The French left has a frog in its throat
As France gears up for national elections in April 2022, its domestic politics seems marked by a growing and inevitable lurch to the right. The latest news that far-right journalist Eric Zemmour might join the race has instilled despair in many who fear that this will drag the entire field even further towards racist, anti-migrant and misogynistic terrain.
The growing popularity of Marine Le Pen's far-right party, the National Rally, was already cause for concern, especially with the polls showing that she is - yet again - very likely to reach the final round alongside current president Emmanuel Macron.
Zemmour, who is polling at eight percent of the vote, doesn't necessarily pose a threat in terms of achieving victory, but his presence risks pushing the political debate to an even more hate-filled place. The writer, who is regularly invited take part in political French TV debates, has for years been peddling a hard anti-Muslim line about the country becoming an "Islamic republic" if immigration controls are not strengthened. He often preaches replacement theories about how white Europeans are being outnumbered by migrants.
"Macron seems to be spending his time and power playing catch-up with policies proposed by the far-right"
Most recently, Zemmour stated that if he was elected president, one of his first acts would be to ban "Mohammed" as a first name, because "it is not a French name". He has also written about how women in France long for male domination and how high divorce rates have negatively impacted white male virility.
Zemmour, who is, ironically, of Algerian descent (his name means "olive" in Berber), is twice convicted of inciting racial violence and spreading hate speech. One of the comments that led to this verdict was in reference to migrant children who he described as all being thieves, rapists and killers. He also said that "jihadists were considered to be good Muslims by all Muslims."
He is currently battling other legal challenges on similar grounds.
Analysis: Behind Macron's faux issues lies an ugly reality, Mobashra Tazamal writes https://t.co/3PpPKjRuTj— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) April 1, 2021
Posters of his face with the words "President Zemmour" on the streets of Paris have not only panicked those being targeted by his attacks, however. Le Pen fears being out-flanked by a manifesto that could potentially be even more right-wing than her own. It appears that she has asked her father - who pioneered the far-right strategy of pulling the debate to the right through equally outlandish and dangerous proposals - to intervene and convince Zemmour not to get in her way.
As for Macron, since his first election when he went head-to-head with Le Pen, he seems to be spending his time and power playing catch-up with policies proposed by the far-right, which, years ago, would have been considered too extreme to ever reach mainstream politics.
The current president's term has been paved with a long list of attacks on Muslims, people of colour and migrants in a bid to win over far-right voters from Le Pen. The Defending Republican Values law, otherwise known as the separatism law, is one of Macron's "great" contributions.
"The French left has, time and time again, failed to meet the challenges of the moment"
Under the guise of protecting so-called secularism, and strengthening security, Macron has led the introduction of deeply repressive laws, which target Muslims over what they wear, their ability to practice their faith, home-school their children, and even promises to control Imams by training them according to the state's version of a "French Islam".
The impacts of the 2022 election campaign could, therefore, be disastrous for many of the already oppressed and vulnerable communities that have faced the wrath of Macron's xenophobic and racist policies in recent years. It is hard to imagine that it could get much worse. And yet.
As it stands, it feels as though there is little hope for anyone seeking a more tolerant government. This makes the work of the left as well as other progressive sections of French society all the more urgent.
Unfortunately, the history of racism and imperialism associated with the French left has meant those most in need of radical alternatives are unlikely to back candidates from these parties, let alone take part in campaigns to get them elected. The most credible mainstream left-wing party, La France Insoumise (LFI), which is led by presidential hopeful Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has consistently failed to challenge state Islamophobia, for example.
When thousands demonstrated in Paris in 2019 against anti-Muslim racism following an attack on a mosque, many LFI senior party officials did all they could to dissociate from the event. This was despite the initial commitment by the party to take part in the march. This reminded many Muslims, migrants and people of colour that nothing had shifted since the polarising debates surrounding the hijab in the late 80s, when the French left failed to defend three girls who had been kicked out of school for wearing headscarves.
More broadly, the LFI has also failed to captivate and build a base, despite years of mass protests and strikes waged against the state. From the "gilets jaunes" (yellow vest) uprisings opposing rising petrol prices, poverty, unemployment and state violence, to Black Lives Matter rallies and demonstrations opposing Macron's repressive security bill - which sought to criminalise the filming of police officers - none of these crucial movements were seized upon to organise the alternative.
"There will not be a successful progressive project so long as it tries to sidestep these issues"
However, the French left has, time and time again, failed to meet the challenges of the moment. Mélenchon's approach is symptomatic: focus on economic inequality while failing to challenge state racism, Islamophobia, and imperialism abroad. Given how central these themes are to the politics of the right, there will not be a successful progressive project so long as it tries to sidestep these issues.
While the future seems bleak for many in France, all hope is not lost. The left exists beyond political parties, and it should be organising against the current far-right tide, regardless of who leads in the polls.
The months ahead can still be shaped by all the social justice movements, trade unions, students, journalists, workers, Black, migrant and Muslim communities who have continued to fight Macron's draconian and racist policies over the last few years. It is ultimately the people that the future government must serve, and so it is they who can impose their terms and priorities for the current political debates.
Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.
Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia
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Opinions expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of her employer, or of The New Arab and its editorial board or staff.