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PARIS — Marine Le Pen’s proposal to ban the headscarf in public places is becoming a thorn in her campaign as she attempts to woo voters beyond her power base.
If elected president of France, the hard-right leader wants to fine women wearing the headscarf in public places on the basis that it is “Islamist” attire. In France, religious head coverings are banned in schools and in public administrations in the name of the country’s secular traditions.
With the April 24 runoff between Le Pen and French President Emmanuel Macron expected to be tight, Le Pen has been downplaying her proposal in recent days — while Macron has homed in on it.
The ban, Le Pen said in a TV interview on Friday, is not the “most urgent element” of her campaign, representing only a small part of her drive to combat the “totalitarian Islamist ideology.”
Conversely, Macron hammered the issue in several appearances this week.
“There is facing me a far-right project that wants to make France the first country in the world to ban the headscarf in public places,” he said in a radio interview Thursday, adding that for him the veil “was not an obsession.”
The public back-and-forth — and resulting media scrutiny — has upset Le Pen’s long-term drive to detoxify her party.
The National Rally leader has tried to pivot the party to the mainstream, renaming it and toning down its anti-immigrant rhetoric. Polls show she has had some success and the French aren’t as scared as before by the prospect of a Le Pen presidency. In next Sunday’s runoff, POLITICO’s Poll of Polls predicts Macron will get 53 percent of the vote to Le Pen’s 47 percent — far higher than the 34 percent she scored in the 2017 election against Macron.
Left up for grabs
In the first round of voting on April 10, every left-wing candidate was knocked out, leaving both Le Pen and Macron scrambling to attract their voters. Backers of far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who got 22 percent of the vote, appear split over backing Macron, Le Pen or abstaining.
But as Le Pen has tried to reach out to this cohort, she has been repeatedly questioned by journalists over her stance on the headscarf ban, and how she would enforce it in a country that has 5.7 million residents of Muslim descent.
Pressed about it on French channel BFMTV, Le Pen stuck to her guns and said it was “essential” to ban the headscarf because it was “a uniform imposed by Islamists.”
“It’s been forced on women because those who don’t wear it are isolated, suffer pressures and sometimes are insulted,” she said on Friday. “And I won’t tolerate this, all women in France must be able to live freely.”
But it was in that same interview that she also minimized the importance of the idea, given her grand ambitions to eradicate “totalitarian Islamist ideology.”
Le Pen has tried instead to focus her campaign on pensions and cost-of-living issues, promising to lower taxes on essential foodstuffs and to cut income tax for young adults.
Ammunition for Macron
Macron has grasped this tactic and is seizing on the headscarf ban as a way of reminding voters of the National Rally’s past.
In the eastern city of Strasbourg on Tuesday, Macron praised a woman who wore a headscarf and asked him about feminism.
“Do you know what is beautiful? … It’s meeting a young woman who wears the veil and asks me whether I’m a feminist,” he said.
“It’s the best answer to all the rubbish I’m hearing, because opposite me, there’s Marine Le Pen who wants to ban the headscarf,” he said.
But Macron’s recent comments contrast with his past statements, raising questions about whether he is changing tack to attract new voters — particularly Muslim voters — ahead of the second round. In 2018, Macron said that the headscarf “made people feel insecure” and that he was “not particularly happy” seeing women wearing it.
According to a poll from Ifop, 69 percent of French Muslims voted for Mélenchon in the first round. They will now be weighing their options ahead of the second round.
But more generally, Macron is trying to kill Le Pen’s efforts to denude the National Rally of its history, while Le Pen is trying to appeal to left-wingers by painting her opponent as profit-driven and elitist.
Caught in the crossfire, many far-left voters say they want to abstain. But as Le Pen and Macron pitch the second round of voting as a fight between two opposite visions of civilizations, the pressure will increase on them to make a choice.