Approaching the final round of France’s presidential vote, and heading into a week that will feature a much-anticipated televised debate between incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist challenger François Hollande, it would be fair to assume the rival candidates are desperately seeking every winnable vote.
But over the past few days, French audiences have been treated to the spectacle of the two candidates doing their best to avoid one man’s endorsement.
In a way, it doesn't matter, since the man in question is not even a French citizen and has no right to vote in the May 6 presidential runoff.
But a flurry of controversy nonetheless began when Sarkozy told a French TV station this week that Tariq Ramadan, a controversial Muslim intellectual and Swiss national, supported Hollande.
“This is a man who solicits votes for Hollande,” Sarkozy told the TF1 TV station, before adding, “And I have never heard Hollande say it bothers him".
Not so, replied Hollande. “That is completely false,” said the Socialist frontrunner in an interview with the France Info radio station. “Tariq Ramadan, who does not even vote in France, has never mentioned my name.”
An activist, scholar, author and eloquent public speaker, Ramadan has at times been called a “reformist” and “bridge-builder”, and at others “a dangerous, slippery” radical.
The 49-year-old scholar is no stranger to controversy, and this time, he was not mincing his words.
In a phone interview with FRANCE 24 Thursday, Ramadan denounced Sarkozy’s latest allegation, calling it “a mean and unacceptable lie”.
“The presidential candidate has been caught flagrantly lying,” he said. “I only said that if I was a French citizen...I would take a look at Sarkozy’s track record over the past five years, and I would be very dissatisfied about it. The outgoing president is trying to poach supporters from the National Front. He’s beginning to smell defeat and so he’s pushing it even further.”
Ramadan’s comment came as Sarkozy, who has been lagging in the polls, is desperately trying to woo the 18 percent of the French electorate who voted for the far-right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen in the April 22 first round of the presidential poll.
The French president’s pandering to the far-right vote has also earned him a barb or two from Le Pen herself, who noted in an interview with a French radio station Thursday that, according to Sarkozy, “we were xenophobes, anti-Semites, racists…and now suddenly, there is no more of that."
Sarkozy refuses to back down
Despite the denials by both Hollande and Ramadan, Sarkozy has not backed down on his allegation that the Swiss-born Islamic scholar supports the French Socialist candidate.
“When someone says we must defeat one candidate, it’s the same as supporting the other candidate, no?” quipped Sarkozy in a TV interview Thursday night.
In another interview earlier Thursday, the embattled French president insisted Ramadan had called on French Muslims to vote for Hollande "or a party that serves Islam" at a March 11 public meeting in the southern French city of Lyon.
But in his interview with FRANCE 24, Ramadan categorically denied the allegation.
"I remember that meeting well. I never made any such comment, because I never address the community vote," he said. “When I attack Nicolas Sarkozy, I’m taking on the government, the establishment. As for the Socialist Party, I also regret that it has abandoned its ideals. I hold both the mainstream French political parties responsible for the rise of the National Front.”
Round one of Sarkozy vs. Ramadan
In a campaign dominated by domestic issues, the discourse surrounding a non-French citizen may seem surprising. But Ramadan is a particularly contentious figure in France.
The grandson of Hassan al Banna, the founder of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Ramadan was born in Switzerland after his father fled there following the Brotherhood's ban in 1954.
The Swiss-educated academic, who is also a professor of contemporary Islam at Oxford University, became a well-known figure in US academic circles after the Bush administration refused to grant him a US visa in 2004. Ramadan was forced to resign his faculty appointment at the Chicago-based University of Notre Dame.
Some of Ramadan’s most notorious encounters have been in France, making him a household name as derided in some parts as he is respected in others.
Earlier this month, the Swiss scholar made headlines in France when invited to address an annual convention of Muslim organisations on the outskirts of Paris. French Interior Minister Claude Guéant publicly expressed his disapproval over the invitation, saying he “regretted” the fact that a person with such “ambiguous” views was on the speakers’ list. But the event’s organisers, the Union of Muslim Organisations of France (UOIF), went ahead with Ramadan’s scheduled address regardless.
Ramadan’s run-ins with Sarkozy date back to a nasty exchange on French television in 2003, when the current president was France's interior minister.
Sarkozy accused Ramadan of supporting the stoning of adulterers, and the Islamic scholar replied that he favoured “a moratorium” on such practices, refusing to condemn it outright. Sarkozy, like many French commentators, expressed outrage over Ramadan’s response.
For his part, Ramadan has maintained that he has never supported the stoning of women. “I have always opposed [stoning] by calling for a moratorium to stop this practice. My position is consistent with Amnesty International, which goes through a moratorium to prohibit certain practices, such as the death penalty,” he said.
Over the past five years, Ramadan has criticised of a number of Sarkozy’s policies regarding French Muslims, such as the banning of the burqa, a national identity debate that was widely criticized as being anti-Muslim and a controversy during the current campaign on halal food that was widely perceived as both anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant.
At the UOIF convention earlier this month, Ramadan did not specifically refer to the French president, but his message was clearly directed at him. “Instead of talking about halal meat, the burqa, national identity and dividing France, you should unite it,” he told a packed hall at the conference.
Almost a decade later, as Sarkozy prepares to face an electorate, Ramadan is dismissive about the incumbent candidate. “I have no lessons to learn from Nicolas Sarkozy, who sang the praises of a 'moderate and progressive' Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia, when he visited the country in 2008,” he said.
But he insists his criticism does not constitute support for Hollande, a claim Sarkozy finds difficult to swallow.