French candidates spar over Islam’s place in a secular society

Sunday 26/03/2017
Unburnished extremism. Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen (L) gets make-up applied prior to a debate at French TV station TF1 in Aubervilliers, on March 20th. (AP)

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.