Franceâ€™s Interior Minister GÃ©rald Darmanin crossed swords with far-right leader Marine Le Pen Thursday night in a televised debate, with the two clashing over their competing visions on how to fight radical Islam and terrorism.
The duel was highly anticipated, four years after Le Penâ€™s disastrous performance in a debate against then-candidate Emmanuel Macron dealt a fatal blow to her presidential ambitions. The National Rally president has struggled since then to rebuild her damaged credibility, though recent polls show she still enjoys a high level of support.
The debate, which ran on public national television channel France 2, took place at a time when French lawmakers are deliberating over a draft law seeking to tackle Islamist radicalism, in the wake of a spate of terror attacks in the country and elsewhere around the EU in 2020.
Darmanin defended the governmentâ€™s approach, which includes stricter controls over religious associations to prevent takeovers by extremists, restricting the possibility of homeschooling children and a limited extension of Franceâ€™s neutrality principle known as laÃ¯citÃ©, which prohibits civil servants from wearing certain religious symbols like the Muslim headscarf.
The neutrality principle is a hot-button issue in France, with Darmanin himself making some eyebrow-raising comments last fall on the topic. The minister was seemingly careful not to repeat those remarks Thursday, in an effort to fend off critics who have accused the government of stigmatizing its Muslim population.
â€œItâ€™s citizensâ€™ freedom to be able to live their faith freely in the public space,â€ Darmanin said, as Le Pen advocated for more stringent restrictions on wearing religious symbols in public. He added: â€œThere wonâ€™t be a clothing police.â€
â€œThere is a share of Franceâ€™s women who wear a headscarf, and they do it freely,â€ Darmanin said. â€œThen there are women who are subjugated by their husband, by their father, by their brother, by their community, and these ones need to be protected.â€ But â€œitâ€™s better to fight the men who are creating the community pressure,â€ he added, than the women who are on the receiving end of it.
Le Pen accused the government of not tackling radical Islam head on, and instead restricting religious freedoms for all.
â€œYou are limiting everyoneâ€™s freedom to try to modify the freedoms of a few Islamists,â€ she said, referring specifically to the crackdown on homeschooling and associations.
Le Pen last month presented her own plan to fight Islamism, advocating for much tougher measures such as banning the headscarf for all in public.
While Le Pen, currently a French MP, was at ease on her traditional lines, including on migration, she appeared more hesitant when it came to defending her partyâ€™s positions in parliament. Darmanin accused her of being inconsistent by not supporting some government measures designed to address religious extremism, attacking her credibility as a potential leader of the country.
Yet some accused Darmanin of giving Le Pen a platform and legitimizing her as a top opponent by agreeing to debate her on prime-time TV.
â€œYou will have to work for the next presidential debate,â€ Darmanin said at the end of the duel, in a comment that quickly backfired, with TV host Thomas Sotto immediately noting that he seemed to take for granted that Le Pen would make it to the second round at next yearâ€™s presidential election.
â€œThank you for your trust,â€ Le Pen responded.