French elections: A vitriolic campaign marked by anti-Islamic narratives has left many French Muslims feeling marginalized


This year, the month of Ramadan coincides with presidential elections in France, the culmination of a campaign marked by anti-Muslim vitriol on a scale not seen in decades.

Considering the candidates who have entered the race, the answer for many is no.

Eric Zemmour, a former television pundit convicted three times of hate speech, racial or religious hatred, said he wanted “save franceof Islam. Center-right candidate Valérie Pécresse said the headscarf was a “sign of a woman’s submission”, claiming with a nationalist twist that “Marianne is not a veiled woman”. have been eliminated.

Even Macron found time in his only campaign rally before the first round ballot to highlight the threat of Islamists and Muslim “separatists” in France, intertwining France’s motto “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité” (freedom, equality, fraternity) with another favored French republican value: Laicité (secularism).

Only one candidate, the third far-left politician Jean-Luc Melenchon, has historically taken a position more favorable to the Muslim community. A first-round Ifop poll suggested that around two-thirds of French Muslim voters supported him. He too was eliminated after the first ballot.

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“What’s really scary about this upcoming election is that most of the (top) candidates are simply relying on agendas based on stigmatizing minorities, on eroding our most basic rights and freedoms,” he said. said Latreche, a law student, before the first round.

With the “normalization of Islamophobia, we face the consequences directly,” added Latreche, who also campaigns for civil liberties for young Muslim women.

The French political landscape this year is very different from that of a few elections ago. While the country’s traditionally heavyweight center-left and center-right forces are struggling, the political extremes have taken advantage.

In the first round of the April 10 presidential election, Le Pen and Zemmour, the two far-right candidates with the most extreme policies affecting the lives of Muslims in France, together garnered just over 30% of the total voice ; Le Pen alone received enough votes to enter the second round with 23% of the votes in the first round. Their rise to prominence has been accompanied by a clamor of anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic narratives that have dominated much of the debate and coverage.

Hiba Latreche having breakfast before starting his fast during Ramadan.

“We are constantly marginalized”

The Great Mosque of Strasbourg – the largest in France – is discreetly nestled beside a river in the eastern border town.

Many worshipers there say they don’t feel represented by any of the dozens of candidates who ran for the presidency in the first round.

“We are constantly marginalized, excluded from society, and then told that we do not participate in society”, said Latrèche. Being denied free will and choice over her own life and contribution to society, she felt, inevitably had a negative effect on her mental health and that of her friends, she added. .

Entering for evening prayers, Wagner Dino expressed his dismay at the choice of candidates.

“There is no one who comes forward, who really has the necessary parameters to put everything in place, to have a France united with Muslims,” ​​he said.

Safia Abdouni, a mosque volunteer, said she thought none of the candidates “knew what we are going through, our daily lives and what we really need”.

“I feel like I’m not represented as a young student. As a young Muslim student, even less so,” she added.

Worshipers break their fast during an iftar meal in a tent outside the Great Mosque of Strasbourg.

Yet Saïd Aalla, the president of the Grand Mosque, said that if young Muslims “want to change the situation, it can only be done with the vote”.

Aalla did not express a preference for any of the suitors. As a cleric, French law prohibits him from publicly supporting a political candidate.

The debate on secularism

In successive election seasons, Muslim women’s hijabs and headscarves have been easy targets for politicians trying to bolster support for traditional French republican values.

“Laïcité” – or laïcité – claims to ensure equality for all by removing markers of difference, prioritizing all French citizens, and protecting freedom of worship in the private sphere. Religious symbols are banned in primary and secondary schools, public offices and state workplaces, and even in some sports federations.

“Secularism in itself is not a problem”, according to Rim-Sarah Alouane, doctoral student in comparative law at Toulouse-Capitol University and specialist in religious freedoms and human rights in Europe.

“Secularism has been transformed (and) militarized into a tool of political identity in order to target the visibility of Muslims in France, French Muslims, and especially Muslim women, and the wearing of the headscarf. It is therefore more of modernity’s illiberal interpretation of secularism that is problematic, than secularism itself,” she said.

Today’s secularism debate has put the hijab at the center of France’s culture wars pitting what conservatives describe as ‘secularism’ against religious civil liberties

Both Le Pen and Zemmour have proposed banning what they call “the hijab,” but neither campaign has provided details on what exactly such a ban would encompass, or how it would be enforced. In his campaign manifesto, Le Pen proposed banning all “Islamic dress” in public, a definition that critics say is open to arbitrary and imprecise interpretation. The French government has already banned women from wearing the niqab, a full veil with an opening for the eyes.

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The Macron government reacted with fury to a diversity campaign partly funded by the European Union last year, which showed images of women wearing the headscarf superimposed on the same images without the head covering. The campaign slogan was: “Beauty is in diversity, as freedom is in the hijab”.
The French government demanded an investigation into the campaign and its withdrawal to France. In the lyrics of a minister: “We cannot confuse religious freedom with a campaign to promote the hijab, it is not acceptable.”
Last month, France’s Supreme Court ruled that local bars could ban headscarves and other “religious symbols” in courtrooms in the name of secularism – forcing hijab-wearing women like Latreche to choose between their career and public practice of their faith.

“It’s actually extremely demotivating and disheartening to see that, you know, we wouldn’t be able to help contribute to society and make it more vibrant despite our abilities,” Latreche said, “just because we choose to exercise our rights.

“We (should) be in control of our own rights, bodies and beliefs,” she said.

Ludwig Knoepffler, a member of Le Pen’s campaign team, denied that Le Pen’s anti-hijab platform was made “in the name of secularism”. Rather, he said the intention was to fight totalitarianism.

“The idea is to fight the hijab as a political tool used and promoted by militant Islamists,” he said. “If you believe that the Islamist political project is indeed totalitarian, then you must fight its hallmarks. In the same way you would ban the swastika in the public sphere, as it already is.”

Le Pen broached the subject during the presidential debate on Wednesday evening, calling the headscarf “a uniform imposed by the Islamists”.

Macron accused her of creating a “system of equivalence” between Islamism, terrorism and foreigners that would “create civil war”.

“Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”

Aalla, the president of the mosque, said Muslims in France have the same aspirations as other citizens.

“The Muslims of France have been here for several generations, but we continue to consider them foreigners,” he said.

Aalla decried the idea of ​​a “Muslim vote”. There are Muslims who support all French parties, he said, people who hope to be considered by politicians, especially when it comes to religious freedoms.

For lawyer Alouane, the headscarf debate is an alarmist distraction: “I mean, we have inflation, the price of energy has increased massively, there is poverty, we are dismantling our public services, unemployment etc… and all we’re talking about is a piece of cloth that women wear… like, seriously.”

Aalla said that French Muslims expect France and French society to devote themselves to economic, social, housing or discrimination issues, issues “that all citizens, including Muslims, expect from their new President”.

But for French citizens and voters who gather to pray and break their fast in a darkening political atmosphere, the hopes of many in their community can be summed up in one sentence: “Liberty, equality, fraternity.”

Journalist Camille Knight contributed reporting.




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