Racial and religious tensions in the presidential race in France


PARIS >> From attacks on “revivalism” to the crackdown on mosques, the French presidential campaign has been particularly difficult for voters with immigrant and religious backgrounds, as the discourse describing them as “the other” has won ground in much of French society.

French voters head to the polls on Sunday in a runoff between centrist incumbent Emmanuel Macron and nationalist rival Marine Le Pen, concluding a campaign that experts have seen as unusually dominated by discriminatory rhetoric and proposals targeting immigration and Islam.

As Le Pen proposes banning the Muslim headscarf in public, women like 19-year-old student Naila Ouazarf are at an impasse.

“I want a president who accepts me as a person,” Ouazarf said, wearing a beige robe and matching headgear. She said she would defy the promised law if Le Pen becomes president and pays a fine, if necessary.

Macron attacked Le Pen over the headscarf issue during their presidential debate on Wednesday, warning it could fuel “civil war”.

In the first-round vote, far-right candidates Le Pen and Eric Zemmour together won nearly a third of the vote. A primary school teacher in the multi-ethnic Paris suburb of Saint-Denis today described pupils who have been ‘scared to death’ by the campaign.

Le Pen’s National Rally party, formerly known as the National Front, has a history of ties to neo-Nazis, Holocaust deniers and militias who opposed Algeria’s war of independence from colonial France. Le Pen distanced himself from this past and softened his public image.

But one of the main priorities of his electoral platform is to prioritize French citizens over immigrants for social benefits, a move that critics see as an institutionalization of discrimination. Le Pen also wants to ban Muslim women from wearing headscarves in public, toughen asylum rules and drastically reduce immigration.

She has gained traction with voters since 2017, when she lost hard to Macron. This time around, Le Pen has placed more emphasis on policies to help the working poor.

Saint-Denis student Yanis Benahmed, 20, said he was unconvinced by the candidate’s attempt to broaden her appeal.

“We live in this city and we know exactly how things are, the kind of people you have here,” he said. Le Pen “wants to ‘clean up’ everything. With everything she’s said and her family history, we know exactly what her plan is. And Zemmour didn’t improve anything.

Zemmour, who placed fourth in the first round, boosted Le Pen’s popularity by making her look softer. He has multiple convictions for incitement to racial or religious hatred in France.

Zemmour also promoted the baseless “great replacement” conspiracy theory used as justification by white supremacists who carried out massacres in Christchurch, New Zealand and El Paso, Texas, and attacked a California synagogue.

“Eric Zemmour’s presence put the issue (of Islam and immigration) on the side of aggressive and violent stigma,” Cecile Alduy, a Stanford semiologist who has studied Islam, told The Associated Press. language of Zemmour. “Meanwhile, there is a decline in humanist values: words like equality, human rights, anti-discrimination or gender are branded as political correctness or ‘wokeism’ by many media, public intellectuals and current government ministers. .”

For some experts and anti-racist groups in France, Macron is also responsible for the current climate. His administration has passed legislation and language that echoes some far-right mottoes in hopes of eating away at Le Pen’s support.

Racial profiling and police brutality targeting people of color, which activists in France have long denounced, also remained a concern. During Macron’s presidency, France has seen repeated protests against police brutality following the death of George Floyd, a black American, at the hands of police in the United States.

Also under the aegis of Macron, France passed a law against terrorism which enshrines in common law the state of emergency imposed after the deadly attacks of 2015 against the Bataclan theater, Parisian cafes and the Charlie Hebdo newspaper.

The law expanded the government’s right to search people, monitor, control movement, and close certain schools and religious sites in the name of countering extremism.

Human rights watchdogs have warned that the law is discriminatory. “In some cases, Muslims may have been targeted for their religious practice, considered ‘radical’ by the authorities, without justifying why they posed a threat to public order or security,” Amnesty said. International.

In 2021, the government passed another law targeting what Macron called “separatism” from Muslim radicals. The measure extended state control over religious associations and sites. The government’s own watchdog argued that the scope of the law was too broad.

Abdourahmane Ridouane witnessed it. In February, two police officers gave him a closure notice for the mosque he manages in the town of Pessac, in the south-west of the Bordeaux wine country.

Authorities argued that the mosque’s criticism of “state Islamophobia” would have encouraged and justified Muslim rebellion and terrorism. Authorities also criticized anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian posts on the mosque’s social media page.

Ridouane challenged the action and won on appeal. The appeals court concluded that the closure was a “gross and manifest unlawful interference with religious freedom”. The state has taken the case to France’s highest court, which is expected to rule on the case shortly.

“I felt deeply saddened by a process that I deemed unworthy of a democratic state,” Ridouane told the AP.

Islam is the second religion of France, although there is no concrete data on the races and religions of voters due to the French doctrine of color blindness, which considers all citizens to be universally French and encourages l ‘assimilation. Critics say the principle allows authorities to overlook deep-rooted discrimination, both in mainland France and in overseas French territories where most voters are non-white.

France has also seen the rise of criticism of “Islamo-leftism” and “réveilisme”, and the Macron government has commissioned a study of its presence in French universities. Yet research departments in racial or colonial studies do not exist in French universities, as they are perceived as contrary to French universalism.

“The election comes in this climate, the rise of right-wing and conservative discourse, a retreat into a white, universalist, color-blind discourse blind to all discrimination and systemic racism in French society,” said Nacira Guénif, professor of anthropology and sociology in Paris. VIII University that focuses on race and gender.

On the left, meanwhile, “denial prevails,” Guénif said, as many left-leaning French voters are “deeply uncomfortable with the issue of race because they think talking about race makes you racist.” .

Criticism of so-called “wokeism,” championed in particular by Zemmour’s campaign, is reminiscent of attacks on critical race theory in the United States. Critical Race Theory is an academic framework that analyzes American history through the lens of racism. It focuses on the idea that racism is systemic in American institutions, which maintain white dominance.

Despite concerns about some of the policies enacted in France under Macron, Ridouane, the director of the Pessac mosque, has no doubt who he will vote for – and who he won’t vote for – on Sunday.

“If Le Pen manages to take the stalks of power, it will be the worst thing we have ever seen,” he said.


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