France’s Interior Minister Gérald 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 Pen’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 government’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 France’s neutrality principle known as laïcité, 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.