Fear and loathing in France

Fear and loathing in France

Labour Briefing, November 2012

Richard Price reports on a rising tide of Islamophobia in France: stoked by mainstream politicians and translated into discrimination and violence in everyday life

THE 6.4 million votes cast for Marine Le Pen in the French presidential election in April, and the efforts of Nicolas Sarkozy to outbid her, showed that Islamophobia has become mainstream in French politics. As the French economy continues to bump along the bottom, France’s five million Muslims are being systematically targeted as scapegoats.

Scarcely a week passes without a leading politician addressing the “problem” of France’s Muslims, whether it’s the veil, halal meat, the failure to integrate or the construction of mosques. On 27th September, Interior Minister Manuel Valls used the inauguration of a mosque to lecture those present on the dangers of Islamism, warning that those who challenged the Republic’s principles would be expelled from France. This followed the publication of cartoons mocking the Prophet Mohammed in Charlie Hebdo magazine and the banning of Muslim protest marches.

Jean-François Copé, General Secretary of the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), is a candidate in the race to succeed Sarkozy as president of the party. In early October, he launched an attack on “Muslim thugs” who he claimed were enforcing the Ramadan fast: “I can understand the exasperation of some of our compatriots when there are some neighbourhoods where a mother or father will come home from work in the evening to learn their son has had his pain au chocolat snatched out of his hand by thugs, telling him it is forbidden to eat during Ramadan.”

While the political class is creating the intellectual climate, far right extremists are translating it into attacks on mosques, cemeteries and halal butchers. The effects on public opinion are striking. On 25th October (just before the Eid festival), right-wing dailyLe Figaro published the results of an opinion poll suggesting that:

  • 43% believe that Islam is a threat to national identity;
  • only 17% believe Islam enriches France’s culture;
  • 43% are opposed to the construction of mosques;
  • 63% are opposed to the wearing of the veil or headscarf in public;
  • of the two thirds who think that French Muslims are not well integrated into French society, 68% blame this on Muslims’ “refusal to integrate”.

This growing fear of the Muslim “other” comes at a time when racist provocations against Muslims are almost a daily occurrence.

During August, two pigs’ heads were hung on the pillars outside a mosque in Montauban; the rector of the Great Mosque in Lyon received a letter containing death threats; and a prayer room rented by the Moroccan community in Barp in south-west France was defaced with racist graffiti and swastikas.

In September a halal butchers in Chalon-sur-Saône in eastern France was daubed with racist graffiti; a mosque in Limoges (which had been daubed with neo-Nazi graffiti in July) was smeared with excrement; racist and Islamophobic graffiti was sprayed on two mosques at Epône in north-central France; a swastika and Celtic cross were sprayed on the entrance to a mosque at Agen, in south-western France; there was an arson attack on a mosque at Condé-sur-l’Escaut in northern France; a mosque at Vandoeuvre in north-eastern France was daubed with graffiti that appeared to be ultra-Zionist in origin; far-right stickers were stuck on the walls of a mosque in the Toulouse suburb Muret.

During October a halal butchers shop was sprayed with Nazi graffiti in Saint-Germain-en-Laye in north-central France, where the council last year blocked plans to build an Islamic cultural centre; in Marseille planning permission for a mosque was withdrawn after a campaign by the Front National; a halal butchers in the Les Minimes area of Toulouse was gutted by an arson attack; the home of an Algerian family at Pont-du-Chateau in the Auvergne was covered in Nazi graffiti.

The spate of attacks on mosques climaxed on 20th October when about 70 members of a far right youth group, Generation Identity, stormed a newly built mosque in Poitiers. They climbed on to the roof and unfurled a banner with the words “732 Generation Identity” – a reference to the Battle of Tours in 732, when Charles Martel halted the advance of an invading Moorish army.

Yet in spite of such sustained racism, leading politicians insist that the main danger to French society comes from Islamist terrorism, and President François Hollande has promised new anti-terror laws. In the present climate and faced with very high levels of unemployment, it would be surprising if at least some alienated Muslim youth didn’t turn to Islamist groups. Events such as Mohamed Merah’s shooting of four people in Toulouse and Montauban in March and a grenade attack on a Jewish kosher supermarket in the Paris suburb of Sarcelles in September have thankfully remained isolated.

The vast majority of French Muslims remain committed to legal forms of struggle. Following the events in Poitiers, the Union of Muslims in France called on the Government to intervene: “We want the authorities to take action to deal with this increasing climate of Islamophobia. This form of xenophobia threatens the very values of the French republic.” Analysis of Muslim voters has shown that they voted overwhelmingly for the left in the presidential election. In the first round 59% voted for François Hollande and 23% voted for the Left Front’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon, while in the second round 93% voted for Hollande.