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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 26 February 2021

Marine Le Pen calls for ban on Muslim headscarves in France

Far-right leader is riding high in the polls and has her eyes set firmly on Elysee Palace

"I believe that the headscarf is an [extremist] item of clothing," Marine Le Pen told assembled reporters on Friday. AFP
"I believe that the headscarf is an [extremist] item of clothing," Marine Le Pen told assembled reporters on Friday. AFP

French far-right leader Marine Le Pen proposed a ban on Muslim headscarves in all public places on Friday, seeking to build on a record recent poll putting her almost neck and neck with President Emmanuel Macron.

Any such move would almost certainly be ruled unconstitutional, but it is a familiar campaign theme for the politician, with only 15 months before the country's 2022 presidential election.

"I believe that the headscarf is an [extremist] item of clothing," Ms Le Pen told reporters at a press conference where she proposed a new law to ban "Islamist ideologies", calling them "totalitarian and murderous."

Since taking over France's main far-right party from her father, Ms Le Pen has run twice for the French presidency. In 2017 she lost by a large margin to political newcomer Emmanuel Macron, and in 2018 she was all but written off as a political force.

But recent polling shows her closer than ever to her ultimate prize, and this has led to a rash of speculation as to whether the anti-EU, anti-immigration populist could enter the Elysee Palace.

It's a poll, it's a snapshot of a moment, but what it shows is that the idea of me winning is credible, plausible even

Marine Le Pen

Despite recent setbacks for fellow populists such as former US president Donald Trump and Matteo Salvini in Italy, a survey released this week showed her within striking distance of Mr Macron.

The poll conducted online by Harris Interactive suggested that if a final-round presidential run-off were held today, Ms Le Pen would garner 48 per cent of the vote, while Mr Macron would be re-elected with 52 per cent, Le Parisien reported.

"It's a poll, it's a snapshot of a moment, but what it shows is that the idea of me winning is credible, plausible even," Ms Le Pen said at the Friday press conference.

The prospect of a tight race set off alarm bells in the French political mainstream as the dual health and economic crises caused by the coronavirus pandemic sweep across the country.

"It's the highest she has ever been at," said Jean-Yves Camus, a French political scientist specialising in the far-right, though he added that it was "too early to take the polls at face value".

Pandemic and extremist violence fuelling Le Pen support

Mr Camus said Marine Le Pen was benefiting from frustration and anger over both the pandemic and its attendant restrictions as well as the beheading of French schoolteacher Samuel Paty by an Islamic extremist last October.

"It had a major impact on public opinion," the expert from the Jean-Jaures Foundation told AFP. "And in this area, Marine Le Pen has an advantage: her party is well known for its position denouncing [Islamic extremism]."

In response to Mr Paty's death, Mr Macron's government shut a number of organisations deemed extremist and drafted legislation initially called "the anti-separatism bill", which cracks down on foreign funding for Islamic organisations.

If re-elected after a campaign that is expected to be focused on jobs, the pandemic and the place of Islam in France, Mr Macron would be the first president since Jacques Chirac in 2002 to win a second term.

Under the presidential system, the top two candidates in a first round of voting progress to a second round run-off, in which the winner must win more than 50 per cent of the vote.

A Le Pen win "was improbable three and half years ago," veteran political commentator Alain Duhamel told the BFM news channel this week.

"But today I wouldn't say that it is probable, but I'd say, without any pleasure, that it seems to me to be possible."

A rerun of the Macron-Le Pen contest of 2017, which all polls currently show as the most likely outcome, could increase the abstention rate and disillusion with the French political system.

Turnout in the second round in 2017 was 74.6 per cent, its lowest level since 1969, because many voters from the left declined to cast a ballot.

Updated: January 30, 2021 12:48 AM

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