Islamophobia rises in France as presidential election nears

Muslims have increasingly been portrayed as a threat to French society under Emmanuel Macron’s presidency, analysts say.

The question of Islam has long been a thorn in the French establishment’s side. With France on the cusp of presidential elections, far-right views have permeated mainstream public discourse on the Muslim community, immigration, and security.

For Anasse Kazib, the country’s series of measures and laws in recent decades have sought to curtail the Muslim way of life under the guise of fighting “terrorism” and “Islamism”.

The 35-year-old Marxist railway worker and son of Moroccan immigrants ran as a far-left candidate for the first round of French presidential elections on April 10. But he fell short of gathering the required 500 sponsorships from elected officials to appear on the ballot, and said the reaction to his candidacy by the establishment was based on fear and hostility.

“When I was running for the election, the traces of Islamophobia and reactionary politics were there,” he said. “There were posters of my face in Paris, with the words ‘0% French, 100% Islamist’ written on it. When you’re a political activist you don’t have the right to be Muslim, or even Arab.”

In contrast to the other candidates, Kazib was not given airtime by the mainstream media to campaign, which he said was evidence that his political message was disturbing the system.

“I think they got scared of us, of what we represent, of the radical ideas we carry – and prevented my candidacy from existing,” he said. Kazib said he was running on behalf of the youth, working-class areas, and people who do not feel represented in this election.

“It goes beyond the airtime issue; they denied our existence,” he continued. “When your name is something like ‘Anasse Kazib’, it’s even worse. There are Islamophobic and xenophobic bias at stake.”

While he is proud to be a descendant of immigrants, and to be a worker and hail from a working-class area, he did not mince his words when asked where Muslims fit in French society.

“The French identity does not include the Muslim community,” he said. “They never respected us as French people. They want to decide how French we are.”

Stigmatisation of Muslim community

According to Julien Talpin, a researcher in political science at the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), President Emmanuel Macron’s first term has been “gloomy” for French Muslims – with the adoption of the separatism law in the summer of 2021 particularly significant.

While the government claims its legislation is intended to strengthen France’s secular system, critics say it unfairly singles out the Muslim community and restricts religious freedom.

“We saw clearly in the National Assembly debate that the target is the Muslim community,” he said. “There is this idea that there is a massive issue of separatism and communitarianism in the community, which France should fight with laws.”

The law was first introduced in the aftermath of the gruesome murder of Samuel Paty, a teacher who was beheaded by an 18-year-old Russian Muslim refugee after he showed his students Charlie Hebdo cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

The consequences for the Muslim community have been particularly injurious, Talpin said. In addition to dozens of mosques being forced to close, the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) organisation was shut down, and several Muslim charities were disbanded.

“There’s a clear discrepancy in the rhetoric we hear after every major attack in France – this necessity for Islam to organise, to unite behind one voice,” he explained.

This attempt to create an “Islam in France” – a version of Islam that would fit in the French identity – is nothing new.

“At the same time, when Muslims are trying to organise collectively and without following in the steps of the government, it’s seen as suspicious,” he said. “It’s one of the biggest consequences of Macron’s term – this rise of the stigmatisation of Islam and its community in France.”

‘Brain drain’

France has an estimated 5.7 million French Muslims, the largest Muslim population in western Europe.

But according to academic researchers, the discrimination, racial violence, and reactionary politics against the community have prompted many of them – particularly those who are highly educated – to emigrate from France in order to seek better job opportunities and more freedom.

Olivier Esteves, a professor of British Studies at the University of Lille and a researcher who has conducted interviews with 148 French Muslims living abroad, said the resultant “brain drain” is something that is “typically French”.

“Of course, Islamophobia affects the majority of western democracies, but it’s a question of scope, of how strong hostility against Muslims is,” he said. “In France, it goes way beyond other countries.”

According to the research, the top destinations for these emigrants are the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates, Canada, Morocco and Algeria.

In the broader survey that included 1,074 respondents, at least 69 percent of those interviewed said discrimination and racism were factors in them leaving France, 63 percent said they left to live their religion more peacefully, and 40.5 percent cited work reasons.

When asked whether they would return to France, only 4.56 percent answered in the affirmative, and 44.7 percent said they will never come back.

Esteves said that people who wear visible signs of religious belonging, such as a beard or hijab (headscarf), often find it impossible to access the job market in France.

“You have very educated people with degrees who feel that their only option if they were to remain in France is to work in a halal supermarket,” he said. “If their Muslimness is not so visible they may be working for a major company but often feel that their career is being slowed down by their perceived religious identity.”

Identity conundrum

Another crucial aspect that alienates French Muslims is laicite, or secularism – a core French principle that is becoming increasingly associated with French identity, according to Esteves.

“This is typically coded language,” Esteves said. “It’s dog-whistle politics to talk about Muslims without sounding Islamophobic.”

French identity should be separated from laicite, he continued.

“It’s urgent one should dissociate French secularism, a legal principle, from this sort of tribal, Gallic, subjective love of the country,” he said.

For Talpin, the issue of French identity seems to be polarised by those on the right and far right who see being French as tied to Christian identity, the history of the country, and accepting the values of the Republic.

“Others will defend and accept the melting pot France has become,” he said.

But for Kazib, a multicultural society does not mean acceptance.

“The far-right define us as French only on paper,” he said. “The right-wing say that banlieues [suburbs] and quartiers populaires [low-income neighbourhoods] are no-go zones, and the left say that these areas are forgotten by the Republic.

“No matter what, there’s a form of constant subordination towards descendants of immigrants – not only Muslims – in France.”