As elections approach, French politics have normalized anti-Muslim sentiment: Experts

LONDON: French politics have normalized anti-Muslim sentiment as the country’s Muslim population finds itself skewed ahead of Sunday’s presidential election.

Polls suggest Emmanuel Macron will narrowly secure a second term against far-right Marine Le Pen.

But for the country’s Muslim population, a vote for Macron will be a pragmatic vote rather than a vote of hope, with the incumbent seen as the lesser of two evils.

Jocelyne Cesari, a visiting professor of religion, violence and peacebuilding at Harvard Divinity School, told Arab News that while anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant discourses are nothing new, with “this idea that France would be Muslim within 20 years” having been scattered. since the turn of the century, what is new is that discourse has become “central”.

She said: “The rhetoric has gone from the margins to the centre. But more than that, when it comes to the legitimacy of Islam, the left is also quite comfortable. They are pro-immigration, but women wearing the hijab and the legitimacy of halal meat… this change over the past 20 years is very, very worrying.

“Worse still, on some issues, it is very difficult to see a difference between Macron and Le Pen, especially on the visibility of Muslims. Some of Macron’s ministers have been even more excessive than her on this issue.

Last year, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin caught Le Pen off guard, describing her as weak vis-à-vis Islam.

Dr Paul Smith, associate professor and section head of French and Francophone studies, modern languages ​​and cultures at the University of Nottingham, agrees that anti-Muslim rhetoric has become “normalised”, although he thinks it there is a certain nuance in Darmanin’s comment.

“Darmanin cut his teeth under (former President Nicolas) Sarkozy,” Smith told Arab News. “Sarkozy was tough, but he was also trying to create a framework for Islam to exist happily in France.

“I believe Darmanin’s comment was intended to suggest that Le Pen is talking but not walking. In this election, she didn’t have to because (candidate Eric) Zemmour said it all for her. Next to Zemmour, she seems to be organizing a Sunday school outing. Her anti-Islamic views have been more oblique – that doesn’t mean she has changed her agenda. If she wins, she will seek to impose a version of French identity that is very Catholic.

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Smith thinks French Muslims could be key players in the election outcome, noting that their first-round vote, particularly in the city of Marseille, went to leftist candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon.

However, French lawyer and doctoral student Maitre Rajnish Karim Laouini said that one of the main obstacles to galvanizing the Muslim vote was that if Muslims remain the subject of political discussion, they are themselves. even excluded.

“In most cases, Muslims are excluded from discussions that concern them,” Laouini told Arab News. “Where they are not excluded, those who participate are not seen as people who make their voices heard. Their interventions are perceived as counter-productive or reinforcing the discredit that is already brought to them.

“The exclusion of Muslims capable of making their voices heard in the debate only creates a climate of suspicion among some Muslims, who end up thinking that France prefers to see them as a problem rather than as part of the solution.”

Cesari goes further by suggesting that French Muslims were not deformed. “Rather, it’s just that they’re just not there,” she said.

“The French and the Germans share this in Europe – they have the least presence of Muslims in any political or public structure. There has been no political integration, and that cannot be attributed to education. We know that’s not true – in some cases we have fourth or fifth generation Muslim families.

“We are right behind. Look at the UK – this week it appointed its first hijab-wearing criminal lawyer to Queen’s Counsel. There they have Muslims in high office.

Cesari, Laouini and Smith all share substantive concerns if Le Pen pulls off an upset in Sunday’s vote.

Laouini said that if she did, France “would take the risk of becoming the first western democracy to ban the hijab in public spaces”, which Cesari said amounts to the erosion of democracy “as an obstacle to religious freedom”. The fact that this is only mobilized against Muslims leaves her equally worried.

However, Smith said there remained a lot of uncertainty. In the French system, the public first elects a president before heading to the polls in June to elect the legislature.

If Le Pen won the presidential election but lost the general election – “her victory could create a wave of opposition” – she would be a lame president.

This, he said, could lead to violence from the far right, which tried to stoke violence during early lockdowns with claims of “no go zones” patrolled by Muslims – “for their part, French Muslims behaved impeccably, not responding to provocation. He added, “We’re in uncharted waters if she wins.”

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