The Muslim ‘Issue’ in the French Campaign
Two blocks up from my apartment is St. Pierre du Gros Caillou, a Catholic Church whose first stones were laid in 1733. This being Good Friday, this morning on my way to buy the papers I saw two policemen armed with assault rifles take up positions inside. I don’t know if they will be reinforced later for Easter services, or if two will suffice, or how many French churches now have that kind of protection.
France is having an odd presidential campaign. If you take note of the major books written, the sharpest intellectual debates, and the most loaded private conversations, you might conclude that the identitarian issues facing France somehow predominate. But instead, in this otherwise quite interesting presidential campaign, one has the feeling that no one wants to address them. It’s as if every wants to pretend France is basically fine, and argue about the economy, or Fillon’s corruption or Macron’s ties to the unpopular François Hollande.
Of course few candidates are making much of an overt appeal for the Muslim vote: some saw Macron’s depiction last month of the colonization of Algeria as a “crime against humanity” as a subtle bid in that direction, and the socialist whose campaign is failing, Benoît Hamon, has been campaigning in the Paris suburbs. (Asking a marketplace crowd why they thought Marine Le Pen was so naughty—méchant—Hamon quickly recoiled when someone his audience replied, “Because she’s Christian.” No, no, no, that’s not the reason, he quickly interrupted, cameras rolling.
In any case it is only Marine Le Pen who tries to press the issue. She called today for the banning of a weekend meeting of national Muslim organization, the Union des Organizations Islamique de a France; she asserts that it has over the years invited many extremist speakers and fount of hate speech against women, Jews, and homosexuals. That is probably true, but somehow banning a meeting, or type of speech, doesn’t seem a very satisfactory solution in a democratic country. And it’s a large organization. This weekend, at an exhibition hall outside Paris, 150,000 people are expected to spend some time at the UOIF’s annual gathering.
The larger issue is that the people represented by the group, a substantial minority of French Muslims, have a considerably different way of viewing the world than Marine Le Pen or any other French politician, and banning their meeting will hardly change that.
Another problem for Le Pen is that when she is invited on TV, no one wants to talk about such proposals, whatever their merit. TV journalists are more inclined to press her on her various legal difficulties. (Whether she arranged for some National Front party workers to be paid by the European Parliament has been subject to a long and continuing investigation.)
In any case, Le Figaro today published its investigation of the state of the Muslim vote in the campaign. It is still quite small, a million perhaps, but growing. Of course all the candidates have at least put forth some ideas of how to deal with radicalization: Muslim imams should be trained in French universities, so that they absorb “the values of the Republic” (Macron); Muslims who go abroad to fight should be stripped of their nationality (Fillon); support the values of laïcité, protect the girl who wears shorts as well as the one who wears the headscarf (Hamon); the left-most candidate Mélenchon warns against the “instrumentalisation” of laïcité against Islam, which I suppose is is a nice way of saying he doesn’t plan to do anything. Le Pen, of course, has a long list of ideas, ranging from the aforementioned dissolution of the UOIF, to banning the wearing of ostensible religious signs or garments, shutting down Salafist mosques, the requirement that sermons be preached in French and the creation of a special surveillance agency to keep track of radical prisoners. To see these ideas written out makes me suspect no satisfactory political solution is going to be reached any time soon.
In its survey, Le Figaro makes the point that the Left can’t be assured of picking up the Muslim vote, that 86 percent of Muslims voted for President Hollande last election and yet feel “disappointed by the Hollande years.” But it’s fair to say the disappointment goes both ways, and the fact that heavily armed policeman are needed to guard religious services on Good Friday is an expression of what the politicians understand but don’t want to talk about.