Macron courts Muslim vote in last-minute visit to Paris banlieue

SAINT-DENIS, France — Emmanuel Macron is wooing disaffected left-wing voters and warning them against abstaining in Sunday’s presidential election runoff by spelling out just what a victory for his far-right rival Marine Le Pen would mean for France’s Muslim community.

The president-candidate on Thursday visited Saint-Denis, a multicultural commune in Paris’s northern suburbs, in a last-ditch attempt to win the support of a diverse and working-class community that heavily backed veteran left-winger Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round of the election on April 10.

With far-right candidates Eric Zemmour and Le Pen stigmatizing France’s Muslims, Mélenchon emerged as their defender, denouncing a rampant “anti-Muslim sentiment” in the country. Ahead of Sunday’s runoff vote, many of Mélenchon’s supporters are hesitating between staying home, casting a blank ballot or voting for Macron.

Meeting local groups in the town square, Macron sought to warn against the consequences of Le Pen making it to the Elysée.

After promising to do more for disadvantaged neighborhoods, he slammed Le Pen’s proposal to reserve social housing for French people, accusing his opponent of wanting to exclude foreign citizens from social housing.

As an example, he said, “a young Moroccan lady who has two children, who works at the hospital, who was applauded every evening during the pandemic … with Madame Le Pen’s program, we will take away her social housing and her family benefits.”

“It’s a program of discord,” Macron told reporters, accusing Le Pen of “mixing up terrorism, insecurity, immigration, Islam and Islamism all the time.”

This week, Le Pen stressed she was not planning to expel foreign citizens as her proposal would not apply retrospectively.

The president was given a mixed reception, with some groups singing anti-Macron chants — borrowed from the Yellow Jackets movement — and others cheering him on.

In the first round of the presidential election, Mélenchon triumphed in the Seine-Saint-Denis department with 49 percent of the vote, and particularly strong backing from Muslim voters. In the town of Saint-Denis itself he won more than 60 percent.

Keeping Seine-Saint-Denis voters away from Le Pen shouldn’t be that hard as the multicultural community is the worst audience for Le Pen’s divisive proposals on immigration and on banning the Muslim headscarf.

But convincing these voters to back Macron will be a tougher ask.

Seine-Saint Denis registered the highest abstention rate among all French departments in the first round. The department’s Socialist president and more than a dozen mayors have this week urged voters to back Macron on Sunday. “If Marine Le Pen would catastrophically win, the first victims would be here,” warned Mathieu Hanotin, the Socialist mayor of Saint-Denis, who accompanied Macron on his walkabout.

Mélenchon has told his voters not to vote for Le Pen, but has not explicitly called on them to back Macron.

Headscarf debate

With Mélenchon now out of the race, Macron is doing what he can to get those votes, and seized on Le Pen’s proposal to ban the Muslim headscarf in public as a chance to distance himself from his rival and appear closer to French muslims.

During Wednesday’s televised election debate, Macron slammed the idea of banning the hijab in public, warning Le Pen it could “lead to civil war.” Speaking in Saint-Denis, he repeated that no other country in the world has such a ban.

“On the headscarf, what you [Le Pen] are proposing is a treason of French values, of the Republic,” he said.

That marks a subtle change from previous sometimes ambiguous comments on the headscarf by Macron and his ministers. Although he has consistently opposed banning the hijab in public, he hinted in 2018 that it wasn’t fully in line with French standards on gender equality.

While some Saint-Denis voters will rally to Macron’s side, others are still wavering.

A teacher, who did not want to give his name, said that warning about a Le Pen presidency “is not a good argument” for voting Macron. The president’s “left turn is not sincere and comes too late,” he said, adding he would stay home on Sunday after voting for Mélenchon in the first round.

Khadijah, a 62-year-old Algerian pensioner wearing a headscarf, who also voted for Mélenchon, said Le Pen’s headscarf ban “would trigger a war here” and she will vote for Macron.

“He will win, Inshallah,” she said.

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