The French left and Islam

My article from the current issue of Labour Briefing.

Liberty, Equality and Islamophobia

By Bob Pitt

Labour Briefing, December 2012-January 2013

On 10 November hundreds of self-styled patriots took to the streets of Paris to denounce “Islamist fascism”. Chanting that the mainstream Muslim federation, the Union des organisations islamiques de France, are fascists who should be treated as garbage, they brandished placards with slogans such as “Islam out of the Louvre” (a new exhibition of Islamic art had just opened at the Louvre Museum) and “No to the Islamisation of Alsace-Lorraine”.

The march attracted support from a range of far-right groups. However, in contrast to similar protests organised by the English Defence League (EDL) in the UK, the outfit behind this demonstration, Résistance Républicaine, claims that most of its founding members have their roots in the French left. Its leader, Christine Tasin, was once a member of Jean-Pierre Chevènement’s Mouvement républicain et citoyen, a left-wing split from the Socialist Party.

Résistance Républicaine is an initiative of Riposte Laïque, a fiercely Islamophobic website whose founder, Pierre Cassen, was convicted by a Paris court in March this year of inciting hatred against Muslims. Hailed as a hero of free speech by the extreme right, he was a platform speaker at a “counter-jihad” conference at the European Parliament in July, along with EDL leader Stephen Lennon. Cassen is a former member of the Ligue communiste révolutionnaire, a Trotskyist organisation that is now part of the Nouveau Parti anticapitaliste (NPA).

Résistance Républicaine gained a notable recruit a couple of years ago in the person of Fabien Engelmann, a trade unionist with a long record of political activism, first in the far-left group Lutte Ouvrière and then in the NPA. Engelmann broke from the NPA in disgust at its decision to stand a hijab-wearing candidate, Ilham Moussaïd, in the 2010 regional elections. He went on to join Marine Le Pen’s Front National, expressing admiration for its stand against Muslims and migrants, and is now a member of its political bureau while also remaining a supporter of Résistance Républicaine.

Engelmann was not the only NPA member to condemn Ilham Moussaïd’s candidacy. The party was split down the middle over the issue, with a substantial section arguing that standing a Muslim woman in a headscarf for public office was an attack on secular and feminist principles. Some even accused Moussaïd of seeking to Islamise the party.

As a result she and her supporters resigned from the NPA, stating that they could not remain in an organisation to which many of their so-called comrades clearly believed they had no right to belong. The 2011 NPA conference subsequently rejected a motion calling for the prohibition of any further candidates wearing headscarves by a majority of just two votes.

The French left generally has a problem with “le voile” (a term that includes both the headscarf and face veil). Nicolas Sarkozy took credit for pushing through the “burqa ban” that came into force last year, and it was undoubtedly the political right, not least Marine Le Pen, who gained from this manufactured controversy over the issue of veiled Muslim women. However, the initiator of the legislation was a Communist Party politician, André Gerin, who claimed to be acting in the name of secular values and gender equality. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the Front de gauche candidate in this year’s presidential election, also backed the ban.

Underpinning the left’s attitude to Islam is their support for a distinctively French interpretation of secularism (laïcité) that requires not merely the separation of church and state but the effective exclusion of religion from the public sphere. However, this secularist culture hasn’t prevented systematic official discrimination in favour of the Catholic faith of the white majority.

In 2005 the same French government that had just banned the hijab from state schools, on the grounds that it was necessary to uphold neutrality in matters of religion, ordered all public buildings to fly their flags at half mast following the death of the Pope. Sarkozy engaged in the same double talk, justifying the veil ban as a defence of the nation’s secular traditions while at the same time giving speeches about the “Christian heritage of France”.

Their disorientation over the issue of Islam has disarmed much of the French left in the face of the current wave of hatred directed against their country’s Muslim population (see Richard Price’s article in the November Labour Briefing). It is difficult for socialists to attack the racist right for whipping up this poisonous atmosphere of anti-Muslim bigotry when the left has made its own significant contribution to the rise of Islamophobia in France.

Speaking at a meeting in London earlier this year, Marwan Mohamed of the Collectif contre l’Islamophobie en France observed that things are much better here in the UK, where the left established a close relationship with Muslim communities during a common struggle against the Iraq war. Yet there are hardline secularists in Britain too, some of them active in the labour movement, whose claim to oppose all forms of religious belief doesn’t prevent them from aligning themselves with the right in portraying Islam as a particular threat to civilisation.

The French experience should stand as a warning of the disastrous consequences that follow when the left adapts to the prevailing mood of Islamophobia.