French presidential election turns to question of identity

The race to become the next president of France is becoming a referendum on what it means to be French.

As voters prepare to head to the polls Sunday for the Républicains’ primary—which could ultimately determine the next president—the rhetoric at rallies and debates has increasingly focused on whether France’s secular values are compatible with its Muslim population—one of Europe’s biggest.

The election of Donald Trump has emboldened far-right presidential contender Marine Le Pen, who is campaigning against France’s socialists and conservatives on an anti-immigrant, antitrade platform similar to the U.S. president-elect’s. That message has helped keep her near the top of the polls after two years of blistering terror attacks carried out by foreign and French citizens, as well as a huge wave of migrants from the Middle East.

The cascade of events has left France’s political establishment at a crossroads: Reject Ms. Le Pen ’s rhetoric or co-opt it. The divide is especially striking within the conservative Républicains. Polls show the winner would be the strongest contender—and likely win—against Ms. Le Pen in the spring election. Socialist President François Hollande ’s unpopularity, meanwhile, would make him unlikely get past the first round of voting if he runs again. The outgoing president would also face his former Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron, who declared Wednesday he will run for president on a pledge to break apart France’s political system.

Bordeaux Mayor Alain Juppé, the front-runner in the race to win the conservatives’ nomination, embodies one path with talk of a “happy identity” for the French, grounded in respect for religious and ethnic diversity. He has responded to Mr. Trump’s victory by pledging to lead a broad coalition against the National Front.

The other route—espoused by his chief party rival, former President Nicolas Sarkozy —creates a litmus test for those French Muslims and other minorities he says are trampling the nation’s identity and security.

“I don’t believe in a happy identity when I see young people—born, raised and educated in France—who are less integrated than their grandparents, who were not French,” Mr. Sarkozy said over the weekend.

Even before Mr. Trump’s victory, Mr. Sarkozy’s rhetoric had taken a turn for the hard-right in an attempt to draw support from Ms. Le Pen’s base.

The former French leader has proposed that France detain thousands of people who are on intelligence watch lists but have never been charged. He has also decried a “latent form of civil war” that he blames on French nationals who descended from immigrants but failed to assimilate. To fix this, Mr. Sarkozy proposes re-centering public-school curricula on French history, geography and law.

“From the moment you become French, your ancestors are the Gauls,” Mr. Sarkozy told a rally in September, referring to the Celtic tribes that, in the Iron Age, inhabited territory that now is modern France.

Identity has long been a topic of tense debate in France, but it bubbled over after the terror attacks a year ago, when Mr. Hollande proposed stripping dual-nationals of their French citizenship if they were convicted of terrorism. The proposed constitutional amendment, which failed to become law, drove a further wedge in Mr. Hollande’s Socialist Party, which was already split on his handling of the economy. He is polling so low that many of his allies question whether he will seek re-election.

Mr. Hollande’s proposal represented a major shift in French politics, because it was borrowed from Ms. Le Pen, whose policies have long been anathema to the French left. The political lines were further blurred this summer when Mr. Hollande’s prime minister, Manuel Valls, supported attempts from right-wing mayors to ban head-to-foot “burkini” swimsuits from beaches.

“Whether on the right, the far-right or the left, there is a more and more authoritarian vision—an idea that norms and values should be imposed,” said Patrick Simon, senior researcher at the French Institute for Demographic Studies.

Polls predict Ms. Le Pen would easily get through the first round of the 2017 general election. But with the backing of about a third of French voters, Ms. Le Pen appears to lack enough support to win the second round. Given the Socialist Party’s struggles to field a viable candidate, whoever becomes the Republicans’ nominee is likely to face Ms. Le Pen in a runoff and win.

For now, Mr. Juppé has the advantage over Mr. Sarkozy. Polls show François Fillon, a former Prime Minister campaigning on a pro-business platform, has closed in on Mr. Sarkozy in recent days, while the four other primary candidates trail further behind. A poll of 714 people likely to vote in the primaries—taken by KANTAR Sofres OnePoint last week—said Mr. Juppé would win 59% of the vote in a head-to-head runoff with Mr. Sarkozy.

In a bid to make up ground, Mr. Sarkozy has tacked further to the right, seizing on Mr. Juppé’s calls for tolerance.

“We are diverse, we don’t have the same religion, the same skin color, or the same origins. This diversity must be respected,” Mr. Juppé said in the first televised debate in October.

Mr. Sarkozy retorted with a call for assimilation, a term rooted in France’s colonial system of training local elites to absorb French language and culture, and later used to describe how European immigrants melded into French society between the two world wars.

If elected, Mr. Sarkozy has pledged to require anyone seeking French citizenship to sign an “assimilation pact” committing them to adopt French values and culture. He has also proposed cutting welfare benefits to women who ignore bans on face-covering veils. Simple head scarves, Mr. Sarkozy says, should also be banned on university campuses.

Mr. Sarkozy says he plans to hold public referendums to override constitutional rights that allow immigrants to bring family members to France and prevent authorities from detaining people on intelligence watch lists before getting a court order.

Mr. Juppé’s “happy identity” is rooted in the idea of integration, which replaced assimilation as a model for immigrants from former colonies settling in France. Under integration, France is open to diversity as long as immigrants adopt the country’s core values of equality, liberty and fraternity.

Mr. Juppé says France should stop legislating on the issue of religious clothing. Mr. Sarkozy’s plan to suspend the right for legal migrants to bring their families to France, Mr. Juppe says, is “not a humane attitude.”