Editor’s Note: Rim-Sarah Alouane is a French legal scholar and commentator. She is a PhD candidate in comparative law at the University Toulouse-Capitole, where her research focuses on religious freedom, civil liberties, constitutional law and human rights in France, Europe and North America. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
When he was first elected French President in 2017, Emmanuel Macron promised that over the next five years he would do everything to ensure people would no longer have “any reason to vote for the extremes.”
Unfortunately for the French electorate, Macron fell short of this promise to stem the rise of the far-right. In the wake of his 2017 victory, the political landscape shifted dramatically, with Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally party being the main beneficiary.
Now, just days away from France’s presidential election on Sunday, Macron again faces Le Pen in a rematch of their 2017 contest – and this time, Le Pen is riding a late surge in support that puts her a breath behind Macron’s lead.
During his first term in office, Macron’s administration flirted with the same right-wing themes that have powered Le Pen’s rise – including Islam, security and immigration. Indeed, the entire political landscape in France is not immune to the appeal of policies that have profound effects on anyone who was not born White and on French soil.
Whether or not Macron retains his seat, the effects of the creeping acceptance of the premises fueling Le Pen’s rise will be profound.
The focus on French Muslims, in particular, has been marked by a steady increase in fear-mongering for votes over the past 30 years. As successive waves of terrorist attacks in France galvanized public opinion since the mid-1980s, state authorities have been trying to create a framework to oversee Muslim religious practices and organization, through the idea of creating a “French Islam.”
But in the past 10 years, the threat has expanded from public safety to include Muslims being seen as an existential threat to the cultural identity of what is being called “traditional France.”
Seeing an opportunity to ride a wave of discontent, politicians have pushed measures instrumentalizing the once liberal concept of laïcité (France’s form of secularism), including banning full-face coverings and burkinis in public spaces.
While Macron is seen as an alternative to the far-right, he has also attempted to play both sides – putting on a liberal face for an international audience, while quietly embracing the very policies that the far-right has championed at home.
To lead this charge, Macron appointed Gérald Darmanin to the Ministry of Interior, one of the most powerful ministries in France. Darmanin has polarized the electorate with a staunch support for the French police, gaining strong support from influential police unions while alienating much of the left.
Furthermore, critics accuse Darmanin of playing into anti-Muslim hatred with inflammatory rhetoric and action. In a vivid illustration of the Macron Administration’s rightward shift, last year Darmanin accused Le Pen of “being soft on Islam” in the midst of the debate around the Law Strengthening Respect For the Principles of the Republic (Anti-Separatism Law) of August 2021.
The anti-separatism bill was part of Macron’s strategy ahead of the 2022 presidential election to take some wind out of the far-right’s sails.
Under the law, non-profit organizations are subject to signing a “contract of republican commitment” – by which they must pledge respect to liberty, equality, fraternity, human dignity and public order. As a result, public authorities can arbitrarily deny, claim reimbursement or withdraw support to associations they deem are not respecting said values.
Some associations fear that the heart of their activities (such as providing support to undocumented people, or human rights activist groups denouncing government discriminatory policies) could be deemed a violation of public order – and as a consequence, lose their funding.
Facing a fractured field on the left, analysts predicted Macron was trying to lure some right-leaning voters away from Le Pen by taking action on some of the far right’s focal issues. Indeed, Darmanin declared in February 2022 that he wished that “far-right voters would vote for us (Macron’s party)”.
Meanwhile, Le Pen has done her own version of a face-lift, de-emphasizing the harsher elements of her platform, while refusing to concede the underlying ideology that her party pioneered over the past 30 years.
Her campaign promises include amending the Constitution to restrict immigration, family reunification and asylum that she deems a threat to France’s identity. Le Pen’s manifesto also contains measures for a legal distinction between “native-born French” and “others,” for access to employment or social benefits.
Le Pen also announced her intention to extend the ban on the wearing of the headscarf in public spaces on the grounds of protecting Laïcité and the 1905 Law on Separation of Church and State. Laïcité has been understood for most of the 20th century as imposing neutrality upon the state and its civil servants, while guaranteeing religious freedom and freedom of conscience for private individuals
But since the 1990s, the understanding of laïcité has evolved and been interpreted as limiting religious expressions, more specifically Muslim ones. This has primarily been implemented through legislation restricting the wearing of visible religious signs, especially the wearing of the headscarf by some Muslim women.
Macron sometimes unwittingly feeds into this narrative, once asking a young French Muslim woman wearing a headscarf if she was wearing a headscarf “by choice” or “by force” and complimented her when she confirmed it was by choice.
While Macron’s statement was baffling, as it’s unlikely he would have asked such a question to a Catholic nun wearing a veil, a Jew wearing a yarmulke or a Sikh wearing a turban, the President is clearly trying to backpedal from the actions of his administration and pretend measures like the Anti-Separatism Law never happened.
Once again, Muslims, and especially Muslim women, are being instrumentalized for electoral purposes. Regardless of who wins the election, the far-right has already won. They are shaping the agenda of French political debate. If Le Pen does not win this time, she or someone like her will most likely win another time.
French Muslims are tired of being pawns in this political game. Muslims comprise an estimated 8.8% of the population of France yet take up almost all of the political and media discourse, while their voices are left out of the conversation.
Islam and immigration are topics that the far-right loves to use for their agenda, and unfortunately Macron, and those before him, fell into this trap. If Macron wins, he will have to make amends with those he has affected. And he and his administration will have to stop treating their French Muslim citizens as if they were a population that needed to be tamed.
There is a need to proactively and constructively engage with Muslims, put in place programs that fight discrimination, and stop weaponizing laïcité as a tool for political identity. Muslims are simply not the threat some politicians and pundits make them out to be. France needs to allow Muslims to be full French citizens on their own terms, to express their identities openly and honestly, in a manner that is both true to their faith yet unambiguously French.
Whether or not Macron or Le Pen wins this weekend, there is no doubt that the political landscape is shifting under the feet of French voters.