PARIS (AFP) – President Emmanuel Macron has clashed with his rival Marine Le Pen over her plan to ban women from wearing the Islamic headscarf in public, with an eye on the votes of Muslims in the second round of elections.
Le Pen on April 24 will seek to cause the greatest upset in the history of modern French politics by defeating Macron in a run-off in presidential elections.
While polls indicate Macron is ahead they also point to a far tighter race between the centrist and the far-right leader than in their 2017 run-off.
Analysts say one reason for her advance is Le Pen’s success in cultivating a more moderate image and portraying herself as the candidate best equipped to deal with problems like rising prices.
But one signature hardline policy the anti-immigration Le Pen has not dropped is her opposition to the Islamic headscarf, saying women who wear the hijab in public in France will be fined if she wins power.
Macron, meanwhile, has sought to seize on her insistence to argue that Le Pen’s policies are no different from those of the hardline National Front (FN) founded by her father Jean-Marie.
‘You want to be the first?’
Visiting the eastern city of Strasbourg on Tuesday, Macron during a walkabout to meet voters asked a veiled women if she was wearing the headscarf by choice or obligation.
“It’s by choice. Totally by choice!” said the woman, who proudly declared she was a feminist.
Macron replied, in clear reference to Le Pen’s plan: “This is the best response to the rubbish that I have been hearing.”
He went even further on Thursday during a visit to the northern port city of Le Havre: “There is not a single country in the world that bans the headscarf in public. Do you want to be the first?”
Macron is clearly aware of the importance of the votes of France’s roughly five million Muslims, who are estimated to make up almost 9 per cent of the population.
According to a survey by the Ifop pollster, 69 per cent of Muslim voters in the first round of the election opted for third-placed candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon.
Wooing the Melenchon vote is seen as crucial for Macron to be assured of victory in round two.