MARSEILLE // A French-Algerian businessman nicknamed "Zorro of the niqab" for his support of French Muslim women fined for covering their faces in public has renounced French nationality to stand for the Algerian presidency.
Rachid Nekkaz, a self-made millionaire, hopes to replace the country's longest-serving president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in elections next April.
Mr Bouteflika, 76, a veteran of the war of independence that brought Algeria freedom from France in 1962, is in failing health.
There has been speculation about his ability to continue his presidential functions. His absence from Eid Al Fitr prayers at the Grand Mosque of Algiers last month drew attention and was unprecedented in three terms of office that began in 1999.
Mr Nekkaz, who made his fortune from internet and property interests, was born in France to Algerian parents, giving him dual nationality. He has now relocated to his family's native country.
His presidential ambitions required him to hold solely Algerian citizenship. But Mr Nekkaz met this condition with dramatic flourish, writing to the French president, François Hollande, asking him to cancel his French nationality with immediate effect as a "serious decision, deliberate and without appeal".
He declared continuing affection for French values, culture and history but condemned the 2011 law banning the niqab in public places as a departure from the country's principles of freedom.
"For a child who was rocked to sleep to the fables of La Fontaine, for a student who fed on the philosophies of Rousseau and Voltaire, the man I have become cannot breathe the draconian and corrupt oxygen prevailing in France today," he wrote.
Touches Pas a Ma Constitution (Hands Off My Constitution) was founded by Mr Nekkaz in France in 2010 as the country prepared to enact the anti-niqab law. He explained that while he personally disliked Muslim women choosing face-covering headwear, he regarded it as their fundamental right to do so and promised to use the fund to pay any fines imposed.
Two years after the law took effect he estimates his organisation has settled 688 fines, plus legal fees, imposed on 412 women in France and also Belgium, which has a similar law, at a cost of ?115,000 (Dh558,000).
In his letter to Mr Hollande, Mr Nekkaz said the law effectively condemned women to house arrest if they were determined to stick to their principles and did not wish to be arrested.
"Some may consider my decision a whim or a stunt," he wrote, "or simply as an act of folly at a time when thousands of foreigners risk their lives in rickety boats to enjoy the crumbs of western paradise and live in France, where hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants live in precarious conditions with no more than the dream of marrying a French national [to gain citizenship]."
In an email interview about his move to Algeria, Mr Nekkaz said he expected the formalities of abandoning his French citizenship to be completed within weeks, allowing him to campaign freely in Algeria.
"As yet, the Algerians do not know my name," he said. "But they all know there is an Algerian who defends the freedom of women to wear the niqab in France and Europe. They know this is a man of principles and beliefs who is not a product of the Algerian political system that has disappointed many in its 51 years."
He nevertheless paid tribute to Mr Bouteflika for, in particular, "significantly reducing violence in Algeria after a civil war that killed 200,000 Algerians in addition to 20,000 missing [in the 1990s]."
But he added: "When I look at the map of Africa, the Middle East and the Muslim world as a whole, I see that violence has become a daily given, almost a foregone conclusion.
"Whether it be in Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Sudan, Yemen, Iraq, Mali, Nigeria or Afghanistan, there is an urgent diplomat, human and even spiritual to react in a swift and enduring manner."
He proposes the creation of an international Muslim peacekeeping force, 50,000-strong, to serve as "the armed wing of the new Muslim diplomacy that I advocate". As for Algeria itself, he promised higher wages as part of an attempt to rebuild a "rich country whose people are poor" as a model for the Maghreb and Middle East.
"The potential is enormous, but society is completely blocked," he said. "Algeria has the second largest foreign exchange reserves of the Arab world after Saudi Arabia. I want to invest all this in the agricultural, industrial and technological fabric of our country instead of funding western economies."
In an interview with the Algerian news website Alger Info, he said Algeria had no option but to change. "When you see the situation deteriorate in Egypt, Algeria must now become an example, to show it has drawn the political consequences of the black decade our country knew in the 1990s."
Mr Nekkaz has presented himself for election at various levels in France, including unsuccessful attempts to stand for the presidency, which is restricted to candidates able to secure the signatures of 500 mayors. His wife, Cécile, Californian-born of French and Uruguayan parents, and their son have accompanied him on his "great new human and political adventure".