PARIS (AP) — No more Muslim headscarves in public. All schoolchildren in uniforms. Laws proposed and passed by referendum. Generous social services unavailable to foreigners unless they’ve held a job for five years.
That’s just a sampling of Marine Le Pen‘s vision for France if the far-right leader wins Sunday’s runoff presidential election against incumbent Emmanuel Macron. In all things, France, and the French, would come first.
Polls portray Macron as the front-runner in Sunday’s vote, but a Le Pen win is possible - an outcome that could rock France’s system of governance, strike fear among its immigrants and Muslims, jolt the dynamics of the European Union, and unnerve NATO allies.
Macron, 44, a centrist who is ardently pro-EU, has relentlessly blasted his adversary as a danger and framed their election showdown as an ideological battle for the soul of the nation. Le Pen, 53, views Macron as a progressive technocrat for whom France is just a part of the EU.
She says she would retool the country’s political system and the French Constitution to accommodate her populist agenda, putting the EU into second place and making France truer to its bedrock principles.
“I intend to be the president who gives the people back their voices in their own country,” Le Pen said at a news conference.
Critics fear a threat to democracy under Le Pen, a nationalist who is cozy with Hungary’s autocratic prime minister, Viktor Orban, and anti-immigrant far-right parties elsewhere in Europe. Le Pen met with Russian President Vladimir Putin before the 2017 French presidential vote that she lost to Macron in a landslide.
The United States has long considered France its oldest ally, but a Le Pen presidency could pose a problem for the Biden administration by undermining trans-Atlantic unity over sanctions against Russia and by bolstering autocratic populists elsewhere in Europe.
The National Rally leader also is wary of free-trade deals and would seek a more independent stance for France in the United Nations and other multilateral bodies.
In a column published Thursday in several European newspapers, the center-left leaders of Germany, Spain and Portugal raised a warning about “populists and the extreme right” who hold Putin “as an ideological and political model, replicating his chauvinist ideas.”
“They have echoed his attacks on minorities and diversity and his goal of nationalist uniformity,” wrote German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa.
Le Pen’s meeting five years ago with Putin has haunted her campaign amid Russia’s war in Ukraine, even though she has condemned the invasion “without ambiguity.”
She also said she would pull France out of NATO’s military command, weakening the Western military alliance’s united front against Moscow, and that there should be a “strategic rapprochement” with Russia once the war is over.
Macron has sought similar policies in the past and tried his own outreach with Putin. But his government says it has sent more than 100 million euros ($108 million) in weapons to Ukraine since the war started, and France has been central to the West’s ever-tougher sanctions against Russia.
Le Pen has projected a nurturing image throughout her campaign, saying she would oversee France as “the mother of the family.” She has focused on the purchasing power of consumers while standing firm on emblematic issues that define the far right, such as immigration, security, national identity and sovereignty.
Macron, a former French economy minister and banker, considers such measures misdirected and economically unviable.
She has proposed a “referendum revolution” as the centerpiece of her plan to help heal the “democratic fracture” that she says accounts for low turnout in recent French elections and growing social discord.
Laws could be passed by referendum - bypassing elected lawmakers - after supporters gather the signatures of 500,000 eligible voters, That was a demand of the sometimes violent “yellow vest” movement that challenged Macron’s presidency two years ago.
But there’s a hitch.
The French Constitution would need to be revised to give citizens such a direct voice in lawmaking. It would also need changing for another key Le Pen goal: giving a “national preference” for state housing and job benefits to French citizens before foreigners.
Macron failed in his own bid to change the constitution, a complicated process requiring support from both houses of parliament. Le Pen wants to skirt that by using a special article in the constitution like Gen. Charles de Gaulle did in 1962 to allow for direct universal suffrage.
“She wants to dynamite liberal democracy by calling on the people,” four constitutional law professors wrote last week in the newspaper Le Monde.
Le Pen would use a referendum for other items in a controversial package to stop “uncontrolled immigration.” These include treating any asylum demands abroad, not in France, and “systematically” expelling migrants without residency papers, among others; and ending automatic citizenship for those born in France to foreign parents.
She would also reinstate uniforms in all schools, and fortify police powers.
Le Pen has called Muslim headscarves “Islamist uniforms” and proposed a ban on wearing them in public. Macron said in a debate Wednesday night that such a ban could lead to “civil war” in the country with Europe’s largest Muslim population.
But it was an elderly woman in a blue-and-white headscarf confronting Le Pen last week in the southern town of Pertuis who may have put a dent in her plan.
“What is the headscarf doing in politics?” she asked Le Pen.
After the pushback by the woman, Le Pen party officials moved into damage control, saying that banning headscarves in streets would be progressive and not target a “grandmother of 70.”
An embarrassed Le Pen conceded later that the headscarf was a “complex problem.”
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