Muslims living in France are disturbed about the fact that Islam has emerged as one of the key battlegrounds in the country’s presidential election campaign, amid bursts of anti-Muslim sentiment.
Far-right candidates Marine Le Pen of the National Rally (RN) and especially the former pundit Eric Zemmour have railed against Islam in frequent diatribes invoking security and terrorism risks.
Their messages are sometimes echoed by officials on the conservative right and allies of centrist President Emmanuel Macron, with their “warnings” against Muslims.
Such a fierce campaign debate about Islam would be less conceivable in neighbors like Britain and Germany, which also both have large Muslim minorities.
France, however, still lives in the shadow of the trauma of Algeria’s War of Independence and, more recently, the Daesh terrorist attacks of 2015.
Zemmour, who is contending with Le Pen and the traditional rightwing candidate Valerie Pecresse to reach a second-round run-off against Macron, caused a fresh outcry Monday by describing the town of Roubaix in northern France as “Afghanistan two hours from Paris.”
He told France Inter Radio: “French people who are Muslims must live in the French way and not consider that sharia law is superior to the laws of the republic.”
His comments added to a febrile atmosphere that meant that a journalist had to be given police protection after a televised report about the rise of Islam in Roubaix.
The official division of church and state in France in 1905 left secularism as one of the cornerstones of the modern republic’s identity.
Macron’s government in 2021 also brought in a new law to defend France against what the president has described as “Islamist separatism.”
The end of colonial rule prompted large migration flows into France in the 1950s and 1960s, but the economic crisis that hit in the 1970s saw many of the newcomers stuck without work in housing developments soon abandoned by the middle class.
While Britain and Germany also grappled with large postwar migrant arrivals, no other European colonial power fought a war whose ferocity, duration and consequences can compare with the Algerian War of Independence.
“The migration issue is particularly present in France because it awakens the difficult memory of the Algerian war,” political scientist Pascal Perrineau told Agence France-Presse (AFP).
This “left deep scars in the collective consciousness,” he said.
But while the debate on Islam has been ever-present in France – which in 2011 banned full veil face coverings for women – many Muslims who make up almost 9% of the country’s mainland population are shocked by current levels of rhetoric.
“Sometimes I tell myself that no one can understand quite how violent this is,” said Fatma Bouvet de la Maisonneuve, a psychiatrist of Tunisian origin and author of the book “An Arab Woman in France.”
Acknowledging that people can be tempted to turn in upon themselves, she said: “Frankly, sometimes we just want to meet among Arabs to tell each other how bad things are,” she said.
‘Chasing public opinion’
Marine Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie Le Pen, who made it to the second round in the 2002 presidential vote, has shocked much of France with repeated broadsides against Islam and immigrants.
French Muslims fear that such rhetoric has now been normalized and increasingly supported by widespread news reports and the saturation of social media.
“I feel bad, very bad,” said Khadija, 38, a social worker in the Loiret region in central France, who asked that her second name be withheld.
“I have the impression that today’s France spits on my grandparents, who fought to liberate it, on my parents who came to build its roads, and on me, who has respected all the rules of democracy and integration.
“A few days ago, my five-year-old daughter told me that she did not like being Arab,” she said, complaining of “living under permanent suspicion, no longer knowing what’s behind the baker’s smile, or what people really think.”
For Kamel, who works for a charity association, the attacks on the night of Nov. 13, 2015, changed everything. Daesh terrorists massacred 130 people in and around Paris at locations including restaurants and the Bataclan music venue.
“I parted ways with many of my friends who were beginning to link Muslims with terrorism,” he said.
For the prominent sociologist Ahmed Boubaker, “a dam has broken” and now “there is a total lack of inhibition” on the part of political figures accusing Muslims of failing to integrate.
“However, I am not convinced that French society is as racist as we say it is,” he said.
“It is the politicians who are chasing after the pseudo-racism of public opinion, without realizing that in fact, they are manufacturing it.”
The Daily Sabah Newsletter
Keep up to date with what’s happening in Turkey,
it’s region and the world.