PARIS : Outgoing President Emmanuel Macron warned his far-right challenger Marine Le Pen on Wednesday that she will bring France to the brink of a civil war if she imposes a ban on the Islamic headscarf, or hijab, if she claims victory in France’s presidential election.
“With me, there will be no ban on headscarves, yarmulkes and religious signs,” Macron said during a widely televised debate which was a make-or-break moment for the finalists to convince the millions of electorates to vote in their favor in the second and final round of the election on April 24.
The extreme right discourse which has dominated the campaign also prevailed at the debate.
Le Pen said she intends to liberate Muslim women from the uniform imposed by “the Islamists” by banning the veil in public spaces. Macron opposes the proposed ban, saying it is unconstitutional and will create a “civil war.” He said the 1905 law on secularism was not about “fighting a religion.”
Le Pen in turn attacked Macron for creating disunity and dividing the French society during his five years in power. She insisted that her project is about “giving priority to the French in their own country,” which she aimed to achieve by introducing a citizens’ initiative referendum and other reforms to improve the daily lives of people. She spoke of establishing a public referendum on the subject of immigration to solve the problem of “anarchy and massive immigration” and of creating a European Google for data privacy.
For Macron, this election is crucial, not only as it is a fight of ideologies, but as a “referendum on what the French are deeply for or against.” He deemed it as a vote on whether to stay or leave the European Union, France’s relations with Germany, environmental issues, fraternity, and secularism.
Divisions on Europe
Le Pen, the National Rally party’s candidate opened the debate, assuring to restore the harmony between all French and attacked Macron on his economic failures during the five-year term, focusing on purchasing power, unemployment, the fuel hike tax that spurred the Yellow Vest protests and incurring 600 million euros ($651 million) in debt through the recovery package for businesses during the coronavirus pandemic.
“I’ve only seen French people tell me that they can’t do it anymore, that they can’t make ends meet anymore,” she said, calling Macron “the Mozart of finance who has a very bad economic record.”
Macron in return counter-attacked Le Pen’s weak positions — Russia and the European Union — and accused her of depending on Russia and President Vladimir Putin for financing her party through a multi-million euro loan from a Czech-Russian bank in 2017.
He said he wanted to ensure that the Ukraine war did not spread and that this was only achievable by a “strong Europe” which could bring “Russia to its senses,” noting “we are no one’s vassals.”
Le Pen contested Macron’s pitch to strengthen Europe and claimed France is unable to defend its interests by being part of the European Union’s policies. While Le Pen has hinted at leaving certain EU treaties and giving preference to French laws, Macron has promised to work alongside the EU.
The two candidates also clashed on the retirement age. Macron wants to extend it from 62 to 65 to finance social security and health care measures for the elderly.
On renewable energies, meanwhile, Le Pen wants to dismantle all wind turbines.
The event was organized by the TF1 and France 2 channels. The latest Ipsos poll has predicted a lead for Macron with 56% against 44% for Le Pen.— AA