewish kippahs — banned from public spaces.
She called for amending the constitution with a provision stipulating that the “republic recognises no communities”.
Socialist Party candidate Benoît Hamon advocated a more tolerant view of secularism. “We should not impose on a woman what she should wear, whether we think her attire is indecent or whether she wears a scarf,” he said.
Independent centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron, who is running neck and neck with Le Pen in polls for the April 23rd first round of voting, accused Le Pen of trying to divide the French over the burkini, the full-body Islamic swimsuit.
Macron defended the less dramatic position that “for the majority, religion and secularism are not a problem”.
French analyst Frédéric Saint Clair after the debate wrote in Le Figaro: “The outlines of the principle of secularism remain however blurry regardless of who the candidate is. The French have a problem guessing what a secularist France means.”
Much more than the other candidates, Le Pen tried to exploit deep anxieties derived from terrorist attacks in France. She complained of the “rise of radical Islam in our country” and described the security situation as “explosive”. She did not however offer any clues to how to address the problem of radicalisation.
Bloody incidents during the last few years included an attack in January 2015 when two men stormed the Paris offices of satirical weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo, killing 12 people. In November that year, jihadists with ties to the Islamic State and armed with assault rifles and explosives struck several Paris locations, leaving 130 people dead and more than 350 wounded.
In July 2016, a truck ploughed through a crowd on Nice’s Promenade des Anglais after a Bastille Day fireworks display, killing 84 people and injuring more than 330. The latest attack occurred March 18th when a 39-year-old man was killed at Paris Orly Airport after attacking a soldier.
Against this background, French Republicans’ candidate François Fillon was keen during the debate on projecting an image of intransigence towards radical Islam while steering clear of Le Pen’s more extreme views. He tried also to tackle the factors of radicalisation in France by calling for “administrative oversight” of Islamic institutions in France, including the control by the state of appointment of imams and the financing of mosques.
Fillon was the only candidate during the debate to call for a ban on Salafist and Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated groups.
A related issue was that of immigration. “I want to put an end to immigration, that’s clear,” Le Pen said.
Focusing on her hostility towards the European Union, Le Pen struck a different tone, saying: “I want to be the president of France, not oversee a vague region of the European Union. I don’t want to be the vice-chancellor of [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel.”
Fillon criticised Merkel for her refugee policies, saying her management of the migration crisis caused huge problems for Europe.
Following the debate, 22% of the French respondents expressed a desire to see Macron win the presidential election, compared to 20% for Le Pen and 18% for Fillon in a Harris Interactive poll.
Opinion polls also indicated almost 40% of voters said they were not sure whom to back in the election, which involved two rounds — April 23rd and May 7th — against a backdrop of high unemployment and sluggish economic growth.