Macron, Le Pen in battle for support of right

Paris (AFP) –


French President Emmanuel Macron is seeking to gain ground on far-right leader Marine Le Pen ahead of a possible duel in 2022 elections by seizing votes on the right, with a tough-talking interior minister and a bill cracking down on radical Islamists.

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin visibly shocked Le Pen herself, surprised even his own party colleagues and dismayed the left with a remark accusing Le Pen of "softness" on Islam during a debate on Thursday night.

Meanwhile, a law that aims to crack down on Islamist radicalism, which the government says will shore up France's secular system but critics see as an affront to religious freedom, will be voted on by the National Assembly on Tuesday.

Analysts have said Macron, who came to power in 2017 as a centrist reformer, has noticeably tacked to the right over the last months as he scents that his 2022 presidential reelection battle will come down to a run-off duel with National Rally (RN) leader Le Pen.

Key to this change in tack has been Darmanin, 38, a rising star of the right of Macron's party, who has taken a hardline stance since becoming interior minister last year.

Darmanin's appointment came despite an ongoing investigation into a rape claim which he strongly denies.

"You are starting to show softness, you need to take vitamins again. You are not ready to legislate on religion and you say that Islam is not even a problem," he told Le Pen in an apparent attempt to mock her bid to create a more moderate image.

Looking stunned, Le Pen replied that she did not "intend to attack Islam" as a religion like any other "because I am deeply attached to our French values. I wish to keep its... total freedom of worship."

- Neck-and-neck for 2022 -

The legislation before parliament, which would tighten rules on issues ranging from religious-based education to polygamy, is dubbed the anti-separatism bill as ministers fear Islamists are creating communities separate from France's staunchly secular identity.

"Our country is sick from separatism, above all Islamism which is damaging our national unity," Darmanin told parliament when it started debating the bill this month.

It has been debated in a highly charged atmosphere in France after three attacks late last year carried out by radical Islamists including the beheading in October of teacher Samuel Paty, who had shown his pupils cartoons of the prophet Mohammed.

Le Pen was easily beaten in the 2017 run-off by Macron, a result partly blamed on a dire performance in a televised debate against him.

In the intervening years, she sought to overhaul the image of the anti-immigration and anti-Europe party, giving it a more youthful edge, changing its name from the National Front (FN) and distancing herself from the legacy of its founder, her father Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Recent polls have suggested a far tighter race this time around, with Macron and Le Pen neck-and-neck in the ratings.

With the left still demoralised after the one term presidency of Francois Hollande, the one factor of uncertainty is the possible emergence of a figure on the right but no clear candidate has emerged.

- 'Unexpected gift' -

The Le Monde daily described the exchange between Darmanin and Le Pen in the debate as "unprecedented", adding it was an "unexpected gift" for the far right leader to have been portrayed as moderate by a minister without having to change her policies.

"Usually the leader of the extreme right party is accused of being too radical, too intolerant, and of speaking contrary to the values of the republic. Mr. Darmanin chose the opposite strategy, trying to be firmer than her," it said.

Prominent Green politician Yannick Jadot, himself a possible contender in 2022, described on BFM TV the debate as "staggering" adding he was frightened at the thought the government's "only claim on legitimacy is to be a bulwark of the extreme right."

A French government source, who asked not to be named, said that the accusation of "softness" laid at Le Pen could weaken her within her own camp but also risked "softening her radical image in the eyes of other voters" ahead of 2022.

Macron loyalist and Darmanin's predecessor as interior minister Christophe Castaner told French radio that not so much should be read into the softness jibe. "I don't think for a second that Gerald Darmanin shares (Marine Le Pen's) convictions".