France is paying the price for normalizing Islamophobia

Can Marine Le Pen win France's election?
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Story highlights

  • Mondon: Islam has become the perfect scapegoat for candidates who question its culture's incompatibility with "our" ways
  • With less than six months before the election, no mainstream candidate seems willing to denounce Islamophobia

Auréien Mondon is a senior lecturer in French and comparative politics at Bath University, studying racism, populism, the far right and the crisis of democracy

(CNN)Nicolas Sarkozy's defeat in the French Republican primary Sunday night could mean a reshuffling of priorities on the center right of French politics.

The race will now be between two former prime ministers, Alain Juppe and Francois Fillon, and the winner will then have to lead the mainstream right in what is set to be a decisive moment for France next year.
Fillon's decisive and surprising victory in the first round could demonstrate that Juppé's more conciliatory tone has failed. With over 44% of the vote, Fillon may appear to many as a moderate compared to Sarkozy, but his neoliberal views -- coupled with a very conservative approach to societal matters, particularly with regard to identity, immigration and Islam -- should allow him to tap into the electorate of his defeated opponents. It was a strong sign that Sarkozy announced he would vote for Fillon as he conceded.
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As France struggles to escape the woes of the global economic crisis, with growth failing to reach predictions and unemployment remaining high, much of the coverage of the campaign so far has given prominence to the far-right Front National party and its leader, Marine Le Pen.
After shocking victories by pro-Brexit forces and US President-elect Donald Trump, Le Pen seems emboldened, and the media's willingness to follow her lead will without a doubt make immigration and Islam central to next year's campaign. This will be compounded by the governing Socialist Party's failure to reject the politics of identity.
This shift towards fantasies of a pure French (even Gaulish) identity being threatened has been made more prominent by recent attacks, as terrorists have fueled a deep sense of insecurity and distrust within the French population.
This toxic atmosphere has been compounded and normalized by politicians reacting disproportionately to the attacks, calling for war against enemies from without and within.

Stance on burkini bans

The burkini bans this summer exemplified the lack of an alternative -- beyond stigmatization and exclusion -- that politicians are willing to put forward in France.
After being implemented in 31 towns, the bans on modest swimsuits worn by Muslim women were eventually suspended by the State Council, who claimed that such laws "constituted a serious and manifestly illegal infringement of fundamental liberties." The council also reminded mayors that the law "may only restrict freedoms if there are confirmed risks," something which clearly was not the case.

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Despite such strong advice, and a similar condemnation by the UN Human Rights high commissioner, politicians on both the left and right have jockeyed to show who is toughest when it comes to legislating over the rights of women's bodies, particularly those from already stigmatized minorities. Sarkozy went the furthest, demanding that the constitution be changed to ban the swimsuits.
Fillon offered his support to the mayors who had passed burkini-ban laws, while Prime Minister Manuel Valls continued to criticise the burkini, stating that wilfully vilifying that piece of clothing was in no way attacking personal freedom.
Juppé took a more moderate approach, criticizing the law and the polemics surrounding it. His efforts to appease tensions may have reassured left-wing voters, but they failed to win over his own camp.

Following public opinion?

Such extreme reactions have not been targeting only the Muslim communities in France. They also have been aimed at migrants, as the recent debate over an infamous Calais migrant camp demonstrated.
In all cases, politicians defended their tough anti-immigrant stance on the basis that that they were merely following public opinion.
However, a recent survey by Eurobarometer suggests this is not the case. When asked, "What do you think are the two most important issues facing France at the moment?" respondents ranked unemployment first (51.8%), followed by terrorism (30%, up from 13% in 2015). Immigration came fourth with 13.7%.
When the same respondents were asked "And personally, what are the two most important issues you are facing at the moment?" rising prices/inflation came first (32.5%), followed by pensions (15.1%), taxation (14.4%) and unemployment (14%). Terrorism (7.2%) and immigration (3.8%) were respectively 13th and 15th.

Paying the price

The hype created around such hot topics by the media and politicians does not only distract the electorate from other concerns. It also legitimizes a type of discourse that had long been marginalized. In France, this race to the bottom within the mainstream has allowed Le Pen and the Front National to take the back seat. At the FN summer conference, Le Pen posited herself as the "normal" candidate, more moderate than many of her mainstream counterparts.
However, it would be wrong to assume that this normalization of Islamophobia in France is simply the result of a panicked reaction from politicians following deeply traumatic events. The recent explosion of Islamophobia in mainstream political discourse is the result of decades of stigmatization towards Muslim communities in France, starting with the hijab affair in the late 1980s.
The rise of simplistic exclusionary speech towards a diverse part of the population has been in part facilitated by the conscious misuses of the term laïcité. The word has traditionally protected freedom of religion while preventing interference from the state. But politicians have twisted its connotations into a tool for general stigmatization and exclusion.
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Islam has become the perfect scapegoat for French politicians who claim Muslims' incompatibility with "our" ways -- no matter how unclear these are -- became no longer a question of race but of culture and religion. But the end point is similar, and what has been called "new racism" is in fact very much still racism.
As I have explained at length elsewhere, "Muslimness" in this "new racism" is defined by the onlooker in a position of power, not the bearer of the identity, and is imposed onto people through generalization, misperception and stigmatization made ubiquitous by public discourse and repetition.
Sexism, violence and other generalizations become problems described as being located within the so-called "Muslim community." This in turn justifies subjugating a minority to special and often violent treatment. And it prevents us from looking at the more systemic shortcomings of our societies in terms of gender violence and other forms of inequality and injustice.

Dystopia as the new norm?

Such a diversion has proven a blessing for mainstream politicians as they have failed to offer their people (including the minorities they willfully stigmatize) more hopeful avenues for politics. Dystopia has become the new norm.
With less than six months to go before the first round of the French presidential election, it seems that none of the mainstream candidates are willing to denounce Islamophobia in all its forms. While Juppé has taken a more conciliatory approach, his underwhelming performance in the first round of the Républicans' primaries could spur a tougher approach in the coming week.
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While the situation is particularly worrying for minorities in France, polls revealing incredible levels of political dissatisfaction could point to a different future (up to 9 out of 10 respondents to the Eurobarometer survey say they don't trust political parties). While Brexit and Trump's successful campaigns did indeed capitalize on far-right sentiments, both did little to sufficiently address the more important economic issues that concern the electorate.
While the far right has so far managed to tap into this resentment most successfully, at least in appearance, a progressive and inclusive alternative could turn the tide, as mainstream parties have proven their inability to retain or win back voters even when faced with an unpalatable alternative.
The question for the French people who believe in a different future than that offered by the FN is thus both simple and impossibly complicated: Can they wait for traditional parties to provide such an alternative, or should they take matters into their own hands?