Tensions over race, religion in France’s presidential race

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PARIS (AP) — From attacks on “wokeism” to crackdowns on mosques, France’s presidential campaign has been especially challenging for voters of immigrant heritage and religious minorities, as discourse painting them as “the other” has gained ground across a swath of French society.

French voters will head to the polls Sunday to vote in a runoff between Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron, the centrist incumbent. Experts have described this campaign as unusually dominated and dominated by discriminatory speech and proposals that target immigration and Islam.

Le Pen’s proposal to ban Muslim headscarves from public places puts Naila Ouazarf (19 years old) in a difficult position.

“I want a president who accepts me as a person,” said Ouazarf, clad in a beige robe and matching head covering. If Le Pen becomes president, she said she would defy it and pay a fine if necessary.

Macron attacked Le Pen on the headscarf issue during their presidential debate Wednesday, warning it could stoke “civil war.”

Eric Zemmour, a far-right candidate, and Le Pen won nearly a third of the votes. An elementary school teacher in the ethnically diverse Paris suburb of Saint-Denis on Thursday described pupils who are “scared to death” because of the campaign.

Le Pen’s National Rally party, formerly called the National Front, has a history of ties with neo-Nazis, Holocaust deniers and militias that opposed Algeria’s war for independence from colonial France. Le Pen has been more open about her past and has softened her public image.

Her election program will prioritize French citizens above immigrants for welfare benefits. This move is seen as institutionalizing discrimination by critics. Le Pen also proposes to ban Muslim women wearing headscarves in public places, to tighten asylum rules and reduce immigration.

Since 2017, when she was badly defeated by Macron, Le Pen has been gaining ground with voters. Le Pen is putting more emphasis this time on policies that help the working poor.

Saint-Denis student Yanis Benahmed, 20, said he was unconvinced by the candidate’s attempt to broader her appeal.

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