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 rhetoric describing them as “the other” has gained traction. ground in a large part 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.

While Le Pen proposes banning women from wearing 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 pay the eventual fine.

Macron attacked Le Pen over the headscarf issue during their presidential debate on Wednesday, warning it could fuel “civil war”. But the polls are bringing Le Pen closer to Macron than she was in their last round five years ago. And in the first round, the far-right candidates Le Pen and Eric Zemmour together gathered almost a third of the votes.

France does not have precise data on the race or religion of voters due to its doctrine of color blindness, which considers all citizens to be universally French and encourages assimilation.

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 has distanced himself from that past and softened his public image, but one of the main priorities of his program is to prioritize French citizens over immigrants for social benefits, which critics see as an institutionalization. of discrimination. She also hopes 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 put more emphasis on policies to help the working poor.

Le Pen can also thank Zemmour, who came fourth in the first round, for boosting her popularity by making her look softer. Zemmour has been repeatedly convicted of inciting racial or religious hatred and has promoted the baseless ‘great replacement’ conspiracy theory, used as justification by white supremacists who carried out massacres in Christchurch, New Zealand, El Paso, Texas, and 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 anti-racism pundits and groups in France, Macron is also responsible for the current climate, as his administration has passed legislation and language that echoes some far-right mottoes, hoping to eat away at Le Pen’s support.

Racial profiling and police violence targeting people of color, which activists in France have long decried, have also remained a concern under President Macron, which has seen repeated protests following the death of George Floyd in the States. United against France’s own cases of police violence.

Also under the aegis of Macron, France adopted a law against terrorism enshrining in common law the state of emergency triggered after the 2015 attacks on the Bataclan theater, Parisian cafes and the Charlie Hebdo newspaper. This extended the government’s right to search people and 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. Amnesty International wrote that “in some cases, Muslims may have been targeted because of their religious practice, considered ‘radical’, by the authorities, without justifying why they posed a threat to public order or security”.

Then in 2021, the government passed a law targeting what Macron called “separatism” from Muslim radicals, extending state control over religious associations and sites. The government’s own watchdog has argued that the scope of the law is too broad.

Abdourahmane Ridouane witnessed it. In February, he was visited by two police officers who gave him a notice of closure of the mosque he manages in the town of Pessac, in the south-west of the Bordeaux wine region. Authorities have argued that his mosque’s criticism of “state Islamophobia” encourages and justifies what they call Muslim rebellion and terrorism, and criticized political and anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian messaging on their social media page.

“I felt deeply saddened by a process that I deemed unworthy of a democratic state,” Ridouane told the AP. He challenged the state’s decision 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 on Thursday.

France has also seen the rise of criticism of “Islamo-leftism” and “wokeism” reminiscent of attacks on critical race theory in the United States. The Macron government commissioned a study on 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. Critics say the doctrine allows authorities to turn a blind eye to deep-rooted discrimination, both in mainland France and in overseas French territories where most voters are non-white.

“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 Race and Gender Focused University.

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.” .

Despite concerns over the measures under Macron, the director of the Pessac mosque is not shy about who he will vote for in the second round.

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


Elaine Ganley contributed to this report.


Follow AP’s coverage of the French elections at https://apnews.com/hub/french-election-2022

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