Politics Magazine

Francois Hollande: The Candidate for Change? Not for French Muslims

Posted on the 04 May 2012 by Mfrancoiscerrah @MFrancoisCerrah

This article was first published over at the Huffington Post, here

Wednesday night’s presidential debate saw Socialist hopeful Francois Hollande pitted against ‎incumbent President, Nicolas Sarkozy on key points of the political agenda including nuclear ‎energy, the relationship with Europe and the economy. Hollande has marketed himself as the ‎candidate of ‘change’, the central concept in his slogan and the leitmotif of his speeches, ‎banking on Sarkozy’s unpopularity and on the feeling that France needs a new, alternative vision.‎

And yet, when the candidates got on to discussing the hot topics of Islam and multiculturalism, the ‎visions seemed to narrowly converge. Despite some heated repartee, both affirmed their ‎credentials in dealing with France’s “problem” of communalism and the role Islam has to play in ‎exacerbating it.‎

Muslims have been a regular political fodder throughout the election. In the first round President ‎Sarkozy adopted Far Right rhetoric by suggesting halal meat was a “central concern” for the French, ‎while Marine Le Pen spoke of the “rise of green facism” in the wake of the attacks by Mohamed ‎Merah, whom she described as “the tip of the iceberg”.

The socialist candidate, Francois Hollande ‎has raised the hopes of many, drawn in by his rejection of the Far-right and his objection to fear ‎based rhetoric. In a France where a young generation of North African origin are seeking to make ‎their mark, he appointed Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, a Moroccan born French politician as his co-‎spokesperson. And in Wednesday’s debate, he argued that foreigners who’ve lived in France for ‎over five years should have the right to vote in local elections, a proposition Sarkozy opposes. ‎

However, it was here that the limits of French political discourse on Islam became apparent. As the ‎subject of Islam was raised, Sarkozy asserted that it is the Muslim identity of immigrants which ‎fuels his opposition to their right to vote in local elections where they would have power to ‎influence policy and would fuel the “rise of radical Islam”: “…the majority of those concerned are ‎not Norwegians or Americans” Sarkozy exclaimed “the communalist tensions I’m talking about, ‎who do they come from? Or where do they come from? From the absolute necessity to have an ‎Islam of France, not an Islam in France.” The president was pulled up by Hollande, who pointed out ‎that to reduce immigrants to their religious identity was to ignore their diversity, “some might not ‎even identify as Muslim” he corrected. But Hollande’s indignation at the reification of Muslim ‎identity stopped there. And so does much of the hope, he might offer change in this contentious ‎realm. ‎

In France, the essentialisation of Muslims identity and attribution of their difference to a single ‎inassimilable culture which allegedly threatens the French way of life, is common currency across ‎the political spectrum. Even the Far-Left is not immune from this perception: “You can’t say you’re ‎a feminist and wear a sign of patriarchal submission” exclaimed Jean-Luc Mélenchon in 2010 in ‎response to a veiled Muslim political candidate.‎

As Sarkozy went on to link the right to vote for foreigners to “the rise in communalism and ‎tensions”, Hollande’s discourse veered right. Reassuring the public he would make no concessions to ‎the Republic’s golden calf of ‘laicite’, he agreed with his opponent that the sort of ‘extravagant’ ‎demands Muslims might make on municipalities – the option of halal meat in school canteens, ‎occasional women-only swimming sessions and access to female doctors -would not be tolerated.‎

The Presidential debate highlighted the extent to which Islam has been singled out as problematic ‎across the political spectrum. By linking such basic issues as dietary provisions, to the bogeyman of ‎communalism, Sarkozy was suggesting they are fundamentally incompatible with his cryptic and ‎yet emblematic notion of “an Islam of France.” And yet, efforts to foster a balanced French Muslim ‎identity have been met with the President’s ire. Oxford Professor Tariq Ramadan who contends ‎that French Muslims don’t need to negate their religious identity in order to become fully French, ‎but must rather live out both aspects of their identity fully, was recently described as ‘unwelcome’ ‎by the President and specialist Catherine Wihtol de Wenden states that French Muslims don’t ‎share the state’s complex about their contested identity: “Most Muslims in France feel very French ‎‎– but they feel that the French don’t see them that way, because they may look Arab or black.” ‎Rather, the stigmatisation of Islam in public discourse has fostered a climate which ensures hostility ‎towards its practitioners, despite their own desire to fully identify with the nation.

Rather than tackling this climate, Hollande sought to shore up his ‘secular’ credentials during the ‎debate by boasting that his party was behind the 2004 law banning veils in schools. Since then, ‎legislation targeting Muslim female dress has continued to increase, supported and instigated at ‎times by the Left. In 2011, Sarkozy instated the ban on the wearing of face veils in public in France ‎with near unanimous support, and in January 2012, the Senate approved a law, proposed by a ‎Socialist, to ban nursery assistants from wearing headscarves on the basis of “protecting children ‎from women unworthy of their trust.” The Ecologist party denounced the law as intrusive and ‎discriminatory and Muslim groups have expressed fears the law will increase suspicion and hostility ‎towards women who wear the headscarf. ‎

During the debate, Sarkozy went unchallenged as he argued that Islam has been the cause of “an ‎extravagant rise in communalist tensions” despite the fact the most frequent cause mentioned for ‎the 2005 riots was joblessness and the reality that Muslims are over represented in disadvantaged ‎neighbourhoods with high unemployment, poor educational facilities and few career options. This ‎omission of the social and geographical marginalisation of Muslims is compounded by the oft-‎denied omnipresence of hostility towards Islam.

Nearly four-in-ten Muslims French Muslims report ‎that they have had a bad experience attributable to their race, ethnicity or religion. Legislation ‎prohibiting discrimination in employment is rarely implemented in France and employers have ‎been allowed to discriminate on the grounds of religious or cultural symbols, in direct conflict with ‎European Union anti-discrimination legislation. Linda, a thirty year old administrative assistant of ‎Algerian origin tells me her employers declined her request to pray in an empty office during her ‎lunch break on the grounds the office is a “secular space.” A young white convert explained to me ‎that she was refused entry to a bowling alley on the grounds her headscarf was unwelcome there. ‎Shaima, a journalism graduate from one of France’s top universities, explains she has been unable ‎to find employment due to her headscarf and is seeking to emigrate. Amnesty international’s ‎expert on discrimination, Marco Perolini has denounced the pandering to prejudices by political ‎parties in quest of votes, which he linked directly to human rights violations: “Muslim women are ‎being denied jobs and girls prevented from attending regular classes just because they wear ‎traditional forms of dress, such as the headscarf. Men can be dismissed for wearing beards ‎associated with Islam.(…) There is a groundswell of opinion in many European countries that Islam ‎is alright and Muslims are ok so long as they are not too visible. This attitude is generating human ‎rights violations and needs to be challenged.”‎

Despite an increasing number of studies suggesting French Muslims are getting a raw deal, politicians don’t appear to be listening and the rise of the Far-Right has made initiating such discussions political suicide. American academic Joan Scott argues that France has failed to integrate its former colonial subjects ‎as full citizens and believes that the suppression of diversity is not a feasible path for social ‎harmony in the contemporary era. The candidate for ‘change’ who calls for national unity has so far ‎offered an alternative vision for France on many fronts, but the issue of social harmony has yet to be tackled from a different angle. The question remains whether ‎on the issue of Muslim visibility and acceptance, a Socialist President will make any difference at all. ‎It seems unlikely. ‎

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