(CN) – On an airplane trip back to Paris from a visit to French islands in the Indian Ocean, Emmanuel Macron did something no other French president has done: He let himself be interviewed by a journalist with Valeurs Actuelles, a magazine long associated with France’s ultra-conservative wing.
A few days later, as the far-right magazine was delivered to newsstands across France with a picture of a moody and unshaven Macron on its cover, the 41-year-old French president got what he wanted: He’d sparked a national debate about France and its relationship with Muslims and he was at the center of it.
For those on the left, Macron’s appearance on the cover of the magazine at the end of October was a stunning moment where far-right ideas are now mainstream in France.
“We may remind him of this cover for a long time,” the left-wing Liberation newspaper wrote.
“For the president to speak on such an outlet shows that there is a normalization and it is becoming mainstream [to voice] far-right ideas,” said Yasser Louati, a co-founder of the Justice & Liberties For All Committee, a French human rights group that defends Muslims. He made the comment during a debate on France 24, a television broadcaster.
Macron’s veering to the right appears to be a reaction to the political headwinds he finds himself in. In October, new public opinion polls showed his chief rival, far-right politician Marine Le Pen and leader of the anti-immigrant National Rally party, inching ahead of him in popularity for the first time. Macron faces reelection in 2022 and France holds municipal elections in March.
“Macron already sees himself in the second round against Le Pen,” said Philippe Marlière, a politics professor at University College London, on Twitter. “He speaks of immigration and secularism in a far-right publication mistakenly thinking of rallying the angry fascists. It is a moral, political and tactical mistake that will turn against him.”
In the interview, Macron spoke about the issues that animate the far right: Immigration, Islam and the wearing of headscarves by Muslim women. And he used the language of Le Pen.
He said he wanted to stop asylum seekers and illegal immigrants from “taking advantage” of France’s generous social welfare system and health care system.
The president said it was time for France to restrict immigration and he supported introducing quotas. He even used the kind of words employed by those backing Brexit in the United Kingdom when he talked about the need to “take back control” of immigration.
Macron also waded into the divisive issue of Muslim women wearing headscarves and suggested that wearing a hijab is a sign of failure.
The wearing of headscarves is a highly sensitive subject in France and arouses debates over feminism, secularism and the integration of Muslims into French society.
“Lots of young girls who wear it are daughters or granddaughters of immigrants,” Macron told the far-right magazine. “They haven’t just arrived. It’s the failure of our model and the crisis Islam is going through … that crisis leads to very hard versions of political Islam.”
In 2004, the French parliament banned women attending school from wearing headscarves and in 2010 banned the wearing of the full-face veil anywhere in public. Civil servants are also not allowed to wear headscarves when they are performing public duties. Conservative lawmakers are attempting to pass a law banning parents accompanying children on field trips from wearing them and polls show a majority of French approve of such a ban.
Macron’s comments came just days after France was consumed by the latest controversy over headscarves. It erupted when a regional council member in Burgundy from Le Pen’s far-right party demanded a woman on a school trip to the regional legislative body remove a headscarf she was wearing.
“This lady can wear her headscarf whenever she wants at home, in the street, but not here, not today,” the councilor said, speaking into a microphone during the assembly. “We are in a public building. We are in a democratic building.”
Someone nearby exclaimed: “You are a fascist.”
The councilor, Julien Odoul, carried on and asked her to remove the headscarf “on behalf of all women who struggle to free themselves from the shackles of Islamist dictatorship.”
In the interview, Macron also expressed admiration for a controversial French political writer Éric Zemmour who is known for his anti-immigrant stances. Macron called him “intelligent.”
This week, Macron went further in his attempt to woo right-wing voters. The French labor minister, Muriel Pénicaud, said France will start setting quotas for immigrant workers.
“This is about France hiring based on its needs. It’s a new approach, similar to what is done in Canada or Australia,” Penicaud told BFMTV.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)