Macron struggles to mobilise France’s Muslim voters after five years attacking them
French Muslims say picking between the sitting president and Marine Le Pen is ‘like choosing between plague and cholera’
Two years ago, Chehneze and her family packed up their home in Rueil-Malmaison, a western suburb of Paris, and moved to Birmingham.
“I felt like I needed a break from France,” the primary school teacher tells openDemocracy.
On one occasion, she says, “I was walking in the street, an old man was like: ‘You should go back to your country.’ I was born and raised in Paris. Even my parents were born in Paris.”
Another time, “there was a woman who did the Christian prayer because she was scared of me.”
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But it wasn’t only racism from ordinary people that pushed her out: it was the messages from the very top.
“You don’t feel welcome in your own country,” she says.
Because she wears a hijab, “I could not work with mainstream schools, I couldn’t work in private schools, some companies wouldn’t take you – you have to work harder to show that, ‘even though’ you’re Muslim, you would do the work.
“They want us to work with society, but they want us to erase that we’re Muslims.
“A hijab doesn’t change the teacher that I am.”
Eventually, a moral panic about Muslim mums wearing headscarves while accompanying children on school trips tipped the balance. Chehneze took an opportunity to move to the UK in 2020 and now lives in Birmingham.
In October 2020, shortly after she left, President Emmanuel Macron gave a speech asking “What today, in our society, endangers our Republic?” His answer: “Islamist separatism.”
Macron added: “Elected officials, sometimes in the face of pressure from groups or communities… may consider imposing menus that accommodate religious restrictions in cafeterias… Other elected officials exclude… men or women during certain times at swimming pools.”
Denouncing these examples as a “republican failure”, he promised new “anti-separatism” laws to crack down on public institutions that provide halal or kosher food, have single-sex swim sessions, or offer other measures to accommodate Muslim citizens.
Chehneze felt betrayed. “Before he was elected,” she said, “he was saying the burkini [modest swimwear worn by some Muslim women] is not a problem, Muslims are not a problem.
“Then he turned against us.”
In the 2017 election, she voted for Macron against the far-Right candidate Marine Le Pen in the second round. This time, Le Pen has promised to ban headscarves altogether, imposing fines on people wearing them, and to introduce a new law banning “Islamist ideologies”.
But Chehneze, who travelled back to Paris for the first round of the poll on Sunday, is so furious with Macron’s betrayal that she’s not sure if she’ll bother to vote for him this time ~ even up against Le Pen. “It’s like choosing between the plague and cholera,” she said.
Fatiha Bouchelaghem is an engineering lecturer living in Paris’s 20th arrondissement. “Macron is one of the people responsible for the way that the conversation about Islam has taken a really wrong turn in this country,” she said. “He whipped up Islamophobia a lot. He’s talking all the time about Isamist separatism. When you listen to him, he’s not talking about terrorism or extremism – he’s talking about all Muslims.”
For Yasser Louati, the head of the Paris NGO Committee for Justice and Liberty for All, Macron was elected to be the “anti-Le Pen”. But instead, “he spent five years fuelling Islamophobia and passing [Islamophobic] laws.”
Now, he says, the second round of the election – Macron versus Le Pen – amounts to a choice “between the far Right and fascism”. “Macron has been leading a far-Right agenda since he got into power,” he told openDemocracy. “But if Le Pen gets into power, things will get even worse.”
Mélenchon the ‘Islamo-Gauchiste’
Both Chehneze and Fatiha – and, it seems, most French Muslims – voted for the radical Left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round of the presidential election. “If he had been elected, there [would have been] fewer laws against Muslims,” said Chehneze. “On social media, everyone was saying ‘please go to vote – if we want to live as free Muslims, vote Mélenchon’.”
Areas with large Muslim populations saw big votes for the democratic socialist – Mélenchon won the Île-Saint-Denis area of Paris with 62%, where Macron came second with 14%. Some 51.5% backed Mélenchon in Marseille’s 15th arrondissement, which also has a large Muslim population, while one poll showed 69% of Muslim voters planned to back the Leftist, compared to just 14% who supported Macron.
No one knows for sure how many Muslims there are in France – a law from the 19th century bans the state from including questions about race and religion in the census. But it is clear that there are more than in any other Western country, with some surveys putting the figure at nearly 6 million people, approaching 10% of the population.
In theory, this should be a powerful voting bloc. But the French Left seems only recently to have realised: “When it comes to Muslims, the Left still has a problem with the Muslim community. Leftists don’t include Muslims in in their parties. They are either people to save from fascists, or to save from themselves,” says Louati.
“Mélenchon has pushed Islamophobia in the past, but shifted at the last minute.”
But a long-term mobilisation of the Muslim vote will need more than a shift in rhetoric. “There is disaffection,” said Louati. “What we lack in France is a more dense grassroots network.”
Any attempt to organise Muslim communities is made even harder by Macron’s authoritarian crackdown on Muslim civil society. In 2020, his interior minister Gérald Darmanin closed a number of Muslim community groups, including the Collective Against Islamophobia, which the NGO Human Rights Watch said “played a key role in providing legal support to people facing anti-Muslim discrimination and documenting the discriminatory impact on Muslims of France’s counterterrorism measures”.
Under the president’s new ‘anti-separatism’ laws, the state has sweeping powers to shut down Muslim organisations. Louati and his NGO are currently facing three lawsuits. “We’re bracing for the worst – any organisation can be shut down,” he said.
“This is classic colonial policy – they did the same in Algeria,” argues Louati. The French administration in Algeria in the 19th and 20th centuries had been happy to let people be Muslim at home, or to go on the Haj pilgrimage, so long as Christians were left in charge of running everything else.
Even running Muslim organisations “who mainly defend the rights of Muslims” is now stopped by the state, says Bouchelaghem. “I don’t know if we have the right to politically organise in this country. We don’t have the right to exist as a political entity. I’m not talking about applying Muslim law – I’m just talking about an organisation to defend our rights.”
When the left-winger Mélenchon joined a demonstration against this wave of Islamophobia, including a fascist terrorist attack on a mosque in south-west France, he was denounced as an “Islamo-Gauchiste” – “Islamo-Leftist”.
Macron’s education minister Jean-Michele Blanquer argued in 2020 that “there is a fight to be waged” against the “intersectional thesis… coming from American universities”. The nationalist group School and Nation, which has backed far-Right candidate Éric Zemmour, announced that Blanquer’s words had been taken from its own brochures “word for word”.
In February 2021, the higher education minister Frédérique Vidal took this fight into universities, announcing an “inquiry” into so-called “Islamo-Leftist bias” in academia.
In a TV debate at the start of the election campaign, Macron’s man Darmanin attacked Le Pen for not being hardline enough against Muslims. “Ms Le Pen has gone a bit soft,” he said. “You need to take some vitamins. You're not tough enough here… If I understand you right, you're prepared to not even legislate on religion, and you say that Islam is not even a problem.”
Louati says Macron’s intention is clear: “He wants to kill the capacity [of Muslims] to be citizens.
“He makes it impossible to be modern believers – if they ever want to get political, get involved, or even express their political opinions, the government has the means to crack down on them.”
On top of all this, the election has been animated by escalations of police violence against Black and Muslim communities.
On 26 March, police in the St Denis area shot and killed a 33-year-old Black father of two called Jean-Paul Benjamin, who had been accused of stealing a van. It later transpired he’d kept the van because his employer, an Amazon subcontractor, had failed to pay him. Anger at the killing, and at media reports depicting the dead man as a thief, was met with riot squads and arrests, leaving many feeling little enthusiasm for Macron’s regime.
In Bouchelaghem’s area of Paris, there are a lot of people of north African descent, she says. At her son’s college, “teachers ask questions – you feel like you’re under constant surveillance. We have the feeling that we are being observed, that people don’t trust us. They think people are hiding something inside our homes.”
The situation was bad enough under previous presidents Sarkozy and Hollande, she says, but escalated after the attacks at the Paris Bataclan and the Charlie Hebdo murders in 2015.
“It’s not only Macron,” she told openDemocracy. “All the political class acted like all Muslims are responsible for this. Even in the party of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, you’ve got a lot of people who don’t like Muslims.”
During his campaign, Macron has continued to attack Muslims. In a leaflet delivered to every French citizen, he conflated Islam and crime, promising to “strengthen daily security and fight against Islamism – complete the doubling of the presence of law enforcement on public streets and recruit 8,500 additional magistrates”. He also promised to “defend our national and European borders with a new border force”.
But Bouchelaghem believes Le Pen is still worse. “I know where Le Pen comes from,” she said. “They are really dangerous.”
Le Pen, Algeria and France’s empire-fascism
France invaded Algeria in 1830. Over the following three decades, its troops murdered around a third of the population – about a million people. Historians have also documented mass rape and torture by French troops.
The general who led this campaign, Thomas Robert Bugeaud, went on to be governor general of Algeria. He is still commemorated as a hero in France, with a statue on the façade of the Louvre. Another major war criminal from Algeria has nursery schools named after him in Paris and Nântes.
For the next century, Algeria was officially a department of France but governed with a system “like apartheid,” says Bouchelaghem. “Both my parents are Algerians – they were young during the Algerian war [of independence, 1954–1962]. But they also knew colonial rule. I know from my family what happened.”
But white French citizens just don’t know this history, she says. “I was talking to people at work, and people just don’t know the famous figures. The people here in France, they don’t want to face the truth about what happened in the former colonies. A lot of people are not really aware of what happened.
“You still have schools and statues here in Paris named after key colonists in Algeria and the rest of Africa. They think we are just exaggerating [the crimes of colonialism] to make them feel guilty. The French think they have to be proud about their past – they think it’s just the people who were colonised who are unable to accept the ‘goods of civilisation’.
“At school, we didn’t talk about the colonisation of Algeria, just the war of independence.”
Officially, colonised Algeria was just another part of France, meaning that Algerians, although they were not French citizens (they were ‘subjects’), could migrate to Metropolitan France. As early as 1924, 100,000 had done so.
Jim House, a migration expert at the University of Leeds, said: “After 1919, economic lobbies in Algeria feared losing their colonial workforce to mainland French employers, and supported hostile press campaigns in mainland France that denounced the supposed criminality and sexual aggressiveness of Algerian men – stereotypes that largely remain.”
The far-Right National Front, now Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, was founded in 1972. Much of its inner circle was made up of servicemen returning from the Algerian war, while the dismay of returned colonists and other right-wingers over the decision by then president Charles de Gaulle to accept Algerian independence were key factors in its support. Jean-Marie Le Pen, its initial leader and Marine’s father, was a paratrooper in the Algerian war, where he is accused of torture.
“I think Algeria causes a lot of division in France,” says Chehneze.
“My grandparents on one side come from Algeria. They were the first generation – they were cleaners and workers. But now people are part of the society. They show themselves. People don’t like that. They don’t mind you being a cleaner, but when you want to get a better job, you will have problems.”
For Macron to defeat Le Pen next week, he needs to enthuse Mélenchon’s supporters to vote for him. But many of those people are the very Muslims he’s spent the last few years vilifying, so it’s no wonder polls show many won’t bother. If France falls to the far Right, Macron will only have himself – and his flirtations with racism – to blame.
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