Macron and Le Pen Trade Punches in Pivotal Debate on France’s Future

“The Yellow Vests told you they wanted more democracy and they were not heard,” she said. “I think the biggest problem at the end of these five years is the disunion, the division, that you have caused among the French people, the feeling of contempt they have, the feeling of not being listened to, of not being heard, of not being consulted.”

Now was the time, she added, “to stitch French democracy together” again.

How Ms. Le Pen would do this through a political program certain to antagonize France’s more than six million Muslims, as well as many foreigners living in France, is unclear. While she insisted she had nothing against Islam as a religion, she said that an Islamist ideology was “attacking the foundations of our Republic.”

One of the most pointed clashes came on the issue of Muslim head scarves. Ms. Le Pen, who wants to bar women from wearing them in public, called head scarves “a uniform imposed by Islamists” that undermined French values of secularism and gender equality.

“All of these women need to be freed,” she said.

Mr. Macron shot back that banning head scarves was an unworkable proposal that would fuel “civil war,” that conflated Islam and extremism, and that dishonored France’s values of tolerance.

He referred to Latifa Ibn Ziaten, the Muslim mother of a victim of the 2012 terrorist shootings in Toulouse, who became an activist for youth outreach and interreligious dialogue after her son’s death. The attacks killed three children and a rabbi at a Jewish school, as well as French army soldiers including her son, Imad Ibn Ziaten.

“You want to pull off her head scarf?” Mr. Macron said. “That’s what you are proposing, very concretely.”

Repeated Islamist terrorist attacks in France, most recently the beheading in 2020 of a schoolteacher who had shown a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad in a lesson on freedom of expression, have contributed to the sharp ideological divisions afflicting the country and the rise of the anti-immigrant extreme right.


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