Paris- The campaign to choose a centre-right candidate for the French presidential election has already descended into clashes between former president Nicolas Sarkozy and his main rival Alain Juppe over bans on the burkini swimsuit.
The opening barbs between the two leading candidates for November’s first-ever centre-right primary came after several French mayors said they would defy a ruling by France’s highest administrative court which on Friday suspended a ban on the burkini.
The always-outspoken Sarkozy, who was president from 2007 to 2012, has plunged into the row since entering the race last week, saying France has to fight to protect its secular “way of life”.
“We don’t want any external signs of belonging to a religion in our country,” he said on Saturday.
“I won’t be the candidate of fudged compromises, of denying the reality and of half-baked solutions on immigration like the rest of them,” 61-year-old Sarkozy told a crowd of young supporters.
Juppe, a former prime minister who opinion polls show is France’s most popular politician, set the tone for his campaign by telling supporters this weekend he wanted to “bring people together rather than fuelling the fire”.
– ‘Respect diversity’ –
While some observers have complained about the lack of fresh faces in the campaign, 71-year-Juppe is trying to use his age and his moderate stance to his advantage.
He argues that at a time when France is under the constant threat of terror attack and its image is under fire abroad over burkini bans imposed by a string of southeastern towns, the country needs someone of his wide experience.
“France is diverse and that’s a fact,” he said. “We don’t all have the same origins or the same skin colour or religion and that should be respected.”
In stark contrast to Sarkozy, Juppe condemned the febrile atmosphere surrounding the issue of the burkini bans which were introduced by around 30 towns in the wake of two more Islamist attacks in France this summer.
“Where is this mania which has gripped French society going to end? Are we going to ban long shirts in schools next?” he asked in a Europe 1 radio interview.
Juppe has also poured cold water on the idea of a ban on wearing the Islamic headscarf in universities, a measure that Sarkozy would like to see introduced to bolster France’s strict secular code.
– ‘French Guantanamo’ –
But he reserved his strongest criticism for another key Sarkozy demand, to create internment camps for suspects believed to have been radicalised to prevent them from carrying out attacks.
Juppe said he did not want to see “a French-style Guantanamo in which thousands of people would be imprisoned without trial”.
The centre-right primary, due to take place over two rounds on November 20 and 27, appears increasingly crucial because of the deep unpopularity of Socialist President Francois Hollande.
Hollande, who has been dragged down by a moribund economy and has recorded some of the lowest popularity scores of any post-war French president, has said he will decide by the end of the year whether to stand for re-election.
Whoever wins the centre-right primary would be in a strong position to win the presidential race next May, most likely in a second-round head-to-head with Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front (FN).
It is on the issue of immigration and the place of Islam in France that the stances of the centre-right’s candidates truly diverge because their approaches to the economy are broadly similar.
While opinion polls continue to show Juppe will win the primary, at least one poll published on Sunday showed Sarkozy has closed the gap considerably in the space of a week. The TNS Sofres poll showed both candidates would score around 34 percent in the first round.
A total of 13 candidates will line up in November’s contest, but only two — Sarkozy’s former prime minister Francois Fillon and one of his former ministers, Bruno Le Maire — appear capable of denting the support for either the former president or Juppe.
Anyone on the electoral register can vote in the primary if they pay two euros ($2.2) and pledge to adhere to the “values of the right and centre”.