French President Emmanuel Macron. Picture: REUTERS/LUDOVIC MARIN
French President Emmanuel Macron. Picture: REUTERS/LUDOVIC MARIN

London — When a jihadist killed three people in a church on France’s Cote d’Azur, far-right leader Marine Le Pen called for foreigners suspected of extremism to be deported and a ban on groups that support radical ideology.

She barely made a splash: Emmanuel Macron had beaten her to it.

Immediately after last week’s attacks, Le Pen wanted to declare “a wartime act,” but that fell flat too. As far back as March, the French president invoked war when rallying the nation to fight the coronavirus. Now, he’s put France on its highest terror alert level and talks of an “existential battle” for the country’s way of life.

Eighteen months before presidential elections, the resurgence of France’s problem with radical Islam would typically offer an opening for anti-immigrant National Rally leader Le Pen as she seeks a rematch with archrival Macron.

Macron’s aides say they see her posing a serious threat, and a recent poll shows the French appetite for anti-establishment personalities increasing. His advisers say the president isn’t talking up bread and butter issues such as security and France’s relationship with Islam to win over her voters, but to address real concerns in French society. Still, they’ve acknowledged it’s important not to leave those topics to her.

“Macron needs to show he’s acting on security matters and isn’t leaving this field to the extreme right,” said Haoues Seniguer, a professor at Sciences Po in Lyon.

There’s no guarantee he can succeed. “Usually, cultural insecurity is a right or far-right-theme,” said Seniguer. “It’s not a done deal that Macron will have the upper hand by pre-empting them on these issues.”

Mark my words, [in] the next presidential election, the far-right will most likely reach the second round & all politicians will ask us to vote and save the Republic
Rim-Sarah Alouane, French legal scholar

It’s all a long way from where Macron started.

At the age of 39, he pulled off a surprise presidential victory in 2017 after blowing up France’s two-party system and beating back the anti-establishment wave epitomised by Brexit and Donald Trump winning the US presidential election. He offered a liberal vision of coexistence for the country’s diverse religious and ethnic communities and hoped to reconcile citizens with the EU. But his image of a young progressive abroad jars with his conservative stance on some issues and top down approach at home.

Macron has so far been unable to heal the deeply divided and disgruntled society he inherited. He’s been battered by his plans to increase fuel tax, which sparked the Yellow Vest grassroots protest movement. And his party took a bashing in municipal elections in June, failing to single-handedly win a single big city. Maintaining that initial popularity among left-wing groups has been a struggle.

Electorally, a strategy of reaching out to some of the disaffected makes sense. But some question at what cost to the French Republic.

“The Left and the Right spent their entire time implementing far-right policies, using a far-right discourse, sharing their narrative,” Rim-Sarah Alouane, a French legal scholar, said on Twitter. “Mark my words, [in] the next presidential election, the far-right will most likely reach the second round & all politicians will ask us to vote and save the Republic.”

Macron’s courting of voters on the Right has been apparent for some time now.

Last October, he gave a lengthy interview to far-right French magazine, Valeurs Actuelles, as did his conservative predecessors Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, in which he said authorities had been lax in deporting those who had entered France illegally. “My goal is to throw out everybody who has no reason to be here,” he said.

He’s also phoned anti-establishment figures such as Eric Zemmour, after the political commentator was attacked in the street for his views. Dubbed the cheerleader of the “French Fox News”, Zemmour once said of migrants, including unaccompanied minors, “They are thieves. They are murderers. They are rapists. That is all they are. They have to be sent back.”

And while Macron doesn’t use the more aggressive terminology on tap, his new interior minister doesn’t hesitate to do so.

Gérald Darmanin, a onetime protégé of Sarkozy, has suggested that ethnic food aisles in supermarkets weren’t compatible with republican values and he’s spoken of trying to prevent a return to “ensauvagement”, or savagery, a term commonly used by the far right to refer to Arabs and Africans. All the while insisting he’s not targeting Islam as a religion but Islamism as an ideology.

When Macron unveiled his proposals to fight radical Islam on October 2, there were many glimpses of the liberal centrist.

He talked about controlling imams and described Islam as a religion in crisis, yet recognised the role of colonialism and said Muslim citizens had been let down by successive French governments. He promised to improve the opportunities of those living in the projects. The speech was generally well received by moderate Muslim leaders.

On Saturday, Macron told Al-Jazeera television that he’s never sought to stigmatise Muslims and suggested he wasn’t a fan of the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad published by Charlie Hebdo, though he defended the right of the satirical magazine to do so.

Macron captured the centre of the Right but he didn’t capture the more conservative right
Jean-Yves Camus, political analyst

That’s been his position since long before the October 16 beheading of a teacher who showed the caricatures to students during a discussion on the freedom of speech, and it has fuelled anti-French protests in some Muslim countries. And while the interview was a clear attempt to be conciliatory, he also made a point of not appearing weak.

Overall, his tone has hardened since the grisly murder and the wave of horror and fear that’s swept France.

His real aim is to adopt language more credible than his traditional centre-right Republican opponents, according to Jean-Yves Camus, who writes about the far right in France.

“Macron captured the centre of the Right but he didn’t capture the more conservative right,” he said. “What he can and should do is to appear as firm as they are. That’s what he’s doing.”

Critics of Macron’s shift say the key policy difference with Le Pen now is over the EU, which she wants to reform into an alliance of sovereign nations rather than a political union.

Some people close to Macron say they are uncomfortable with the evolution of his party from the centre. There is also a danger that Macron legitimises the hardest right-wing policy stances without co-opting voters.

What’s more, his bet is risky, as former Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin can attest. Jospin built his 2002 presidential campaign about issues of safety, but failed to make the second round of voting despite a buoyant economy.

For Seniguer of Sciences Po, Le Pen remains a threat, and as her father Jean-Marie said: “The French will always prefer the original to the copy.”

Bloomberg

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