Growing anti-Muslim rhetoric permeates French presidential election campaign

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SHAFAQNA – For some, the French presidential election will alter the course of a troubled nation steeped in economic and social turmoil. For others, it will alter the course of a troubled continent, challenging the very existence of European integration.

But in France itself, something far less abstract and far more intimate is at stake. In a country that remains under an official “state of emergency” following an unprecedented spate of terrorist violence in the past two years, the election also has become a referendum on Muslims and their place in what is probably Europe’s most anxious multicultural society.

Before the election’s first round of voting Sunday, each of the five leading contenders — from across the ideological spectrum — has felt compelled to address an apparently pressing “Muslim question” about what to do with the country’s largest religious minority.

Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front, has made her answer crystal clear. In February, in the same speech in which she declared her candidacy for president, she decried “Islamist globalization,” which she called an “ideology that wants to bring France to its knees.”

While Le Pen’s diverse array of opponents do not all share her extremity or conviction, each seems to agree that, when it comes to Muslims, something needs to be done.

“I want strict administrative control of the Muslim faith,” announced François Fillon, the now-disgraced mainstream conservative candidate, in a January campaign speech.

By contrast, Emmanuel Macron, the popular independent candidate, has spoken frequently of what he considers the urgent need to “help Muslims restructure the Islam of France.”

The far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who has condemned Islamophobia, ultimately wants to stamp out “all communitarianisms” and has reiterated what he calls the “urgent” need to “put an end to the misappropriation of public funds attributed to private denominational education.”

Only Benoît Hamon, the Socialist candidate, has regularly defended the community interests of French Muslims, insisting — in the year of the “burkini” scandal — that French law protect “both the girl in shorts and the one who wants to wear the scarf.”

 

Despite the intricate diversity of that population, there is widespread anxiety that if either Le Pen or Fillon is elected, things could get significantly worse. Both candidates probably would move quickly to advance crackdowns on veils, mosques and Muslim community organizations in the name of state secularism.

The alternatives also leave a profound sense of bitter resignation: Few French Muslims see a candidate in the running who would change a status quo that many view as unsustainable.

“There is no campaign for us — no one who understands our situation,” said Laorla Loub, 56, a fifth-generation French citizen and professor of Arabic literature in Clichy, a Paris suburb. She was waiting to enter the Annual Meeting of French Muslims, a large-scale community event held in several warehouses next to the tarmac of Paris-Le Bourget Airport.

As a result, voter abstention among French Muslims is rising, said Hakim El Karoui, the author of a widely circulated 2016 report on Islam in France published by the Institut Montaigne, a Paris-based think tank.

A principal reason, he said, is that the strict anti-terrorist stance adopted by the Socialist administration of President François Hollande — especially by his former prime minister, Manuel Valls, who famously persecuted the “burkini” last summer — has undercut the desire among French Muslims to support the left in the 2017 election, as many normally do.

“The right has always been against Muslims and immigrants,” El Karoui said. “But with Valls, it’s as if he gave up the left’s image of neutrality among Muslims. He gave it a toxic name.”

Chief among the concerns many Muslims harbor is over the so-called state of emergency, a security regime imposed by Hollande the day after the November 2015 Paris attacks, nominally to fight terrorism. The period of heightened scrutiny technically is slated to end this summer, but it already has continued for more than 16 months. Only one of the candidates — Mélenchon — has proposed ending it.

Since its imposition, French authorities have been permitted to carry out upward of 4,000 warrantless searches on French homes, and likewise have placed more than 700 people under house arrest.

But many Muslims say they have been targeted unlawfully. According to France’s Collective Against Islamophobia (in French, CCIF), an advocacy organization committed to fighting discrimination, more than 400 French Muslims reported having their homes searched for no clear reason in 2016. Approximately 100 of those also were placed under house arrest, while nearly 30 were asked to leave the country.

For some, the consequences have been dire.

On December 3, 2015, for example, Drissia — a Muslim resident of the French Alps who declined to give her last name for fear of professional reprisal — sat up in bed at 4:30 a.m. to the sound of 10 French police officers banging on her door, three wearing face masks. They searched her apartment until 6 a.m., she said, telling her and her 7-year-old daughter that everything was fine.

“But it was only the beginning of the nightmare,” she said, recounting how six days later she was fired from her job after 15 years as a traffic security regulator. The reason, she later learned through her lawyer, came from the regional prefect, who, in Drissia’s telling, had “confidential information proving that some of my close relatives were a threat to the security and staff of the Mont Blanc transit authority.”

“I had no idea who those ‘close relatives’ were,” she said.

She ultimately won her appeal in court, but her legal exoneration did little to overturn the harsh sentence she received in the court of public opinion.

“I’ve read horrible and hurtful things in the press about myself,” she said. “One headline was, ‘The ATMB fired a radicalized employee,’ ” a reference to her employer.

As central as French Muslims have become to the presidential campaign, they have rarely been included in the frequent debates among the non-Muslim candidates vying to be their president about how they should interpret their faith and live their lives.

If they are focal points of public discourse, they are also somehow absent from public view — and, some say, entirely unknown.

When presidential candidates pitch ideas such as “university training programs in the values of the Republic” for imams — as Emmanuel Macron did recently — many bristle at the suggestion that these are somehow values they do not already know.

Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed, 40, is an openly gay imam and the founder of Europe’s first LGBT-inclusive mosque, which he runs weekly in a rented room in Marseille, the sprawling metropolis on France’s Mediterranean coast.

“If you think it’s not possible to be both of those things, then good for you,” he said of the apparent separation between “French” and “Muslim” identities. “But I have never felt the need to convince you otherwise.”

Much the same is true across the ideological spectrum.

“When Marine Le Pen says that imams should be preaching in French, she’s right — that’s normal. This is France,” said Farid Aït-Ouarab, a senior leader of Muslim Scouts of France, a youth organization that strives to teach young Muslims how to reconcile their faith with the values of the French republic.

“Islam is about doing things together — in a circle, by consensus,” Aït-Ouarab said. “We see exactly that in the National Assembly, in the Senate, where deputies gather to decide our laws in tandem, together. For a real Muslim, there is no difference between ‘French’ and ‘Muslim.’ ”

“People talk about Muslims as if we are all the same person, one single person,” said Asma Bougnaoui, 31, who was fired in 2009 for wearing a headscarf to her job as a design engineer at Micropole, a French IT consultancy. “There’s absolutely no recognition of the diversity.”

“Who are French Muslims?” she said recently, sitting in a cafe in Paris’s Gare de Lyon. “What are we?”

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