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Is France ‘sleepwalking’ into voting for the far-right?

French far-right leader Marine Le Pen has kept a relatively low profile over the last 12 months. Unlike other populist party leaders in Europe, she hasn’t condemned government-imposed lockdowns or spouted anti-vaccine conspiracy theories. 

As French President Emmanuel Macron faced mounting public anger over the country’s high death toll from the coronavirus, Le Pen appeared to struggle to find her political voice

In recent weeks, that’s all changed and the National Rally leader is back in the headlines. 

A TV debate between Le Pen and the government’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin last Thursday raised eyebrows in France, not because of Le Pen’s performance but because of comments made by her opponent. 

Darmanin, who has expressed an uncompromising commitment to France’s secular values, accused Le Pen of not taking enough of a hard-line stance against Islamist extremism. Even Le Pen herself appeared taken aback. Only a couple of weeks ago, she had proposed a ban on Muslim headscarves in all public places in France. 

The TV debate was widely seen as Le Pen’s opening shot for a run at the presidency next year.  

In 2017, she performed disastrously in a TV debate opposite Macron in the runup to the last presidential elections, but this time around, the interior minister seems to have given Le Pen an unexpected favor, said Philippe Marlière, professor of European politics at University College London. 

“[Macron] was constantly trying to outbid Le Pen, trying to be even more right-wing than Le Pen is on immigration and on Islam, and I think this is really terrible because Darmanin made her look good that day.”

Philippe Marlière, professor of European politics, University College London 

He was constantly trying to outbid Le Pen, trying to be even more right-wing than Le Pen is on immigration and on Islam, and I think this is really terrible because Darmanin made her look good that day.”

While Le Pen may have been surprised by the comments, it is no revelation in France that Macron’s government is moving further to the right. 

Three recent terrorist attacks in France have seen the French president pushing through a law aimed at tackling Islamic extremism that many human rights groups say is an infringement of religious freedoms. 

His appointment of hard-liner Darmanin as interior minister in a cabinet reshuffle last year was further indication of Macron’s direction. On the night of the TV debate, Le Pen told Darmanin that she had read a recent essay he wrote on Islamic separatism and said “apart from a few inconsistencies, I could have put my name on it.” 

As President Macron’s La République en Marche party moves farther to the right, Le Pen has tried — publicly, at least — to rid her party of its extremist elements. 

Changing its name from the National Front to National Rally and expelling the party’s co-founder, her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, is all part of the optics. 

But Marlière says for many French people, Le Pen can never escape her father’s legacy.

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