Tensions over race and religion in France’s presidential race
From attacks on “wokeism” to crackdowns on mosques, France’s presidential campaign has been especially challenging for voters of immigrant heritage and religious minorities, as discourse painting them as “the other” has gained ground across a swathe of French society.
French voters head to the polls on Sunday in a run-off vote between centrist incumbent Emmanuel Macron and nationalist rival Marine Le Pen, wrapping up a campaign that experts have seen as unusually dominated by discriminatory discourse and proposals targeting immigration and Islam.
With Ms Le Pen proposing to ban women from wearing Muslim headscarves in public, women like 19-year-old student Naila Ouazarf are in a bind.
“I want a president who accepts me as a person,” said Ms Ouazarf, clad in a beige robe and matching head covering.
She said she would defy the promised law should Ms Le Pen become president, and pay the eventual fine.
Mr Macron attacked Ms Le Pen on the headscarf issue in their presidential debate on Wednesday, warning it could stoke “civil war”.
But polls put Ms Le Pen closer to Mr Macron than she was in their last run-off five years ago.
And in the first round, far-right candidates Ms Le Pen and Eric Zemmour together collected nearly a third of votes.
France has no hard data on voters’ race or religion because of its doctrine of colourblindness, which sees all citizens as universally French and encourages assimilation.
Ms Le Pen’s National Rally party, formerly called the National Front, has a history of ties with neo-Nazis, Holocaust deniers and militias who opposed Algeria’s war for independence from colonial France.
She has distanced herself from that past and softened her public image, but a top priority of her programme is to prioritise French citizens over immigrants for welfare benefits, which critics see as institutionalising discrimination.
Ms Le Pen also hopes to ban Muslim women from wearing a headscarf in public, toughen asylum rules and sharply curtail immigration.
She has gained ground among voters since 2017, when she lost badly to Mr Macron.
This time around, Ms Le Pen has put a greater emphasis on policies to help the working poor.
Ms Le Pen can also thank the rabble-rousing Mr Zemmour, who came in fourth in the first-round vote, for boosting her popularity by making her seem softer.
Mr 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 committed massacres in New Zealand’s Christchurch, in El Paso, Texas, and on a California synagogue.
“Eric Zemmour’s presence placed the issue (of Islam and immigration) on the side of aggressive and violent stigmatisation,” Cecile Alduy, a Stanford semiologist who has studied Mr Zemmour’s language, told the Associated Press (AP).
“Meanwhile, there is a decline in humanist values: words such as equality, human rights, fight against discrimination, or gender are qualified as politically correct or ‘wokeism’ by a large swathe of media, public intellectuals, and ministers of the current government.”
For some experts and anti-racist groups in France, Mr Macron too is at fault for the current climate, as his administration has adopted legislation and language that echoes some far-right mottos, in the hopes of eating into Ms Le Pen’s support.
Racial profiling and police violence targeting people of colour, which activists in France have long decried, have also remained a concern under Mr Macron’s presidency, which saw repeated protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death in the US over France’s own cases of police violence.
Also under Mr Macron’s watch, France passed a law against terrorism enshrining the state of emergency started after the 2015 attacks on the Bataclan theatre, Paris cafes and Charlie Hebdo newspaper into common law.
This extended the government’s right to search people and conduct surveillance, control movement and shut down some schools and religious sites in the name of the fight against extremism.
Human rights watchdogs warned the law was discriminatory.
Amnesty International wrote “in some cases Muslims may have been targeted because of their religious practice, considered to be ‘radical,’ by authorities, without substantiating why they constituted a threat for public order or security”.
Then in 2021, the government passed a law targeting what Mr Macron labelled “separatism” by Muslim radicals, extending the state’s oversight over associations and religious sites.
The government’s own watchdog argued that the law’s scope is too broad.
Abdourahmane Ridouane has seen this first hand.
In February, he was visited by two police officers who handed him a notice of closure for the mosque he manages in the south-western town of Pessac in Bordeaux wine country.
Authorities argued that his mosque’s criticism of “state Islamophobia” encourages and justifies what they called Muslim rebellion and terrorism, and criticised political and anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian posts on their social media page.
“I felt deeply saddened by a process I deemed unworthy of a democratic state,” Mr Ridouane told the AP.
He challenged the state’s decision and won on appeal.
The appeals court found the closure was a “grave and manifest illegal infringement on religious liberty”.
The state took the case to France’s highest court, expected to rule on Thursday in the case.
France has also seen the rise of criticism of “Islamo-leftism” and “wokeism” reminiscent of attacks on critical race theory in the US.
Mr Macron’s government has commissioned a study into its presence in French universities.
Yet race or colonial studies research departments do not exist in French universities, because they are seen as contrary to French universalism.
Critics say this doctrine allows authorities to turn a blind eye to deep-seated discrimination, both on the French mainland and in overseas French territories where most voters are not white.
“The election comes in this climate, the increasing right-wing and conservative discourse, a retreat into a white, universalist, colourblind discourse blind to all discriminations and systemic racism in French society,” said Nacira Guenif, an anthropology and sociology professor at Paris VIII University focusing on race and gender.
On the left, meanwhile, “denial prevails”, Prof Guenif said, because many left-wing French voters are “profoundly uncomfortable with the question of race because they think that talking about race makes you racist”.
Despite concerns over measures under Mr Macron, the Pessac mosque director is not hesitant as to whom he will vote for in the second round.
“If Le Pen manages to take the levers of power, it will be the worst thing we will have ever seen,” Mr Ridouane said.
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