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Macron Moves Right As Next French Presidential Election Looms

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Facing no threat from the left in next year's election, French President Emmanuel Macron is moving sharply to the right. His principal opponent is likely to be the far-right populist Marine Le Pen. When they faced off in 2017, voters rallied to Macron to keep Le Pen out of office. But as NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports, that may not happen in next year's vote.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Parliamentarians from France's mainstream Conservative Party have been proposing a flurry of controversial amendments aimed at restricting the Muslim veil.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VALERIE BOYER: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "We can't let Islamist totalitarianism impose its symbols on minors," said Senator Valerie Boyer as she introduced a measure to ban girls under 18 from wearing the hijab. The amendments have no chance of becoming law, but they show how desperate the Conservative Party is to win back voters it lost to the far right, says Rim-Sarah Alouane, who studies religious freedom and civil liberties at the University of Toulouse Capitole.

RIM-SARAH ALOUANE: With the election coming, of course, it's who is going to pander the most to the far right. I mean, all political parties are adopting the rhetoric of the far right. It's like a dream come true. They are running a campaign for them. Marine Le Pen doesn't have anything to do, to be honest.

BEARDSLEY: The amendments were to a larger bill to fight extremism proposed by Macron's centrist government. It will give broad powers to shut down religious and other organizations seen as promoting ideas incompatible with French values. In an interview this month with the Anglo-American Press Association, Marine Le Pen called the bill discriminatory.

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MARINE LE PEN: (Through interpreter) In our fight against radical Islam, we need national unity and all religions with us. And the president is accusing them. I would never mix up Islam the religion and Islamism, which is an ideology like Nazism or racism.

BEARDSLEY: Le Pen says her policies are not far right. They're just good sense, and the rest of the political class is now espousing them. Political scientist Jean-Yves Camus says the bill represents a hard shift to the right for Macron, but it's doomed to fail.

JEAN-YVES CAMUS: Because every time the conservative right have tried to outdo the far right on issues of immigration, national identity and Islam, it has failed. It's really a big mistake.

BEARDSLEY: Macron's bill has raised concerns among religious leaders of all denominations. Alouane says France has plenty of laws on the books to fight terrorism. This bill is about something else.

ALOUANE: It is a bill that is aimed to reshape the relation between state and religion and particularly concerning Muslims and the visibility of Islam. And this law affects many civil liberties that we have taken for granted for so long.

BEARDSLEY: Macron's tack to the right has unnerved many of his supporters. He's accused of becoming more authoritarian. Critics cite police violence, crackdowns on protesters and a proposed law banning people from taking pictures of the police.

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NADIYA LAZZOUNI: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: Journalist Nadiya Lazzouni has an interview talk show on YouTube. She's also Muslim and wears a hijab. Lazzouni says she's sure there'll be a rematch of Le Pen Macron next year in the second round of the presidential vote.

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LAZZOUNI: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: "And he'll call on Muslims and humanists and freedom lovers to come out and support him to block her," she says. "But this time we may not show up." Lazzouni says people like her won't vote for Le Pen. They just won't vote at all.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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