France’s centrist presidential frontrunner, Emmanuel Macron, is seeking to bolster his law-and-order credentials with an unexpected proposal to restore compulsory military service, seen as a bid to attract conservative support.
With security at the forefront of the campaign for the election in five weeks following a string of terror attacks, Mr Macron unveiled the proposal in an interview published on Sunday — a day after a known radicalised Muslim was shot dead in an attempt to attack an air force patrol at Orly airport.
France abolished military service under a conservative president, Jacques Chirac, in 1997, but Mr Macron said he would oblige young people to serve one month in the armed forces between the ages of 18 and 21.
“I want each young French person to be able to experience military life, even briefly,” Mr Macron said, arguing that the move would “allow our democracy to be more united and increase the resilience of our society.”
He raised the idea, which is not mentioned in his election manifesto, as Marine Le Pen’s Front National renewed accusations that her rivals are “soft on terrorism”.
Mr Macron is predicted to face Ms Le Pen in the decisive second round of the vote. The conservative candidate, François Fillon, whose popularity has been undermined by a financial scandal, is expected to be eliminated in the first round.
Polls suggest Mr Macron, 39, will beat Ms Le Pen, 48, by a wide margin, but he will need to convince enough conservatives to back him without alienating his core supporters — young, urban liberals.
A former economy minister under the unpopular Socialist president, François Hollande, Mr Macron has won the support of a handful of centre-Right figures.
But he was clearly rattled last week at the prospect of backing from allies of the president, including the former prime minister, Manuel Valls, at odds with the Corbyn-style leftism of the Socialist Party candidate, Benoît Hamon.
If he is too closely identified with Mr Hollande, he risks losing the crucial centre-Right support he will need to defeat Ms Le Pen, commentators say. Mr Hollande is publicly reserving judgement but is believed to favour Mr Macron privately.
A poll published on Sunday indicated that French voters are evenly split over the suitability of Mr Macron, who has never held elected office, to be president. Just over half of respondents to the Ifop survey expressed doubts about his honesty and his ability to govern, guarantee security or carry out economic reforms.
His military service proposal, clearly designed to appeal to Right-wingers who agree with Ms Le Pen that the Socialist government has failed to do enough to prevent attacks, could easily backfire.
“Where does Mr Macron intend to find the €15 billion he says it will cost to set up the initial infrastructure, plus up to €3 billion a year to run the scheme?” a senior military officer asked. “That’s more than half the cost of the nuclear deterrent.”
Eric Ciotti, an MP from the centre-Right party, The Republicans, described the national service plan as a “gimmick … that serves no purpose”.
The father of the Orly attacker, named as Ziyed Ben Belgacem, 39, denied the French authorities’ assertion that his son had been radicalised while serving a prison sentence for drugs trafficking.
“My son’s never been a terrorist,” he told Europe 1 radio. He’s never prayed. He drinks. But under the effect of alcohol and cannabis, that’s what happens.”
Investigators found “a few grams of cocaine” and a machete in a search of the family home, a council flat in a northern Paris suburb, after the attack on Saturday, the Paris prosecutor, François Molins, said.
Belgacem, born in Paris to a family of Tunisian origin, was flagged up as “showing signs of radicalisation” in prison in 2011 and 2012, Mr Molins said. He fell into crime in his teens and had several convictions for drugs offences and robbery.
After the 2015 Paris attacks, his home was searched and he was questioned. He was not placed on the ’S’ list of those considered potentially dangerous to national security because no evidence of current Islamist activity was found.
Belgacem shouted that he was ready to “die for Allah” before he was shot dead after seizing an airport patrolwoman’s assault rifle.
Belgacem’s father, brother and cousin went to a police station after he contacted them earlier on Saturday to say he had shot at police who stopped his car. According to his father, he said he had “done something stupid”.
He then went to a bar where he fired an air gun several times without injuring anyone, before driving a stolen car to the airport.