Who Won the French Presidential Election?

Islamophobia continues its advance

By Monia Mazigh

July/August 2022

In April, French voters went to the polls to choose a new president. Emmanuel Macron, the incumbent and leader of the centrist La République en Marche (Republic on the Move) party, was elected with 58.55% of the votes. Marine Le Pen, leader of the right-wing National Rally party, obtained 41.45%, the equivalent of 13 million votes. More than 3 million votes were blank or spoiled, making the turnout one of the lowest since 1969. Despite her loss, the Washington Post reported on April 24 that Le Pen declared to her supporters “tonight’s result represents in itself a resounding victory.” 

She is correct. In 2017, she confronted Macron for the first time and received 34% of the votes. In 2012, her first bid to become president, she placed third in the first presidential round with 18% — a very decent result for a first-time effort, compared to that of her father Jean Marine Le Pen. This long-time far-right politician, who founded the Front National (the forefather of the Rally National) and sought the presidency several times, never got more than 17% of the vote (The Guardian, April 12, 2012). 

Despite his “failure” in 2002 to beat the centrist Jacques Chirac, the Le Pen family has never missed the chance to bring its far-right policies and debates into the political arena. 

When Macron ran for the first time in 2017, he promised that he would be “neither left nor right,” thereby distancing himself from his political “mentor,” the socialist Francois Holland, whom he had served under as the economy minister. Many voters thought Macron would promote a pro-business agenda and a strong pro-European involvement, along with a somewhat left-leaning approach on social issues. 

During his five-year term, Macron pushed and implemented some of his pro-business agenda, despite some unions’ resistance. In December 2018, his government replaced a wealth tax with a flat tax of 30% on wealth and a tax on real estate (Forbes, Oct. 9, 2020).

Many citizens were unimpressed by this “reform,” which they saw as a gift to the rich. His “reform” of the labor laws and introduction of a fuel tax caused people to see him as president of the rich and not very strong, all of which, according to National Public Radio (Dec. 3, 2018), helped place the yellow vest movement front and center at the end of 2018.

Given this tense socioeconomic climate and the terrorist attacks in 2020 — a Chechen refugee murdered the teacher Samuel Paty and a Tunisian refugee murdered three people at Notre Dame Basilica in Nice — Marine Le Pen amplified her anti-immigration and anti-Muslim rhetoric. 

The media and the far-right groups’ portrayal of these attacks as direct consequences of lax immigration policies, along with what some intellectuals, politicians and media have been falsely describing as the latent Islamization of France, threatened Macron’s reelection prospects. Thus, it didn’t take much for Macron and his government to play his predecessors’ political card: putting Muslims and Islam at the heart of politics … but only for the negative reasons. 

From burkini bans at beaches and in pools to proposed hijab bans in universities and streets, introducing Islamist separatism legislation, talking about banning halal food in school menus and volunteer moms accompanying their children on school trips, to closing mosques and dissolving Islamic charities … everything became possible.

These topics became the subjects of talk shows, discussions by government ministers and senators and politicians from all political spectrums — all of them claiming that laicïté is being threatened and republican values undermined because of the Muslims living in ghettos and preaching “communautarism” and “separatism.” 

It’s not solely Marine Le Pen and some external factors’ fault that Macron and his government chose to follow the footsteps of other politicians; however, he clearly broke his promise of “neither left nor right.” Indeed, many Muslims found their faith, or its associated symbols and organizations, on trial almost daily on TV and social media and with no chance to rebut, defend or say otherwise.

Accusations of being “separatists” or “extremists” were never documented. To the contrary, researchers from the Centre for the Study of Conflict in Paris who studied the relationship between terrorism and discrimination in France found “a massive adherence of the French Muslims to the Republic” (Time, Dec. 8, 2020).

The narrative of Muslims as the enemy of the Republic means that they should be more surveilled, have their civic rights curtailed, have their worship places closed and charitable organizations shut down. These views of Marine Le Pen have now become the official politics of Macron and his government. Despite his constant repeating that he has nothing against Islam (Euronews, Feb. 11, 2020), his policies and politics speak otherwise for Muslims. In a report released during March 2021, Amnesty France documented such discriminations.

This competition between Le Pen and Macron, which should have been ideological, economic and political, brought more far-right policies into the mainstream arena. During a debate with Gerard Darmanin, a former interior minister of Macron’s government, Le Pen looked stunned after being accused of being “not tough enough” in her policies toward Muslims (Daily Mail, Feb. 13, 2021). This political point scoring done at the expense of Muslims obviously had only one winner: hate. 

In a way, Le Pen was right to congratulate her base on her “resounding victory” — not the victory of becoming president, but the victory of almost normalizing her policies. This is what I call the “banalization” of hate. Never has hate been so widespread and accepted in a country that many have considered a beacon for human rights, justice and equality. 

A few days before the election, a police officer beat up two women wearing the hijab. They were crossing the street at a traffic light, and the police officer was speeding in his patrol car. He didn’t appreciate being reminded that the traffic light was still green for them (Middle East Monitor, April 28, 2022).

During the recent election’s first round, socialist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, described by some as a “radical socialist,” came in a strong third, just shy of beating Marine Le Pen by 2% of the votes cast. After Macron’s victory, Mélenchon promised to run in the June legislative elections to become prime minister.

Many Muslims supported his campaign, and 69% of them ended up voting for him. His denunciation of Islamophobia made him stand out in an ocean of hate. Once again Muslim issues were on the tongue of all candidates, and once again for the wrong reasons. His failure to make it to the second round and face Macron is the evidence that hate and Islamophobia pay political dividends. They make you “win,” as we can see from Le Pen’s describing her defeat as a “victory” (novaramedia.com, April 29, 2022).

Muslims found themselves choosing between an incumbent president who did nothing to protect them and, even worse, vilified them and introduced legislation to further stigmatize them, and a presidential candidate who continues her political ascendance at their expense. That situation pushed many Muslims to abstain from voting with a hashtag “ni la peste ni le cholera” (neither the plague nor the cholera) trending on social media — a metaphor used to describe the impossible choice between the bad and the worst (The Guardian, April 22, 2022).

Macron pushed his political opportunism to such an extent that on the eve of the elections he courted Muslims voters by visiting a Parisian neighborhood that many Muslims call home and opposing a hijab ban in the public space, repeating “that no other country in the world has such a ban”.

For many Muslims, these words are empty and meaningless. Macron had five years to bring harmony into society and defeat Le Pen’s politics of hate, but instead he chose to ride the wave of Islamophobia while pretending to defend the values of the Republic. 

Hate has never been doing so well in France’s politics as it is right now. 

Monia Mazigh, PhD, an academic, author and human rights activist, is an adjunct professor at Carleton University (Ontario). She has published “Hope and Despair: My Struggle to Free My Husband, Maher Arar” (2008) and three novels, “Mirrors and Mirages” (2015), “Hope Has Two Daughters” (2017) and “Farida” (2020), which won the 2021 Ottawa Book Award prize for French-language fiction. She is currently working on a collection of essays about gendered Islamophobia.

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