In the wake of recent terrorist attacks and with barely a year until France elects a new president, the country is fiercely debating a new law that seeks to rein in Islamic extremism, which critics say only further stigmatizes Muslims.
(CN) — France’s politics are shifting to the right — some worry to the far right — in the run-up to next year’s presidential elections and French Muslims are bearing the brunt of this turn as they come under attack as enemies of the nation’s founding republican values.
The signs of this right-ward shift are mushrooming as France mends deep scars inflicted on it by a series of terrorist attacks carried out by Islamic extremists in the past six years that have left more than 250 killed and over 900 wounded.
The latest attacks occurred last fall when a middle school teacher was beheaded after he showed his class controversial cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed and subsequently three Catholic worshippers were stabbed to death in a church in Nice.
The series of attacks have turned many French against Muslims, opinion polls show. A Pew Research Center survey in spring 2016 found only about 29% of French respondents saying they had a negative view of Muslims. By October 2020, an IFOP poll found 79% of those questioned believed Islamic extremists had declared war on France and its values.
Amid this atmosphere and a collapse of France’s left-wing parties, far-right leader Marine Le Pen is gaining momentum and polls show her only narrowly losing to French President Emmanuel Macron if a presidential election were held today. A Le Pen victory remains highly unlikely, but not completely unthinkable, in the actual elections, with a first round of voting set for April 2022 and runoffs in May.
Macron, once seen as Europe’s liberal champion, is a driving force behind this rightward drift: In speeches, he’s declared Islam a troubled religion around the world and that France’s core values are being undermined by “Islamic separatism.”
“What we must tackle is Islamist separatism,” he said in an October speech where he proposed a new law against this perceived threat. In the speech, he laid out steps to rein in Islamic extremism, such as crackdowns on radical groups and cutting off their financing from abroad and training imams in France rather than allow them to be brought in from the wider Muslim world. He said he wants to “forge an Enlightenment Islam in France.”
“It’s indoctrination and, through this, the negation of our principles, gender equality and human dignity,” he said in describing a France where a “counter-society” of Muslims refuse to join French life and demand France adapt to their beliefs by serving halal food at school cafeterias and separating men and women at public swimming pools.
“We aren’t a society of individuals. We’re a nation of citizens,” Macron said.
In effect, Macron’s rhetoric mimics those on the far right who claim Muslim radicals are proliferating due to the growth of a parallel society within France where French Muslim children are taught to despise the republic’s founding principles: la liberté, l’égalité, la fraternité, l’éducation, la laïcité.
The last of these five principles — laïcité, or in English secularism — is at the heart of this heated debate over French Muslims and their place in French society.
In France, perhaps unlike anywhere else in the world, secularism carries with it a deep, powerful and complicated symbolic meaning. It’s more than the separation of religion and state: Laïcité is a central pillar in French society and it rests on the idea that every citizen — regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, gender — is equal.
In pursuit of a “color-blind republic,” France does not recognize ethnic and racial differences. It is actually illegal for the government to gather information about a person’s ethnicity or religion. This policy was written into the post-World War II constitution in response to the Vichy regime’s role in identifying and deporting Jews to Nazi concentration camps.
For this reason, it is also impossible to know with any exactitude how many Muslims live in France. Estimates range between 3 million and 6 million (or between 4.5% and 9% of the total population); regardless, France has the largest population of Muslims in Western Europe.
But many question whether this policy model is actually contributing to the discrimination and injustices faced by French Muslims, who often find their cultural differences under attack for allegedly breaching France’s sacred laïcité.
“The problems faced by Muslims in France today stem partly from this Republican ideal of unity and its refusal to acknowledge the realities of a multicultural, ethnically and religiously diverse population,” said James Shields, a professor of French studies at the University of Warwick in Great Britain, in an email.
“There is no more pointed illustration of this denial of diverse identity than the energy with which French officialdom has sought to set limits on Islamic dress, from the outlawing of Islamic face veils (most notably the burka) to the municipal bans provoked by the ‘burkini’ on some French beaches,” Shields said.
Seaside towns in southern France have tried to ban the wearing of full-body swimwear worn by some Muslim women.
Shields said the campaign against Muslim dress shows how laïcité “can be mobilized against Muslims in particular.”
“Yet the same officialdom that seeks to quash such personal expressions of Islamic separatism too often turns a blind eye to the widely reported — though technically illegal — practice of ethnic discrimination in jobs, housing and other areas of economic and social service provision,” he added.
Historically, Muslims began arriving from regions that were under or tied to France’s colonial empire: Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, West Africa, Syria and Lebanon. In the wake of World War II’s destruction, larger numbers of Muslims, mostly from North Africa’s Maghreb region, migrated to France as much-needed manual laborers.
After the onset of industrial recession in the 1970s, Shields said much of France’s Muslim population increasingly “became perennial residents of dilapidated housing estates around the ring roads of French towns.”
“These communities have no voice since the French state refuses to recognize the claims of ethnic or religious minorities, insisting instead on a Republican assimilationist model with equality as its founding principle,” Shields wrote. “The Constitution confers rights on individuals, not on groups.”
But he added: “Behind that Republican ideal of assimilation, however, lies the reality of segregated suburbs with sprawling complexes of graffitied tower blocks where unemployment, economic hardship, crime and alienation are rife and where radical Islamism finds fertile recruiting ground.”
Purporting to defend France’s special brand of secularism, Macron and the political party he created during his ascendency to the Élysée Palace, the centrist and neoliberal Republic on the Move, is steering through parliament controversial legislation that gives authorities new powers over Muslim mosques, schools and associations, even extending their reach into sports. The bill also reinforces existing laws banning polygamy, forced marriages and virginity tests and potentially could curb home schooling.
Additionally, the legislation seeks to protect public workers from harassment and threats, such as what happened prior to the attack on Samuel Paty, the middle school teacher beheaded last October.
By pushing the law, Shields said Macron is seeking to deprive Le Pen of the “sole rights to this critical security issue” and fend off her campaign focused on security, immigration and national identity.”
“These are not Macron’s natural terrain; as a presidential candidate in 2017, he balanced restrictive policing and security with an emphasis on individual freedoms and an openness towards the benefits of France’s ethnic and religious diversity,” Shields said. “But the recent terrorist attacks have shifted the government’s priorities from the protection of individual rights to the maintenance of public order and a clamp-down on radical Islamism.”
Macron — who first climbed the political ladder in France’s Socialist Party — has surrounded himself with right-wing figures ready to pounce on Muslim radicalism.
His prime minister, Jean Castex, has railed against radical French Muslims as an insidious but powerful force seeking to destroy French society from within as a kind of fifth column.
In an interview with Le Monde, the French daily newspaper, Castex painted France as a country where Muslim children are taught to refuse to play with non-Muslims and plug their ears during music class at public schools and instead chant Koranic surahs. He cited an example of Muslims refusing to bow to their opponents in judo matches because they say they only bow to Allah.
Macron’s interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, is seen as an even more vehement exponent of the government’s new rightward swing. He was brought in last summer to take over at Place Beauvau, the interior ministry’s headquarters, and since then has become Macron’s attack dog.
After the atrocities by Islamic extremists in October, Darmanin closed down Muslim groups and stated his dislike for aisles in supermarkets dedicated to halal and kosher foods.
In a recent televised debate, Darmanin even tried to outdo Le Pen as the crusader-in-chief against Islamic radicalization, suggesting Le Pen had gone “soft” on her anti-Islamist rhetoric. Politically, Le Pen appears to be toning down her far-right instincts to win over more moderates in her contest with Macron.
Macron’s government has even shown support for a new reactionary movement in French universities seeking to stop the importation of American ideas that say society’s problems can only be solved by solving injustices linked to race, identity and colonialism. Right-wing voices are tagging these American ideas as “Islamo-leftism” and say concepts such as “white privilege” and “state racism” do not pertain to France, the “color-blind republic.”
In a recent television interview, Macron’s higher education minister, Frédérique Vidal, said French academia was “gangrened by Islamo-leftism.” She then ordered France’s state-funded National Scientific Research Center (known as CNRS, its initial in French) to purge “militant and ideologically driven work” in academia. She labeled post-colonial studies unscientific. The CNRS shot back, calling “Islamo-leftism” a political slogan with no “scientific reality” and vowed to defend academic freedom.
In his October speech, Macron too spoke of the dangers of adopting “social science theories entirely imported from the United States” that he said do not reflect France’s reality and are fueling divisions in France. Earlier in June, he attacked academia for encouraging “the racialization of socio-economic issues.”
For many, Macron’s shift to the right — and playing on Le Pen’s turf — shows that France is heading in the wrong direction if it wants to tackle the economic and social problems faced by French Muslims.
Joseph Downing, a scholar at the London School of Economics and author of “French Muslims in Perspective,” said the entire debate over Muslim separatism is built upon a false premise.
“French Muslims, by and large, are extremely well integrated,” he said.
For example, he said large numbers of French Muslims sign up for the military and police duty. In his research involving extensive interviews with French Muslims, he found even those living in the poorest neighborhoods identified themselves as French.
“These individuals definitely feel French,” he said. “They don’t feel like they have a primary allegiance to somewhere else in the world just because they eat halal chicken.”
He also pointed out that many French Muslims are thriving.
“There’s a huge amount of entrepreneurship, there’s a huge amount of Muslim-owned businesses; there is a very large and prominent Muslim upper middle class in France of professionals, of university graduates, of doctors,” he said.
He said French politicians and media mistakenly lump French Muslims all together as though they belong to a monolithic cultural group with identical political, moral and religious beliefs that poses an existential threat by becoming an ever bigger segment of French society thanks to high fertility rates.
“The right bangs on constantly: ‘Oh my God, they’re having five children, and French people are only having one,’” he said. “It’s essentially not true.”
He said within a generation French Muslims who immigrate to France tend to have as many children as the general population. Within the Muslim population, there are also strong cultural and religious differences, he said.
“You see a much more diverse set of opinions and beliefs than appears on the surface,” he said. “The same kind of individuals that will talk about ‘the Muslims in France’ being a bloc would never talk about white French people as being politically homogenous.”
He added: “The problem is it doesn’t get discussed. It’s discussed in this kind of one-dimensional way, where it’s like: ‘Oh, the Muslims, they’re becoming more Muslim because they eat halal kebab.’ To me, it doesn’t stand up; it’s a much more complex picture.”
He also dismissed as false the assumption that Muslims in France are becoming more radical — and prone to acts of violence — due to their poverty. This notion gained traction following three weeks of violent riots in 2005 by mostly youths of African, North African and Arab roots in the suburbs of France and other cities.
Most significantly, Gilles Kepel, a French scholar and expert on Islam, produced research into the suburbs — known as banlieues in French — that linked the Islamization of these areas to homegrown terrorism.
“I think it sowed many of the seeds for Macron’s current focus on things like separatism because that’s basically what Kepel was saying,” Downing said.
“The numbers of people involved in any kind of radicalization or violence, however you want to measure the metric, is extremely low,” he said. “If poverty was this big causal factor, you would expect a much higher number.”
He said a biographical study of those who have committed terrorist acts in France also disproves the link. He said that while some of the attacks were done by French-born men, others were committed by people coming from elsewhere. Also, he pointed out that jihadists in France, as elsewhere, generally “come from not so religious households and are generally fairly well educated.”
Instead of seeking to clamp down on Muslims, mosques and Islamic groups, Downing said France would be better placed to prevent mass killings, such as the 2015 massacres at the Charlie Hebdo magazine and Bataclan music hall in Paris, by curtailing the illegal flow of military-grade weapons, such as Kalashnikov rifles, into Europe and France.
“They are used constantly for gangland killings, to rob a corner store, and other crimes,” he said. “There’s no discussion of cracking down on illegal weapons. It’s not on the political agenda.”
He also faulted French politics for not tackling the poverty of the suburbs.
“There’s no plan underway for the massive redevelopment of suburbs or economic programs for those places at all,” he said. “It is totally missing from the political spectrum.”
Instead, with Macron and Le Pen battling over the hearts and minds of France’s conservative voters, debates in France seem poised to become even more focused on the place of Muslims in society.
“(Macron) knows the election will be won or lost by wooing the right, center-right voters,” Downing said. “The other thing for Macron, the quote-unquote radical Islam issue is an issue he really can’t lose on because everything else that he’s centered his political career on hasn’t gone that well. Reforms have been stifled; he’s had the Yellow Vest protests; any kind of economic measures, unemployment, and the sort of liberalization of the French economy under his first term hasn’t gone that well.”
He’s left, then, to act as the defender of laïcité to bolster his re-election hopes, Downing said.
“One thing that he can put out there that is guaranteed to whip up fervor that he can then satisfy with this kind of legislation is the secularism card,” Downing said.
He said the French obsession with secularism can’t be overstated.
“They constantly reference the Jugoslav wars, Lebanon, this kind of ethno-religious strife,” Downing said. “They really do think that the (laïcité) law that they have is the only thing between them and some sort of religious civil war. Politicians know that and unfortunately they manipulate it,” he said. “They know people are really frustrated by it and they know they can whip up emotion with it.”
Once again, Muslims are filling the role as the existential threat to France’s sacred secularism.
“There was a whole anti-kebab polemic a few years ago that emerged in the French media — people talking about the threat that halal kebabs pose to French cuisine,” Downing said. Similarly, France’s ban on full-face veils in 2010 was cast as protecting democracy.
“You can attach [Islam] to anything: food, university, dress, whatever, and all of a sudden it’s a massive big problem,” Downing said.
Now, to see Macron shift so much to the right and adopt the language of Le Pen, he said is stunning.
“He was seen as a sort of reliable, almost technocratic, not so charismatic, kind of reformer,” Downing said. “The fact that he would sort of metamorphosize into this much more kind of dogmatic far-right figure is quite a shock.”
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.