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POLITICS

Race officially opens to be the next president of France

France's presidential race accelerates on Wednesday as the candidates vying for the conservative nomination, including ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy and favourite Alain Juppé, officially open their campaigns to try to win back the Elysee Palace.

Race officially opens to be the next president of France
Sarkozy, Juppé, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, François Fillon, Jean-Fréderic Poisson, Hervé Mariton, Bruno Le Maire, Jean-François Copé. AFP

The stakes are high with polls showing that the winner of a duel between the two leading Republicans party candidates, Sarkozy and ex-PM Alain Juppe, would be clear favourite to win the election next May.

The other candidates vying to run for the Elysée are: Bruno Le Maire, who aged, 46-years-old is the youngest candidate, Francois Fillion, the former Prime Minister under Sarkozy, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, the only female candidate in the line-up, Jean-François Copé a former party chief and Jean-Fréderic Poisson the president of the Christian Democrats party. The candidacy of Herve Mariton was not put forward as had initially been expected.

Once the eight candidates are named on Wednesday, the party and its centrist allies will then hold two rounds of voting to select their nominee on November 20 and 27.

National identity and Islam have emerged as key themes in the French centre-right contest, which has echoes of US Republican nominee Donald Trump's campaign for the White House.

Sarkozy is a brash right-winger and a divisive figure in French politics, while ex-prime minister and Bordeaux mayor Alain Juppe has styled himself as a unifying force.

“The candidates all agree on the economy,” Thomas Guenole, a political scientist and author of a book on Sarkozy's comeback said, referring to their consensus on cutting taxes and relaxing France's 35-hour working week.

“The only issues on which they create divisions are the four Is: Islam, identity, immigration, insecurity,” he said.

President Francois Hollande is yet to confirm if he will stand for re-election as the Socialist party's candidate in a bid to defy his
historically low approval ratings.

On the far-right, the National Front is prepared for battle, with its leader Marine Le Pen widely forecast to win the first round of voting in April and then fail in the second round against a mainstream candidate.

Key facts about the man who wants to make France 'happy'(Favourite Alain Juppé. AFP)



Juppé the favourite

Juppé, 71, France's most popular politician, has been the favourite to emerge victorious from the start, but Sarkozy has nearly closed the gap with hardline proposals designed to woo voters reeling from a string of jihadist attacks.

The 61-year-old politician, who led France from 2007 to 2012, has vowed a “merciless” fight against the Islamist extremists who have killed 238 people nationwide since January 2015.

Declaring French identity to be under attack, he has declared war on the Islamic burkini swimsuit, the wearing of the Muslim headscarf in universities and other practices he sees as “un-French”.

“If you want to become French, you speak French, you live like the French. We will no longer settle for integration that does not work, we will require assimilation,” he told a rally on Monday.



'Fuel on the fire'

Juppe, a moderate who served two years as premier under Jacques Chirac and also was foreign minister under Sarkozy, has taken the opposite approach.

Accusing Sarkozy of “pouring fuel on the fire” with his calls for a state ban on the burkini, Juppe has tried to sell voters on what he sees as a “happy”, secure French identity.

Vowing to knit together a fractured nation, he has promised to “reach out” to the vast majority of Muslims who adhere to France's strict secular values.

Juppe has undergone a radical makeover from the grey technocrat who spent years in the political desert over a fake jobs scandal at Paris City Hall in the 1990s to benign elder statesman.

He has repeatedly made overtures to centrists as well as to leftists, who can vote in the primary if they pay two euros and sign a charter declaring they adhere to centrist or conservative values.

(Photo: AFP)



'War chief v wise man'

For Jerome Fourquet of Ifop pollsters, the choice between “a war chief and someone who is wiser, more reassuring and brings people together” will come down to whether the French believe the country is, as Sarkozy says, “at war”.

A Harris Interactive poll last week predicted a tie between the two in the first round of the primary, with Juppe going on to win the run-off a week later by 52 percent to Sarkozy's 48 percent.

Among their other rivals are Sarkozy's former prime minister Francois Fillon, his former agriculture minister Bruno Le Maire and Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, who made a failed bid for Paris mayor.

For Fourquet “the ideological centre of gravity of the right is closer to Nicolas Sarkozy's positions than those of Alain Juppe.”

But Sarkozy is also hobbled by his legacy, seen as underwhelming economically and he is disliked by a majority of French people.

Fourquet warned of a possible bid by leftist and centrist voters to block his return by voting in the primary for Juppe.

Their calculation, he said, could be: “If we don't get involved we could be forced to elect him (Sarkozy) in six months' time” to prevent a National Front presidency under Le Pen.

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POLITICS

EXPLAINED: Does France really have a hijab ban?

As Iranian women burn their hijabs in protest at the country's repressive laws you might have heard people contrasting this to the French 'hijab ban' - but is the Muslim headscarf actually banned in France?

EXPLAINED: Does France really have a hijab ban?

What are the rules? Does France have a hijab ban?

No, France does not have a ban on hijabs in public spaces. However, the rules differ when it comes to headscarves and full-face coverings and this can be confusing because both the full-face veil and the Muslim headscarf are often referred to a voile in French.

In 2010, the country brought in a complete ban on clothing that includes full-face coverings – including the burka and niqab. These cannot be worn in any public space in France, at risk of a €150 fine.

The hijab or headscarf, however, is completely legal in public spaces including shops, cafés and the streets and it’s common to see women wearing them, especially in certain areas of the big cities like Paris.

However, that doesn’t mean there is no restriction on women’s freedom to wear the Muslim headscarf.

In line with France’s laws on laïcité (secularism) it is forbidden to wear overt symbols of religion – including the Muslim headscarf – in government buildings, including schools and universities (with the exception of visitors).

Public officials such as teachers, firefighters or police officers are also barred from wearing any overt symbol of their religion while they are at work.

In 2004, President Jacques Chirac’s government banned all religious signs from state schools. While the law also banned crucifixes and kippas, “it was mostly aimed at girls wearing Muslim headscarves,” explained The Local’s columnist, John Lichfield.

Burkinis are also subject to certain rules. They are not allowed in public swimming pools in France where there are strict regulations regarding dress (Speedos only for men and compulsory swimming caps), but they are allowed on beaches and in other public spaces.

READ MORE: Burkini: Why is the French interior minister getting involved in women’s swimwear?

This became a source of controversy during the summer of 2022, when Grenoble challenged the ban on the full-body swimsuit by relaxing its rules on the swimwear permitted in public pools.

In response to the challenge, France’s highest administrative court voted to uphold the countrywide ban in June. 

What about in athletics?

Some federations, such as the French Football Federation, have banned players from wearing the hijab, along with other “ostentatious” religious symbols such as the Jewish kippa.

A women’s collective known as “les Hijabeuses” launched a legal challenge to the rules in November last year.

Other sports, such as handball and rugby, have a more open position.

Are there plans to change these rules? 

Currently, there are no government plans to reverse the ban on full-face coverings including the burka and niqab or to allow the symbols of religion in public buildings, like schools.

There have been attempts to change the current legal framework on the headscarf, however.

In 2021, Senators proposed an to the government’s “anti-separatism bill” that would ban girls under 18 wearing a hijab in public. Several other amendments also targeted Muslim women – such as banning mums from wearing the hijab when accompanying school trips – however these were all defeated in the Assemblée nationale and therefore did not become law.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: What does laïcité (secularism) really mean in France?

Are the rules followed?

The rules around the niqab are generally followed and it has become quite rare in France.

However sociologist Agnès De Féo, believes that in the years following its ban, the full-face covering became more popular, rather than less.

She wrote that “the law had an incentive effect: it incited women to transgress the ban by embracing the prohibited object. Prohibition made the niqab more desirable and created a craze among some young women to defy the law.”

As of 2020, however, fewer women wore the niqab and burka in France than they did in 2009.

The rules around the wearing the headscarf in public buildings are generally respected, but it’s not uncommon for rules around any form of Muslim dress to be over-zealously interpreted – sometimes by accident, sometimes with a cynical political intent.

One key example was in 2019, when Julien Odoul, a member of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) party, caused widespread outrage after posting a video of himself confronting a headscarf-wearing woman who accompanied students on a field trip.

He cited “secular principles” – arguing that the headscarf’s ban in schools should also extend into school trips.

In response, the country’s Education Minister at the time, Jean-Michel Blanquer, clarified that that “the law does not prohibit women wearing headscarves to accompany children.”

There was also controversy at election time over candidates who appeared on posters wearing the hijab, although again this is perfectly legal and doe snot contravene secular principles. 

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