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.”

NY Times on France’s “Burqa Ban”

September 1, 2012

 

The French law banning the full-face veil from public spaces has been controversial from the start, with loud debates about the meaning of liberty, individual rights, the freedoms of religion and expression, and the nature of laïcité, or secularism, in the French republic.

While pushed by the center-right and former President Nicolas Sarkozy, the ban was not opposed by the Socialist Party, which largely abstained in parliamentary votes. And the current French president, François Hollande, has said he has no intention of discarding the law, which has been generally popular with the French.

To avoid charges of discrimination, the law was written without any reference to Islam or to women and was presented as a security measure, making it an offense to wear clothing “intended to hide the face’’ in any public place, including shops or the street. The police do not have the authority to remove full veils, only to fine or require citizenship lessons for those who violate the new law. A clause says that anyone who forces a woman to cover her face can be imprisoned for up to a year and fined up to 30,000 euros, or $37,000.

Hollande would keep France’s burqa ban

News Agencies – April 27, 2012

 

France’s socialist presidential candidate Francois Hollande says that, if elected, he won’t seek to overturn a law banning face-covering Muslim veils enacted by President Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservatives. Francois Hollande, who leads Sarkozy in all polls, and most other Socialists abstained from the 2010 vote in the National Assembly to ban mesh-screen burqas and niqabs. On RTL radio, Hollande said he would keep the ban, but “have it applied in the best way.” He did not elaborate.

Angst emerges in France’s suburbs as Le Pen surges

Reuters – April 25, 2012

 

Marine Le Pen’s breakthrough in the French election’s first round brought her anti-immigrant National Front (FN) party its highest poll score to date, touching off a round of soul-searching as French elites sought to understand her appeal. But an explanation comes quickly to the sons and grandsons of North African immigrants, who say harping on Muslim symbols by both Le Pen and President Nicolas Sarkozy has put fear of foreigners into the hearts of many white French people.

Seine-Saint-Denis, with a population of 1.5 million, covers the sprawling northwestern suburbs of Paris and is home to the highest concentration of people of immigrant origin in the country. French law bars compiling statistics by ethnic origin, but census figures show more than one in five residents was born abroad. National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father, got 9 percent there in France’s 2007 election. She boosted that to 13.6 percent, still well below her national score, but nonetheless resonating with the area’s sizeable white community.

Marine Le Pen Defends Anti-Islam stance

News Agencies – April 18, 2012

 

She calls herself the “voice of the people,” the anti-system candidate who will ensure social justice for the have-nots and purify a France she says is losing its voice to Europe and threatened by massive immigration and rampant Islamization. The message of far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen has seduced thousands, kept her consistently in third place in polls and clearly scared President Nicolas Sarkozy as he seeks a second term.

Le Pen wants to drastically reduce the number of immigrants — to 10,000 a year — and, a top theme, to crack down for good on what she claims is the growing footprint of Islamic fundamentalists in France. Le Pen cites as proof of the Islamist threat in France the case of Mohamed Merah, a young Frenchman of Algerian origin who last month killed three French paratroopers, a rabbi and three Jewish schoolchildren before he was shot dead by police trying to capture him.

France approves new anti-terrorism measures in wake of terrorism shootings

The Globe and Mail – April 11, 2012

 

The conservative French government unveiled new counterterrorism measures to punish those who visit extremist websites or travel to weapons-training camps abroad, in the wake of deadly shootings by a suspected Islamic extremist in southern France last month. The measures now go to Parliament, where it may face resistance from the Socialists, who say France’s legal arsenal against terrorism is already strong enough and that the proposal is a campaign ploy to boost President Nicolas Sarkozy’s chances at a second term.

Mr. Sarkozy’s cabinet gave its go-ahead to measures that would make it illegal to travel abroad to “indoctrination and weapons-training camps for terrorist ends” or to regularly visit websites that incite or praise deadly terrorism. Mr. Sarkozy’s government insists the measures are needed to fight the relatively new phenomenon of “lone wolf” terrorism by extremists who self-radicalize online via jihadist Web sites, and are hard for authorities to track.

Sarkozy speaks at UOIF gathering

News Agencies – April 5, 2012

President Nicolas Sarkozy has been accused of exploiting public fears about Islamist violence in France by ordering a wave of arrests of suspected radicals across the country in a desperate electoral ploy. The country’s biggest annual gathering of French Muslims begins on the outskirts of Paris with what one hostile newspaper called a “virulent” and highly politicised message from the president ringing in delegates’ ears.

Mr Sarkozy said in a letter to Ahmed Jaballah, president of the Union of Islamic Organisations (UOIF), he would not tolerate support being expressed at a public meeting on French soil for “violence, hatred [and] anti-Semitism, which constitute unbearable attacks that run counter to human dignity and republican principles”.

The left-of-centre daily newspaper Libération offered its judgement of the letter’s contents in five pages of coverage of rising tensions and political maneuvering headed “Sarkozy and Islam: dangerous liaisons.”

Le Pen Calls for UOIF to be banned

News Agencies – March 30, 2012

 

French Presidential Candidate, Marine Le Pen, leader of the nationalist Front National party, called for the Union of Islamic Organizations of France (UOIF) to be banned and its congress next week to be scrapped, the FN said. “Marine Le Pen calls for a ban on the event in Le Bourget. Marine Le Pen wants the break up of the Union of Islamic Organizations of France,” Le Pen said in a statement. The congress is scheduled for April 6-9. The French government has recently banned four Islamic religious leaders heading for the UOIF congress from entering France.

The ban came after President Nicolas Sarkozy ordered a crackdown on “preachers, continually attacking French values” from entering the country. Nationalist feeling has been rising in France, with the far-right National Front performing better than expected in recent local elections. Marine Le Pen is widely expected to make the run-off in presidential polls set for April 22.

France arrests suspected Islamic militants

News Agencies – March 30, 2012

Police commandos arrested 19 suspected Islamic militants in raids in several French cities including Toulouse, where seven people were killed by an al Qaeda-inspired gunman this month. President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose firm handling of the response to the shooting spree may have improved his odds in an election race he has lagged in, said more raids would follow to get rid of “people who have no business in the country”.

Interior Minister Claude Gueant said those arrested had paramilitary-type training although he did not say if they were planning an actual attack. Television channels showed images of the early morning raids, with agents from the RAID police commando unit and anti-terrorist specialists bashing down doors, and smashing windows.

CFCM leader says that French shooter’s acts contradict Islam

News Agencies – March 21, 2012

France’s top Muslim leader said that a besieged suspected Islamist who claims to have carried out a string of shootings to avenge Palestinian children had acted against Islam. “These acts are in total contradiction with the foundations of this religion,” said the head of the French Muslim Council, Mohammed Moussaoui. “France’s Muslims are offended by this claim of belonging to this religion.”

Moussaoui and Richard Prasquier, the head of France’s main Jewish organisation, the CRIF, were to meet with President Nicolas Sarkozy as the siege outside the shooter’s apartment continued in the southwestern city of Toulouse. The joint meeting shows “an important thing,” Prasquier said, “that it is absolutely impossible to confuse this person and the Islamist, jihadist, al-Qaedist movement that he represents, with Islam in France, which is a religion like any other.”