PARIS – French Muslims say they are being treated “like the mafia” in a divisive, bitterly-fought presidential election campaign defined in part by Islamophobia.
“It’s incredible, we have entered a different world,” said Sihem Zine, president of Action Muslim Rights (ADM), an organisation that works to offer support to Muslims targeted by government action. “Muslims are being demonised. Peaceful groups are being targeted, and Muslims are being treated like the mafia.”
With just days until France goes to the polls, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, who has pledged if elected to hold a referendum on immigration and ban the Muslim headscarf from public places, is currently the most likely challenger to face Emmanuel Macron in a scheduled runoff vote on the 24th of April if, as is all-but certain, no candidate wins a majority in the first rond. A Harris Interactive poll published on Monday revealed that 48.5 percent of French voters said they would back Le Pen in the case of a head-to-head, compared with 51.5 percent support for Macron.
Tensions have grown over the wider position of Muslims and Islamic culture in French society after the Islamist terrorist attacks in Paris 2015 and the beheading of teacher Samuel Paty in another terrorist attack in 2020, after he showed caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad during a lesson on freedom of speech. The murder sparked widespread protests across France, and condemnation from around the world.
The events ignited a huge debate about France’s complex secularist principle of laicité – which is based on the idea that freedom of expression should not be curbed to protect the feelings of one group.
French Muslims VICE World News spoke to despaired at the lack of diversity of the candidates running in the election. “They’re all the same, I’m not going to vote,” said Nour, a 30-year-old mother, who didn't give her surname, citing privacy reasons. “When I see the debates they all say the same thing. It’s always immigration. It’s to avoid addressing the real issues. Macron, he’s done nothing.”
Nada Ziani, a 23-year-old student, said: “The French media has given a false image of Muslim life. All the aspects of Muslim life are under scrutiny. It’s being done to divide the population.”
Analysts said that during Macron’s first term, the president’s politics have shifted hard to the right. Combined with the recent surge of the far-right, analysts say that means that political targeting of Muslims has gone almost unchallenged.
“Since the autumn, the extreme right has had levels of support like never before,” said Julien Talpin, a political science researcher at the University of Lille. “The public debate has been structured around questions of national identity and immigration. There’s political consensus over this treatment of Islam and Muslims in France.”
Another far-right candidate, Éric Zemmour, a former television pundit who was convicted for inciting racial hatred in January, has regularly referred to the racist “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory, which asserts that “indigenous” white French culture is being threatened with eradication by Muslim influence.
In recent months, Zemmour, who is polling at around 10 percent — though that has been a lot higher in recent weeks — has called on Muslims in France to “renounce” the practice of their religion, told voters he was standing to “save France from Islam” and said if elected he plans to create a “Ministry of Remigration” to deport unwanted immigrants. He previously also claimed that employers “have the right” to deny jobs to Black and Arab people. “We are tired of hearing and enduring the racist discourse of this individual,” said Salma Eladh, a Muslim student from Paris, in a recent Facebook post. “Zemmour is openly Islamophobic and speaks of massive remigration of Muslims in France, that is neither more nor less than a deportation on racist criteria.”
Zenmour’s line of electioneering is not only reserved for those considered extremists. Valérie Pécresse, candidate for France’s traditional conservative party, Les Républicains, has referenced the great replacement theory and vowed to limit the wearing of the headscarf in public spaces, including by athletes in sporting events.
Campaigners say that France’s Muslim community – which is the largest in Europe and believed to number about six million, or around 10 percent of the population – has been continually targeted by the government in recent years.
“It’s been an incredibly fraught period, especially for French Muslims,” said Fabien Goa, a Paris-based human rights researcher. “Muslim communities have been frequently targeted during legislative processes.”
Chief among the French government’s response has been the introduction of the controversial so-called “separatism” law aimed at tackling “Islamist separatism” and “radical” movements in the country, which was passed by parliament last July.
But critics say the legislation, which contains a range of measures including the requirement for non-profits to sign a contract pledging allegiance to the republic in order to qualify for state subsidies, is an attack on civil liberties.
“This vague law has established a moral order that means you must think like the government or they will punish you,” said Zine, the ADM president. “It is an excuse to target and criminalise innocent people. This is not the solution to stopping terrorism.”
In January, French Minister of the Interior Gérald Darmanin announced that under the law 24,663 checks had been carried out on places “suspected of separatism,” which led to the closure of 718 establishments, including 22 mosques, and enforced changes such as the replacement of imams at 36 others.
The French non-profit Coordination Against Racism and Islamophobia (CCIF) was shut down by the government in September, because, according to Darmanin, it “called for hatred, violence and discrimination.” BarakaCity, an influential Muslim humanitarian association, was also closed. Then in October, Darmanin announced the dissolution of the non-profit Coordination Against Racism and Islamophobia (CRI), on the grounds that its work would “actively, in particular through social networks, cultivate the suspicion of Islamophobia within French society.”
Human rights organisations have condemned the government’s policy. In a damning report published last Tuesday, Amnesty International said French officials “expressed stereotypical views and prejudices against Muslims during public debates” and that the country’s separatism law “strengthened the ban on manifesting religion or belief in the public sector” in a way that is not legitimate under international law.
“There’s been a cycle of legislative processes to target Muslim communities,” Goa added. “What I find really disturbing and shocking is that there appears to be a lot of consensus in the electoral framework over this. Acknowledging and challenging racism is seen as some sort of betrayal of national harmony.”
In the run-up to the election, tensions have mounted further. In February, a protest planned by Les Hijabeuses, a collective of female footballers who campaign for the right to wear the Muslim headscarf during sports events, was banned by police “for the safety of the demonstrators themselves and for the maintenance of public order.”
A ruling by the Paris administrative court later found that the ban was unlawful and that the protest should have been able to proceed as planned. “What you have is political discourse tangibly influencing policing on the streets,” said Goa.
Universities too have become part of the wider culture war in France: The concept of “Islamo-gauchisme” (Islamo-leftism), a term suggesting an unholy alliance between extremist Islamists and left-wing academics, has been levelled at those whose so-called “woke” theories point out the discrimination suffered by Muslims.
A report by anti-racism campaign group Hope Not Hate published on Thursday found that the leading French far-right parties, under Le Pen and Zemmour, have successfully “instrumentalised” news stories linked to Muslims to create a racist, “with us or against us” narrative on social media.
“Le Pen and Zemmour have used any incident possible to drag Muslims and the practice of their religion at the centre of the political debate in order to score easy wins with their support base, generate fear and warn against the imminent invasion of Islam,” the report’s author, Safya Khan-Ruf, told VICE World News.
In response to heightened anti-Muslim rhetoric sweeping across France during the election campaign, the rector of the Paris Mosque published a book titled “With All Due Respect, We’re Children of the Republic,” arguing against claims that French Muslims have failed to integrate.
In 2020, anti-Muslim acts in France were 52 percent higher than the previous 12 months, according to data on official complaints gathered by the government’s National Human Rights Commission.
“Many Muslims censor themselves, they are very afraid and plan to leave France, it is a state of insecurity,” said Zine, the ADM president.
Last year the University of Lille’s centre on political science, public law and sociology, carried out a survey of 900 French Muslims who have emigrated away from France in recent years.
“Since the 2015 attacks, things have changed,” said Talpin, the political science researcher. “There have been institutional and legislative changes and the extreme right has never been so strong. French Muslims are leaving because it’s become too heavy.”
But with the French left in disarray, hopes for a viable progressive candidate who could win the election are slim.
Young French voters interviewed by VICE World News spoke with a mix of fear, anger and apathy at the political situation that has developed ahead of the election.
Tribert Valence, a 19-year-old student, said he would be voting tactically to prevent the far right from being elected. “I’m disappointed by Macron,” he said. “When he was elected, he promised liberal reforms and there was hope for a new politics. That’s clearly not what happened.”
“But I have to vote, to stop the mounting support for the far right,” added Valence. “We have already seen the damage that right-wing populists like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson have done.”
Adin, a 26-year-old actor, who didn't give his surname citing privacy reasons, said that he believes the rise in the far right is down to the failure of the political elites to address the everyday challenges of normal citizens such as the escalating cost of living.
“Politicians need to concentrate their efforts on dealing with these concerns,” he said. “It’s what is behind the far right’s success. Their fears are being activated.”
The Socialist Party candidate Anne Hidalgo, who on a recent visit to a mosque warned against presidential candidates “scapegoating” Muslims, is languishing in the polls with just 2 percent. And although divisive left-wing firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon – one of the few French politicians to openly criticise Islamophobia – has had a late surge in support, he remains some way off qualifying for the second round of voting.
“I will vote,” said Ziani, the student in their 20s. “It’s an opportunity for me to use my democratic right. But I don’t think anyone who represents me and my views has any chance of winning. That’s difficult to accept.”