Anti-Muslim sentiment rampant as French elections approach

Anti-Muslim sentiment rampant as French elections approach

Anti-Muslim sentiment rampant as French elections approach
Emmanuel Macron, head of the political movement En Marche !, or Onwards !, attends a campaign rally in Albi, France, May 4, 2017. (Reuters)
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With all the attention on Eastern Europe, this month’s French presidential election has rather crept up on the global political classes. What once seemed set to be a second successive walkover for President Emmanuel Macron is now far from guaranteed, with the possibility of a victory for the far-right, anti-Muslim candidate Marine Le Pen not out of the question.
Back in 2017, Macron became the youngest president in French history at just 39. He smashed the old two-party duopoly with his En Marche movement in just a year — the dynamic new broom to sweep away the cobwebs of the old French order. Would he be the man to restore French pride and abate the widespread pessimistic sense of decline that hovers over so much of France? Well, the insurgent of 2017 is very much the establishment elite man of 2022.
Macron’s victory last time out represented perhaps the final blow to the old order of French politics, which had been eroded over the previous few decades. This year, Socialist Party candidate Anne Hidalgo is not even at the races, with her poll numbers hovering around just 4 percent. This is the party of Francois Mitterrand, which less than a decade ago had both the presidency and control of both houses of parliament.
Blue-collar workers, once the bedrock of socialist and communist parties, have transferred their support to the far right in the form of Le Pen. This support from the left lies behind her surge in recent polls, to the point where she is a serious threat to the favorite, Macron. This is a world away from 2017, when Macron thrashed Le Pen by 66 percent to 34 in the runoff vote.
Seemingly overconfident, Macron has barely bothered to campaign, instead focusing on Ukraine, his talks with Vladimir Putin and buffing up his presidential image. The message seemed to be that electoral politics are too trivial for him while he is trying, albeit in vain, to save Europe. He contrasts this to some of his opponents, who have a rather pro-Putin record, including accusations that Le Pen received Russian funding in the past.
But the Ukraine effect has worn off. There is anger on the streets of France about fuel prices, the cost of living and immigration. Inflation is running at 4.5 percent and could rise further.
Le Pen’s improving poll numbers have encouraged Macron to ease further to the right as the left fractures. In doing so, he has also clothed himself in some of the anti-Islam garb of his more extreme opponents.
All of this is of huge concern to French Muslims, who number about 6 million, about 8 percent of the total population, and the largest number in the “Western” world. Macron had proclaimed he would be president for all the people in France. Many French Muslims do not feel this has been the case. Muslim-bashing in France has risen to the worst levels seen in any major democracy outside of the US. As across the Atlantic — this is a major vote-winner.
Chems-Eddine Hafiz, the rector of the Grand Mosque of Paris, last month expressed these fears, saying: “We’re in a society that is fractured and searching for itself, a society that is weakened and fearful after the pandemic. The fact of looking for a scapegoat — there have been precedents to that: In 1930, when the finger began to be pointed at Jews who became ‘the problem of a whole society’… Today it’s no longer Jews, it’s Muslims.”
Macron has ridden this beast. Most infamously, in 2020 he proclaimed that “Islam is in crisis all over the world.” He also ended a program that started back in 1977 that brought foreign imams to teach in France. Macron wants imams to be trained on French soil and to ensure they speak French. But this ignores a wider point that imam’s from Arabic-speaking countries often have a far more nuanced understanding of the various interpretations of the Qur’an, Hadith and other Islamic writings. Macron has also banned the hijab in certain settings, even if he did not support outlawing the hijab in sports, which gained the support of the French Senate.
Le Pen, the leader of the National Rally party — the erstwhile National Front — wants to ban the hijab everywhere, describing it as an “Islamist” piece of clothing. It was a sign of the times when, last year, Macron’s interior minister slammed Le Pen for being too soft on Islam. Le Pen even had to go to court after comparing Muslims at prayer with the Nazi occupation.
The former television personality and fellow candidate Eric Zemmour has made Le Pen look less extreme than she is. He went even further down the Muslim-hating path, saying that he wants to “save France from Islam.” He called on French Muslims to denounce their faith and assimilate. He is also an ardent believer in the great replacement conspiracy theory, which holds that the indigenous French population will be replaced by incoming Muslims, who would ultimately become the majority.
France has, of course, suffered from multiple attacks conducted by Islamist extremists, not least the 2015 attack at the Bataclan theater. But that is no excuse to blame all Muslims any more than it is right to blame all Christians for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
It appears so much easier to blame Islam than the failings in the French system. French Muslims feel excluded and marginalized, are typically on the fringes of society and are most socially disadvantaged. A 2015 survey showed that Muslims were four times less likely to get a job interview in France than their Catholic compatriots. Muslims also make up about 60 percent of the country’s prison population.

Le Pen’s improving poll numbers have encouraged Macron to ease further to the right as the left fractures.

Chris Doyle

This election offers French Muslims no let-up in the hostility they face daily. Macron may well triumph again, but he will need to energize his voter base to do so. What is certain is that anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant sentiment will remain worryingly rampant. No serious force in French politics is even willing to address this in any meaningful way. A wider question is how this anti-Muslim discourse in France will corrode EU policymaking in the future.
The official and obsessive French hostility toward Muslims needs to be tackled, as the only long-term consequence of this will be an even more dangerously polarized society and a real risk of protracted violence. France has seen mass riots before — not least in 2005 and the “gilets jaunes” protests of 2018 — so who would bet against a repeat, not least if Le Pen achieves a Brexit-like shock in the second round of voting on April 24?

  • Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. Twitter: @Doylech
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