NICOLAS Sarkozy will take another lurch to the Right with a speech on New Year’s Eve calling Muslim prayers in the street “unacceptable”.
After his expulsions of gypsies and a crackdown on immigrant crime, the French President will warn that the overflow of Muslim faithful on to the streets at prayer time when mosques are packed to capacity risks undermining the French secular tradition separating state and religion.
He will doubtless be accused of pandering to the far Right: the issue of Muslim prayers in the street has been brought to the fore by Marine Le Pen, the charismatic new figurehead of the National Front, who compared it to the wartime occupation of France.
Her words provoked uproar on the Left, whose commentators took them as evidence that far from being the gentler face of the far Right, Ms Le Pen, 42, is no different from Jean-Marie, 82, her father, who has been accused of racism and Holocaust denial.
According to his aide, Mr Sarkozy agrees with the junior Le Pen that the street cannot be allowed to become “an extension of the mosque” as it does in some parts of Paris, which are closed to traffic because of the overflow of the faithful. Local authorities have declined to intervene, despite public complaints, because they are afraid of sparking riots.
“People overreacted to Marine Le Pen’s comments,” said the aide, referring to the furore in which she was accused of rabble-rousing racism. “She is right: this phenomenon is unacceptable.”
The tall, blonde Ms Le Pen is expected to succeed her father as head of the National Front at a party congress next month.
Her advance in the opinion polls reflects a trend all over Europe, where far-Right parties are benefiting from anti-immigrant sentiment and economic fears. As a more moderate voice than her father, Ms Le Pen is widely considered to be more effective and the nightmare scenario for Mr Sarkozy is that he might be knocked out of the race during the first round of the presidential election in 2012. The run-off would then be staged between the two first-round winners: Ms Le Pen and a Socialist candidate.
Something similar happened in 2002, when Jean-Marie Le Pen took advantage of a fractured Left to beat Lionel Jospin, the Socialist candidate, in the first round and ended up losing in the run-off against Jacques Chirac.
Marine Le Pen’s approval rating has risen to 33 per cent in recent weeks, according to one poll, only three points behind Mr Sarkozy’s, as she has criss-crossed the country articulating what a lot of older people believe: that France has been invaded by Muslims and betrayed by its elite.
Mr Sarkozy’s top lieutenants have been holding meetings to decide how to counter the threat. Some say the ruling centre-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) should reach out to Ms Le Pen as Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has shared power with the anti-immigrant Northern League.
Others have suggested relaunching a “national identity debate” that collapsed this year after degenerating into a forum for immigrant-bashing. Mr Sarkozy may also come under pressure to make more overtures to the Right with another law-and-order crackdown. Street prayers could be banned.
Yet after banning the wearing of the burka in public, Mr Sarkozy will have to tread carefully if he wants to avoid alienating Europe’s largest Muslim community and turning it into an electoral goldmine for his Socialist rivals in 2012.
One presidential contender from the Centre-Right, Dominique de Villepin, could further splinter the conservative vote.
Ms Le Pen wants to end her party’s isolation and appeal to the mainstream. To the horror of some in the party, she has spoken inclusively about gays and described herself as a feminist.
The Sunday Times