Paris, France - It was an unprecedented breakthrough. France's far-right party, the National Front, won the vote in 11 cities in local elections on March 31, and took control of three more through far-right-leaning candidates.
Marine Le Pen, the leader of the anti-immigrant, eurosceptic National Front, described it as an "exceptional" moment. Five days after the ballot, she announced the party's first measure for the 11 cities now controlled by her party. "We will not accept any religious requirements when it comes to school cafeteria menus," Le Pen said.
Her announcement raised concerns over the true agenda of National Front leaders and the party's newly elected mayors - one of them, in the northeastern city of Hayange described Islam as scary, "highly offensive and dangerous for democracy" in a recent autobiography.
As the National Front makes gains at the local level, French Jews and Muslims have voiced a common fear about the rise of xenophobia in the country. Their communities, they say, are becoming the direct targets of the far right - and of politicians eager to gain votes on that side of the political spectrum.
Islamophobia started when politicians placed the spotlight on us.
A feeling of insecurity
The president of the French Union of Jewish Students, Sasha Reingewirtz, 27, recently returned from a group visit to the cities of Frejus, Forbach, Henin-Beaumont and Beziers, among others. All were far-right strongholds in the local elections, and some elected a National Front mayor.
The group said they found a strong mistrust of the government among voters, and a tendency to be seduced by the National Front. "More and more French people are tempted by their ideas," Reingewirtz said.
Given this political climate, Reingewirtz said he worries that tolerance of anti-Semitic speech will rise even further. "I hear stories of students feeling targeted on campus, in the street and at work, simply because they are Jewish. This is becoming more common."
The same concerns are expressed within the Muslim community. Enis Chabchoub, president of the Muslim association of Noisy-le-Grand, in the suburbs of Paris, said anti-Muslim incidents occur quite frequently now. Veiled women have been attacked on the street or prevented from accessing banks, he said. "In some schools, Muslim children have to eat [non-halal] meat," he claimed.
A total of 1,274 racist, anti-Semitic or Islamophobic acts and threats took place in France in 2013, according to the French National Consultative Commission on Human Rights. The number of Islamophobic acts and threats rose from 201 in 2012, to 226 in 2013, while the number of anti-Semitic acts and threats fell from 614 in 2012, to 423 in 2013.
A report by the commission has shown that over the past 20 years, these numbers have trended upward.
A 'xenophobic climate'
According to Ariane Chebel d'Appollonia, a professor at Rutgers University who researches racism and far-right movements, the rise of the National Front isn't the only factor.
"Over the past 20 years, political forces have banalised racism in order to gain votes," she said. "Making far-right ideas more mainstream has fuelled a xenophobic climate in the country."
D'Appollonia said several right-wing politicians have tried to use far-right ideas as a means of reaching National Front voters. An often used theme is "the fear of Islam" and the idea that the religion - now the second-largest in France - is a threat to the country.
M'Hammed Henniche, secretary-general of the Union of Muslim Associations of Seine-Saint-Denis, said a series of laws, "voted by the right and kept by the left", have contributed to making Islamophobia more mainstream. Henniche referred to the French ban on street prayers and the political debate leading to a ban on full-face veils.
"Islamophobia started when politicians placed the spotlight on us," Chabchoub said.
Rise of free speech or hate speech?
According to Jean-Yves Camus, a French researcher on nationalism and extremism in Europe, when it comes to religious freedom, the far-right party has targeted Jews and Muslims at a similar level. "When the National Front talks about pork in school cafeterias or religious signs in public, it concerns both communities," he said, adding that the party's goal is to reaffirm France's Christian heritage - and violate the religious freedom of French minorities.
Behind this threat, the Jewish community seems most worried about the rise of extremist speech. Robert Ejnes, the executive director of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions of France, said anti-Semitic sentiment is spreading on social networks, but also through expression by key public figures.
He referred to the case of the French comedian Dieudonne M'bala M'bala, who has been convicted several times of making anti-Semitic statements during his shows. The controversial humourist, Ejnes said, "has led to the rise of a free, anti-Semitic and xenophobic speech" in France.
To me, the most dangerous aspect of the National Front is the fact that they now present themselves as a mainstream party.
Jean-Francois Strouf, director of projects at a Jewish cultural centre in Paris, said these extreme-right speeches have fewer limits than in the past. At the same time, far-right parties have become more acceptable. The correlation between these two trends is particularly worrying for the Jewish community.
"To me, the most dangerous aspect of the National Front is the fact that they now present themselves as a mainstream party," Strouf said. "Yet they will never condemn a racist or anti-Semitic speech. By doing that, they are going to normalise it."
As more French Jews have become insecure, some have started to change their way of life. Parents have chosen to put their children in private or Jewish schools. Others have moved, not only for economic reasons, but in order to live in "less problematic" areas, according to Strouf.
In recent years, the number of French Jews moving to Israel has risen sharply. Nearly 3,300 French citizens moved to Israel in 2013, a 70 percent increase from 2012. More than 850 French citizens relocated to Israel in January and February this year - a 312 percent increase from the same period in 2013.
'This is a brain drain'
The increase in migration isn't only the result of a rising far-right in France, observers say. According to Camus, the Montauban and Toulouse shootings of March 2012 - in which four Jewish people and three soldiers were killed by Mohammed Merah, a man claiming inspiration from al-Qaeda - led several members of the community to contemplate leaving France. "But this isn't a massive migration wave," Camus said. "And there are other reasons, such as the economic crisis and professional opportunities abroad."
The same factors explain why some young Muslims are also leaving the country. "This is the brain drain," d'Appollonia said. "Some of them also leave because they want to practice their religion more freely." Leaders of both Jewish and Muslim communities say the National Front can't, by itself, be the reason driving people to leave the country.
Pundits also put into perspective the National Front's results in the last mayoral elections. According to d'Appollonia, the economic crisis, along with an unprecedented lack of trust in the government, aided the party's recent gains.
"It was a local breakthrough and a victory of ideas," the researcher said. "But we can't talk yet of a national rise." Even if it gained 11 cities, the National Front presented candidates in only 597 municipalities. This, as a total, represented less than two percent of France's more than 36,000 cities.
"Islamophobic and far-right ideas are certainly gaining ground within the population," said Yacine Medjahed of the French Young Muslims association. "But did the National Front's recent local gains worry me? Not at all."
Follow Valentine Pasquesoone on Twitter: @valpasquesoone
Source: Al Jazeera