Islamophobia in France has been growing in strength for many years, but recent weeks have seen a dangerous acceleration.
The brutal murder of high school teacher Samuel Paty on October 16 by an isolated terrorist with a knife shocked the whole country.
President Emanuel Macron’s neoliberal government has jumped on the opportunity to occupy some of the political space Marine Le Pen and her fascists had been taking up.
On October 29, three Catholics were killed in a major church in Nice by a young Muslim man, who had only arrived in France a few days earlier. This horrific killing added fuel to the flames. This terror is being used by government and others to stigmatise all Muslims and to win votes from racists.
Le Pen got 10 million votes in the presidential elections in 2017, the highest score ever for the extreme right. Macron has been extremely unpopular because of his plans to drastically cut pensions, (which led to millions going on strike last year). Although he comes from a strand of the right that did not traditionally make a priority of Islamophobia, it is just too tempting to play the scapegoat card.
This is especially easy for him, because the left in France, including the radical left, is very confused about Islamophobia. The situation has improved these past five years, due to the hard work of a minority of activists, but even today far fewer than half of left wingers think it is important to fight Islamophobia.
When the ban on young women wearing hijab in high schools began in 2004, there was practically no opposition. When 20 or so town councils banned the wearing of full-body swimsuits on beaches and in swimming pools in 2016, opposition was limited to a few press releases at best. The right know that when they theatrically attack Muslims, there will be only half-hearted opposition from the left.
Macron’s Islamophobic campaign
Macron had already been preparing an offensive, based on a new law “against separatism”. He pretended this law would be aimed at many different groups including white supremacists, but it is really about loudly spreading the racist myth that Muslims don’t want to be part of French society.
This is an invented danger. Muslims are, in fact, far less keen on having separate schools for their children than are devout Catholics or Jews. There are 9000 private Catholic schools, 300 or so private Jewish schools and around 20 private Muslim schools (there are five and a half million Muslims).
This month’s crimes are very useful to Macron. A minute of silence and special classes on freedom of speech will be organised in all schools immediately after the school holidays. His government is banning Muslim organisations accused of being involved with “political Islam”, a usefully broad expression that allows charities, legal aid organisations and antiracist groupings to be targeted.
Last month, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin announced raids on 51 organisations, and the compulsory dissolution of several.
These include the Collective Against Islamophobia (CCIF), a small organisation which organises mediation and helps provide lawyers for those defending themselves against Islamophobic discrimination at work or elsewhere. It is just about the only place one can go as a discriminated Muslim.
The organisation has received funding for some years from the town council in Grenoble in the east of France, and has regularly worked with the National Observatory on Secularism, a government body meant to supervise the division between state and religion in France. It has worked in collaboration with a number of United Nations bodies (being granted consultant status) for years and has always condemned terrorism.
Another group, which was banned on October 28, is the charity Barakacity. Founded in 2008, it is known for its ambitious campaign to provide clean water in parts of West Africa, its “rounds” to help homeless people in the Paris region, and its initiative paying funeral costs for refugees who have died at Calais or trying to cross to England. The organisation is accused of “proselytising” because it is faith-based, whereas Catholic charities are not condemned for working from a faith perspective, which is everyone’s right in a democratic society.
A mosque in Pantin which in previous weeks had shown sympathy with criticisms of Paty’s teaching has been closed down, although there is zero evidence that the mosque leaders supported any violence. In the days after Paty’s murder, Darmanin stated openly that they were hauling in many people unconnected with the murder investigation “because they wanted to get the message out”. Macron has declared “fear must now change sides” and is pushing the idea of a “clash of civilisations”.
Darmanin declared recently he was “shocked” by halal or kosher food sections in supermarkets. These, he said are based on people’s “lower instincts” and represent “the beginnings of communitarianism”.
A few weeks ago, the same minister declared “Islam in France must be certain that all its believers accept that the laws of the Republic are superior to the laws of their God”. But it is common for believers in many religions to think of their God as superior to human institutions – this does not make them killers! Darmanin just wants a witch hunt.
What is the immediate danger?
If these Muslim organisations are banned without protest, we can expect even worse in the future. Already far-right thugs are taking advantage of the new atmosphere.
In Nîmes, a supermarket displayed a poster saying no “veiled women” would be allowed in the shop. The oldest mosque in Bordeaux and another in Montélimar have been smashed up. Several mosques in Rouen received threatening letters, while in Donzère a Muslim prayer room was vandalised with graffitied insults and Christian crosses.
Using Islamophobia to attack the left
As well as win racist votes, Macron hopes to use the crisis to damage the main left opposition, painting them as “soft on Islamic extremism”.
Left reformist Jean-Luc Mélenchon of La France Insoumise (FI) [variously translated as France Unbowed or Rebel France] got 7 million votes at the previous presidential elections on a Jeremy Corbyn-style radical program. For a long time weak on fighting Islamophobia, like the rest of the French left, FI has recently made progress, partly under pressure from Black and Muslim antiracist networks which have been getting stronger. FI MP Danièle Obono has been involved in fighting Islamophobia for many years.
In November 2019, for the first time ever, a mass demonstration against Islamophobia was organised in Paris. Against considerable internal opposition, Mélenchon insisted the FI support the protest.
Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer recently accused the FI of being “Islamo-leftists” and being “in favour of an ideology, which, little by little, leads to terrorism”.
These attacks are supported by some on the left. There is a long and disastrous tradition in France of equating being left-wing with detesting and mocking believers. Over the past 25 years, this tradition has fuelled the attacks on Islam in France.
Many left-wingers, using the excuse that they hate all religions, support Islamophobic laws and campaigns. One of the main revolutionary newspapers denounced women wearing the niqab as “birds of death” on its front page in 2010. This current, now the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA), has made a lot of progress since, and supported the demonstration last November, even if only half its members were really convinced.
University lecturers under attack
Macron’s ministers have been turning to Trump-style right-wing populism and attacking university lecturers who dare to work on racism and anti-racism and not limit themselves to studying dead white men.
Blanquer claimed universities had been infiltrated by “very powerful Islamo-leftist currents, which are wreaking havoc”.
“We must fight,” he said “against an intellectual framework imported from American universities and ideas of intersectionality, which want to fix identities, the contrary of the Republican model.
“This is the basis of a splitting-up of society, which converges with the Islamic model.”
University organisations have protested at these insults. Even the national organisation of university presidents (hardly a radical left body) put out a declaration that denounced Blanquer’s insults. It said: “No, universities are not producing an ideology which leads to the worst excesses. No, universities are not places where fanaticism is expressed or encouraged. No, universities cannot be accused of being accomplices to terrorism.”
Other academic organisations have also protested, although inside many there are members who swallow the myths about “Islamo-leftists”. Scandalously, a hundred university professors signed an article in Le Monde in support of Blanquer, and denouncing Muslim students who wear a hijab.
What is the role of the caricatures of Mohammed?
A series of caricatures was initially published by a Danish right-wing newspaper. To these, French magazine Charlie Hebdo added more insulting examples, before the horrible attack in 2015 by terrorists who murdered 12 of the magazine’s staff (and Jewish shoppers in a Kosher supermarket the same day).
The caricatures are racist for at least two reasons. Firstly, they include such cartoons as Mohammed with a bomb in his turban, with the fuse lit. This drawing is supposed to 1) say that what is typical of Muslims is to be terrorists, and 2) get people to laugh at the fact that his Muslim head is about to explode.
The other Charlie Hebdo caricatures — like one of Mohammed naked with his genitals showing — propose a different sort of “satisfaction” to the reader, based on the fact that readers know that Muslims do not think the prophet should be depicted in drawings, much less depicted naked and ridiculous. The only way you could find this cartoon funny is if you think that offending Muslims is fun in itself — that is, if you are a racist.
In the present crisis, the cartoons have played a pivotal role. As part of his civics class every year, Paty showed some of the racist cartoons, having warned pupils and allowed them to leave the room for a moment if they wished.
Not understanding that these caricatures are racist is very common on the right and the left in France, and explaining about the caricatures is part of the school curriculum, so showing them in class as illustrations does not mean that this was a racist teacher.
This year, some parents complained, and the school inspectorate organised a discussion meeting of some sort. Naturally, no one imagined all this would come to the ears of a teenage fanatic who lived 80 kilometres away and was ready to kill and die for this.
After Paty’s murder, those who wanted to push “clash of civilisations” nonsense decided to make the caricatures the centre of the protest against terrorism. In some big cities like Toulouse and Montpellier, the caricatures were projected onto the front of the town hall, while more than one regional government has announced that booklets of caricatures including these will be distributed to all high school students.
It is not uncommon to hear individual teachers, even on the left, demand that showing the caricatures be compulsory in all schools as a protest against Paty’s murder.
This is often the work of loud minorities ‒ at the mass rally in Paris called by teaching unions, there were only a dozen Charlie Hebdo placards in a crowd of tens of thousands, and in online forums, Islamophobic teachers complain that “almost all” their students think it is good not to mock people’s religious beliefs, because respect is important.
What about the far right and the fascists?
In Avignon, recently a member of a small neo-Nazi group threatened a North African shopkeeper, and then the police, and was shot dead. The danger of far-right terrorism is real.
As for Le Pen and her “respectable fascists”, they have had a bad couple of years. The Yellow Vest revolt which mobilised poor workers and small business people could have moved towards far-right ideas, but did not, thanks to the work of left activists. The mass strikes against government destruction of the retirement pensions system last year were very popular indeed, but Le Pen could not support them because of her strong small employer base.
At last, with the campaign against Muslims, Le Pen has a terrain where she feels at home. She has been calling this week for a freeze on all immigration, and on all procedures through which immigrants gain French citizenship. She is demanding “wartime legislation” and declaring “Nobody should be afraid of being called an Islamophobe”. She and her fellow fascists are invited every week to prime-time talk shows to spread their poison.
Who is fighting back against all this?
The situation is contradictory. Several left groups and trade union federations are much better on Islamophobia than they were 10 years back (this is not difficult). Nevertheless, protest remains symbolic.
Press releases from the left declare “Muslims must not be blamed for terrorism, singled out or marginalised”. But no major left group is saying “Defend the CCIF!” and protesting alongside Muslim groups to stop them being banned, let alone organising a broad protest alliance. Smaller antiracist networks are doing what they can.
The hypocrisy of the Macron government ‒ which sells arms to dictatorships all over the world, uses French troops to defend French interests while wreaking death and destruction, and gives crucial political support to Israel, while claiming to be a beacon of light leading the fight against political violence in the world ‒ must be denounced.
But practical solidarity to Muslim organisations under threat is also essential. Organisations in other countries should certainly send messages of solidarity.
[John Mullen is a revolutionary socialist and supporter of France Insoumise, living in the Paris region. You can read his blog here]