France's Muslims watch the rise of the far right with unease

Illustration - French elections - In-depth
6 min read
10 July, 2024

The left-wing New Popular Front (NFP) came out on top in Sunday’s snap run-off in the French legislative elections, beating the far-right National Rally (RN) in third place with President Emmanuel Macron's centrist coalition coming in second.

None of the three blocs could form an outright majority by themselves, with parliament set to be divided into three blocs and France left to deal with continued political uncertainty.

A tense alliance between centrists and leftist parties had kept the RN at bay after withdrawing over 200 candidates from the second round in a bid to block the far-right gaining power. Yet, Marine Le Pen’s party has received more popular votes than any other political group and its share of the vote has considerably increased from 89 seats in the last parliament to 142 now.

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Tensions had been mounting before the elections as Muslims and those from an immigrant background expressed concerns about the future of their communities in France. Those worries only intensified as the French right rose to prominence after Le Pen’s party won 33% of the popular vote in the first round of voting.

The RN, which scored an unprecedented win in the European elections in France last month, pushing Macron to call for early legislative polls on 30 June and 7 July, ran a campaign with an anti-immigration policy platform in France’s parliamentary election.

Arguably the most drastic of the party’s measures is restricting citizenship only to people born to at least one French parent, and subjecting it to strict conditions of assimilation, mastery of the French language, and respect for French laws and customs. Their proposed policy of national preference prioritises French nationals over foreigners or those holding dual nationality in access to housing, jobs, and welfare benefits.

Critics say the RN’s project is built on xenophobic and Islamophobic policies, with the party seeking to ban the Islamic headscarf in public spaces and close mosques deemed “radical”.

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Members of the French Muslim community fear that their religious freedoms could be restricted and that they will be treated as "second class" citizens. Many say they had considered leaving the country if the National Rally achieved a majority, a trend that has already taken hold among some qualified professionals.

According to a recent study, rising Islamophobia in France has been causing a brain drain among its educated young Muslims. Though it is difficult to give exact numbers, the survey estimated there are “tens of thousands” of French Muslims who decide to live abroad, finding that 71 percent of over 1,000 respondents had left partly due to racism and discrimination.

“I live, think, laugh in French. But I feel like I always have to try make up for my name, my face, my surname,” said Karima, a French lawyer of Algerian descent, who’s been thinking about moving to Canada with her husband over the last five years.

“Already we are not spoilt here, but if we have (Jordan) Bardella as prime minister, it will be grim,” Tasnime Labiedh, a Tunisian doctor working on a salary lower than that of her French counterparts, said in reference to the leader of the RN on the eve of the election’s second round. She is now considering migrating to Switzerland.

“[In France] you need to work twice as hard when you come from certain minorities,” said Muslim business school graduate Adam who recently started a new life in Dubai after leaving France, where he says he was routinely stopped by police for no reason.

Marine Le Pen's party received more popular votes than any other political group and its share of the vote has increased from 89 seats in the last parliament to 142. [Getty]

“French Muslims are not afforded the rights that are guaranteed to every other citizen, and they don’t feel protected by the state,” Mobashra Tazamal, an academic researcher on Islamophobia, told The New Arab.

“They are leaving because they don’t feel safe, and face discrimination whether that’s on the job market or in public where they can’t practice their religion freely,” she continued, emphasising that questions of identity, a sense of belonging, and security are key to understanding the fate of France’s Muslim community.

While the RN has been growing for many years, its popularity comes amid a process of normalising far-right policies in French politics, as well as the mainstreaming of anti-Muslim rhetoric. 

As a result, established French political parties have aligned with the far-right on issues targeting Muslims, people of colour, and those of foreign origin.

"Social cohesion is already in tatters and it's just going to get worse. For the foreseeable future, French Muslims will remain the target of wider society and all political parties"

“So much of the policies and the rhetoric has been co-opted by mainstream French politics,” Joseph Downing, author of ‘French Muslims in Perspective’ and an expert in French politics and security, told TNA.

“The far-right came out of a society that has made it acceptable to target, demonise, and marginalise these communities. They’ve been able to capitalise on something already existing,” argued Tazamal, who is associate director of the Bridge Initiative, a Georgetown University research project that aims to inform the general public about Islamophobia.

The researcher pointed out how in the last few decades both the political class and the media in France have insisted on framing Muslims as “outsiders”, a “threat” to the French society, and potentially “extremist” or “violent” people who “don’t want to integrate”. She also observed that the French concept of secularism (laïcité) is typically used as a “weapon” to target the Muslim community.

“French people of Arab origin, especially from a North African background, are three-to-four generations old now. They are extremely well integrated into French political culture,” Downing commented.

Muslims account for 10 percent of France’s 67 million population, making it the largest Muslim community in Europe.

In recent years, French society has witnessed discriminatory policies against minorities, especially Muslims, including bans or restrictive rules on headscarves and Islamic clothing in public as well as a crackdown on mosques and religious organisations. Although France’s secularism prohibits religious symbols in public schools, it has mainly targeted the attire of Muslim women.

Under Macron’s government, in particular, controversial measures have been adopted, namely the separatism law, the ban on the abaya - a dress worn by some Muslim women - in schools, and a recent immigration bill toughening provisions on residency and citizenship.

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“One question that has so often come up among people from a Muslim background is ‘what else can they do to us?’, they are exasperated, it doesn’t stop. What else can French governments make an issue out of?” Downing said.

The French politics expert added that gains for the far-right in parliament could lead to a potential increase of police discrimination and violence aimed at Arab-Muslims as law enforcement officers would presumably feel supported by the National Rally and “empowered” to go after people based on their origins.

Tazamal also warned over an increasingly authoritarian modus operandi vis-à-vis any marginalised communities in France, particularly Muslims, who may be subjected to tighter rules and risk being stripped of their social rights, education, and health care.

“Social cohesion is already in tatters and it’s just going to get worse,” she said. “For the foreseeable future, French Muslims will remain the target of wider society and all political parties.”

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis.

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec