Like clockwork, Muslim women have once again become a central topic in French politics, as people prepare to vote in the second round of the presidential election on Sunday. “For me, the question of the headscarf is not an obsession,” Emmanuel Macron said last weeksignaling that he was happy with the status quo – headscarves are currently not allowed in schools – but also suggesting his far-right rival Marine Le Pen’s plan to ban them entirely was beyond the pale.
There are between 5 and 6 million Muslims in France, and they overwhelmingly voted for the far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon (69%) in the first round. However, many are still undecided or have decided to abstain in this second round. This is despite several imams, including the head of the great mosque of Paris, encouraging worshipers to vote for Macron to prevent Le Pen from becoming president.
Their worry is understandable. Many voters harbor deep resentment against Macron after years of disappointing policies and stances on issues affecting Muslims. It may be an uphill battle to convince people to vote tactically for him, even considering the still-worse positions of his opponent.
Despite her success in softening her image, Le Pen remains an authoritarian head of the far-right anti-immigration, anti-Semitic and Islamophobic Rassemblement National party. She’s previously said that the headscarf could not be viewed as a sign of a person’s religious belief but was an “Islamist uniform”. She also compared Muslims praying on a street in 2010 to the Nazi occupation.
This is Le Pen’s third run, and she has never been closer to the French presidential office – a recent poll had her at 48.5% compared with 33.9% in 2017 and 17.9% in 2012. While Macron is now inching ahead in the polls, this election still remains close enough to be uncertain. Le Pen’s manifesto includes an allusion to the far-right “great replacement” theory, as she wants to change the constitution to prevent a level of immigration that would “change the composition and identity” of the French people. She also wants to cut aid to unaccompanied minors arriving in the country and distinguish between native French and others in access to social aid. Research by Hope not Hate details how she has sown division during the 2022 election campaign, and how her party is no longer viewed as being as toxic as it once was.
Although political candidates such as Le Pen and the even more hard-line Eric Zemmour – who wanted to ban the name Mohammed and create a “remigration ministry” to deport immigrants – are blamed for shifting the political debate to the right, France has been grappling with questions of identity and immigration for decades. Under the guise of combating Islamism and protecting French identity and secularism, religious signs were banned in public schools in 2004, face coverings in public spaces in 2011, and burkinis on public beaches in many towns and cities in 2016.
Many French Muslims feel betrayed by Macron, who campaigned on socially progressive values but has since regressed, critics say, in his attempt to neutralize the far right. In 2017, Macron pointed out how some “use laïcité [French secularism] to fight against Islam”. But he then presided over five years in which Muslim lives in France have become increasingly legislated and criticized. This has included the passing of a bill that gives the state the power to specifically monitor Muslim organisations.
His allies, such as interior minister Gérald Darmanin, have criticized dedicated isolates in supermarkets for halal and kosher food. In 2020 Darmanin also dissolved the largest NGO on Islamophobia in France, calling it an enemy of the republic after the 2020 murder of a schoolteacher by a Chechen refugee. Amnesty said this could have “a chilling effect on all people and organizations engaged in combating racism and discrimination in France”.
Marwan Muhammad, former head of the Collective against Islamophobia in France, the NGO dissolved by Darmanin, recently warned voters to take a close look at Le Pen. Clearly worried about a potential Muslim backlash against Macron, he tweeted: “I have never seen so many people ready to vote for her just to make ‘Macron pay’ for the harm he has caused.”
It is important to note that despite discrimination, Muslims are not single-issue voters and Macron’s track record on Islam is not the only complaint of those I’ve spoken with: he wants to push back the age of retirement, has made it possible for universities to increase their fees, and has done little on his promise for gender equality or climate change.
Their complaint is that there is little difference in choosing one or the other, and that discrimination against Muslims will only continue in France. The hashtag “ni la peste ni le cholera” (neither the plague nor cholera) has been trending among French Muslims on Twitter. Whoever wins on Sunday, the fact is that the RN has become the main working-class party in France and is set to do well in the legislative elections in June.
As a French Muslim, I understand the fatigue and sense of deja vu felt by many citizens to once again be asked to vote for a lesser evil, or to be a bulwark against the far right. It is a symptom of this desire for change that the two traditional established political parties that have formed governments in the past – Les Républicains and the Parti Socialiste – each won less than 5% of the first-round votes. I also understand the outright hatred many feel for Macron, who has not embodied and enacted the bright and inclusive vision he sold to the French people in 2017.
However, the danger of this revamped and mainstreamed Le Pen cannot be ignored. The impact she will have on Europe and the EU and on emboldening other far-right parties with thinly veiled racist and Islamophobic policies frightens me more. Marine Le Pen winning is a validation of her far-right ideals of her, and that creates a more dangerous world for all of us.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism