No more Muslim headscarves in public. All school children in uniform. Laws proposed and passed by referendum. Generous social benefits that are not available to foreigners until they have been employed for five years.
This is just an excerpt of Marine Le Pen’s vision for France if the far-right leader wins Sunday’s presidential runoff against incumbent Emmanuel Macron. In all things France and the French would come first.
Polls show Macron leading Sunday’s vote, but a Le Pen victory is possible — an outcome that could shake France’s system of government, terrify immigrants and Muslims, shake the dynamism of the 27-nation European Union and unsettle NATO -Allies.
A fervent pro-EU centrist, 44-year-old Macron has adamantly labeled his opponent a danger and portrayed their election campaign as an ideological battle for the soul of the nation. Le Pen, 53, sees Macron as a progressive technocrat for whom France is just a “region” of the EU.
She says she would retool the country’s political system and the French constitution to accommodate her populist agenda of putting the EU second and making France more loyal to its core principles.
“I intend to be the president who gives the vote back to the people of their own country,” Le Pen said.
Critics fear a threat to democracy under Le Pen, a nationalist befriended by Hungary’s autocratic Prime Minister Viktor Orban and far-right parties elsewhere in Europe. Le Pen met with Russian President Vladimir Putin ahead of the 2017 French presidential election, which she lost to Macron in a landslide.
The United States has long regarded France as its oldest ally, but a Le Pen presidency could pose a problem for the Biden government, undermining transatlantic consensus on sanctions against Russia and empowering autocratic populists elsewhere in Europe.
The leader of the National Assembly is also suspicious of free trade deals and would seek a more independent stance for France in the UN and other multilateral bodies.
In a column Thursday in several European newspapers, the center-left leaders of Germany, Spain and Portugal backed Macron and warned against “populists and the far right” who see Putin “as an ideological and political role model copying his chauvinist ideas.”
“They have repeated his attacks on minorities and diversity and his goal of nationalist unity,” wrote Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa.
Le Pen’s meeting with Putin five years ago has haunted her campaign amid Russia’s war in Ukraine, though she says she condemns the Russian invasion “without ambiguity.”
But if she were president, Le Pen said she would think twice about supplying arms to Ukraine and opposing energy sanctions on Moscow — for the sake of French purses and the Russian people.
She also said she would pull France out of NATO’s military command, which would weaken the Western military alliance’s united front against Moscow, and that there should be a “strategic rapprochement” with Russia after the war ended, mirroring Macron’s earlier position, which this tat has attempted his own contact with Putin.
Still, his government says it has sent more than $108 million in arms to Ukraine since the war began, and France has been central to the West’s increasingly tough sanctions against Russia.
Le Pen has tried to project a caring image throughout her campaign, saying she would run France as the “mother of the family”. She has focused on consumer spending power while firmly holding on to emblematic issues that define the far right, such as immigration, security, national identity and sovereignty.
To soften the blow of rising prices, Le Pen says she wants to cut taxes on energy bills from 20% to 5.5%. It promises to give consumers $162 to $216 back every month.
Macron, a former French economy minister and banker, believes such measures are misguided and economically unsustainable.
Le Pen claims their agenda addresses the “France of the Forgotten,” which he has ignored.
She has proposed a “referendum revolution” at the heart of her plan to help heal the “democratic rift” she says is responsible for the low turnout in the recent French election and growing social discord.
Laws could be passed by referendum – bypassing elected lawmakers – after supporters collect the signatures of 500,000 eligible voters. That was a demand from the “yellow vest” movement that challenged Macron’s presidency two years ago.
“During my tenure, I am counting on consulting the only expert that Emmanuel Macron has never consulted – the people,” Le Pen said this month.
But there’s a catch.
The French constitution would have to be revised to give citizens such a direct voice in legislation. It would also need to be changed for another key Le Pen goal: to give French citizens a “national preference” for government housing and employment benefits over foreigners.
Macron failed in his own attempt to change the constitution, a complicated process that required the support of both houses of parliament. Le Pen wants to get around this by using a special article in the constitution, like General Charles de Gaulle did in 1962, to allow direct universal suffrage.
“She wants to shatter liberal democracy by appealing to the people,” wrote four constitutional law professors in the newspaper Le Monde.
Le Pen would use a referendum on other items in a controversial package to stop “uncontrolled immigration”.
These include, among others, the treatment of asylum applications abroad, not in France, and the “systematic” expulsion of undocumented migrants; and ending automatic citizenship for those born in France to foreign parents.
It would also reintroduce uniforms in all schools and strengthen 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 a “civil war” in the country with western Europe’s largest Muslim population.
But it was an elderly woman in a blue and white headscarf who confronted Le Pen in the South American city of Pertuis last week that may have thwarted her plan.
“What does the headscarf do in politics?” she asked Le Pen.
After the woman’s confrontation, Le Pen party officials went into damage control, saying banning headscarves on the streets would be progressive and not targeting a “grandmother of 70”.
However, Le Pen said on Radio Europe 1 on Friday that “the grandmother’s role is to protect her little granddaughters and I ask her to help me.”