|M’hammed Henniche leads UAM93, an alliance of Muslim organisations [Yasmine Ryan/Al Jazeera]|
Le Raincy, France – Throughout the duration of the campaign for France’s presidency, one issue has come up over and over again.
Islam, and whether it has a place in French society, has been a favourite issue of the two right wing candidates, the National Front’s Marine Le Pen and Nicolas Sarkozyof the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP).
Al Jazeera’s Yasmine Ryan spoke with M’hammed Henniche, head of the Union of Muslim Associations of Seine-Saint-Denis (UAM 93) [Fr], about how all the negative attention had affected Muslim voters in the run up to the first round of voting – to be held on Sunday, April 22.
Yasmine Ryan: Why do you think there has been so much focus on Muslims during the campaign, even before the shootings in Toulouse carried out by Mohamed Merah?
M’hammed Henniche: The problem is that for nearly two years, we [French Muslims] have really been at the centre of the French political conversation. The headlines in all the newspapers for the past two years have been “Muslims, Muslims, Muslims”.
It’s difficult to understand why this is the case in France, when there hadn’t been any attacks, there hasn’t been any “French September 11”.
The constant television debates on the full veil [the burka or chador] lasted a year. Then they passed the law, and we said: “Fine, even if we do not agree with it, let’s just move on.”
Then they said we should not build mosques with minarets, and we said: “That’s fine, we will build mosques without minarets.”
Then they continued, saying Muslims were praying in the streets, as if we even want to pray in the streets. That created lots of problems and they passed a law banning praying in the streets.
The next debate was over mothers who wear the veil and who want to accompany their children during extracurricular school activities, something they had the right to do by law. They decided mothers who wear the veil can not accompany their children outside, there was a controversy and they passed a law.
Then there was even a polemic over schoolgirls who don’t wear a veil, but who wear long skirts and whether they should be allowed to do so. That was strange.
After they moved on to halal [food prepared in a manner which respects Islamic principles], and whether French people were eating halal without realising it. This also moved on to kosher food – and Jews became collateral damage in the controversy.
We haven’t asked for any of this. It’s true there are social problems in France, but just because they [politicians] have not been able to solve these problems, they use us as scapegoats.
This has forced French Muslims to think more and more as a unified group, and in these elections, they will vote en bloc, to show their opposition.
YR: Most French people I interview say overwhelmingly that the economy is their biggest concern, and the opinion polls also show this, even after the Toulouse shootings. To what extent do you think this Islamophobia is coming from the political class themselves?
MH: It’s true that when you speak with any French person, Muslim or non-Muslim, the biggest fear is that France is going to have a crisis on the scale of Greece. People are worried they will have no retirement pensions, that their children won’t find work and that they won’t be able to pay their rent every month. That’s their nightmare.
When you tell them that there are Muslims eating halal food, they don’t care. What does worry them is whether they’re going to be able feed themselves.
It’s [Islamophobia] coming from a minority of politicians, and the problem comes from the left as well as the right.
If you regard Spain or Italy or Greece, there’s been violent opposition to the political system. In Spain there’s been the indignados movement and there were violent protests in Greece.
In France, we haven’t had any of that, because they’ve focused everyone’s attention on another problem: Islam. This means the French people are focusing on halal food, on people praying in the street, on minarets. But all that’s not really their problem.
“If France lost its triple-A credit rating, it’s not because of Muslims. It’s because France has been badly governed.“
– M’hammed Henniche
If France lost its triple-A credit rating, it’s not because of Muslims. It’s because France has been badly governed. There are no Muslims in the National Assembly [France’s lower house of parliament]. We have no responsibility for any part of the government.
To avoid the French people from criticising them, the politicians are trying to use Muslims to distract the public from the real issues.
YR: What do you think of Francois Hollande’s stance on Islam? It seems he’s been rather mute on the right’s targeting of Islam – do you think this silence will hurt his chances with Muslim voters?
MH: For the first round, I think a large number of Muslims voters will vote for the far-left, especially for [Jean-Luc] Melenchon. We did a survey on our website, which Le Parisian wrote about, that showed Muslims prefer Melenchon. Each time the far right sets the agenda, its ideas then gets picked up by the UMP, which turns the ideas into laws. The Socialists say next to nothing against this.
The only ones to strongly condemn against these ideas are Melenchon and the Green Party [led by Eva Joly]. Muslims don’t have much faith in Hollande, they say he wants to win without being committed.
For us, Hollande will continue with the same policies, so long as the economic crisis continues.
YR: During her campaign, Marine Le Pen, the far-right National Front candidate, has used the term “Islamoleftism“. Do you think the feeling that, as you say, so many Muslims seem likely to vote for the left lends some truth to her generalisation?
MH: The left, especially the Communists and the Greens, and to an extent, the Socialists, have understood that there are votes to be won amongst Muslims. During [former UMP President] Jacques Chirac’s era, there was a sizable percentage, as high as 20 per cent [of French Muslims], who voted for the right.
With Sarkozy, especially as he has moved further to the right, many of these voters have abandoned the UMP. The left has won a lot of support [from Muslim voters] for its stance on Palestine. Melenchon and Joly have courted this vote and could be described as Islamophiles.
It’s true what Marine Le Pen is saying, that there is an alliance between Muslims and the left. But this alliance has been created by the right, who have pushed Muslims to the left.
YR: Melenchon comes from a political family that, after all, advocates strict secularism. Isn’t it contradictory for Muslim voters to support him?
MH: Melenchon is one of the most secular of all the candidates. We didn’t anticipate that we would end up supporting him, and he didn’t anticipate reaching out to us.
The Socialists expect Muslims to vote for them, without doing anything to win them over.
It wasn’t necessarily his [Melenchon’s] aim to win the Muslim vote, in the beginning, but he soon realised it was an electorate that could support him. Melenchon is someone who is fierce. And when the right has been fierce, he’s the only one who was able to respond.
After Toulouse, when the right reacted by pointing the finger at all Muslims, the Socialists said nothing.
Melenchon, meanwhile, came out and said: “Stop hassling Muslims!” You can’t be nuanced when someone is attacking you.
Recently, L’Humanite [a French daily newspaper linked to the French Communist Party] invited Muslim representatives to visit them. Never before would we even have considered going to the organ of the Communist Party. But we went, because we have the same interests. The enemy of my enemy is my friend.
YR: In France, do you think politicians pay enough heed to opinion polls of various communities, or does the ban on statistics based on religion or race undermine this?
MH: What French Muslims would like more than anything is simply to be treated with indifference. In France, it’s true you can’t do opinion polls based on religion or race. But politicians most definitely know which way each community is going to vote.
The UMP knows very well that that it has completely lost the Muslim electorate. Maybe for the second round [of the presidential elections] they will adopt a different tone and bring in people from outside the party, from the centre.
YR: In France, there are around six million Muslims, and demographers predict this number is going to increase. Do you think this will have an impact on the political debate?
MH: Most Muslims live in the suburbs, the areas where people vote the least. Here in the 93rd department, [suburbs north of Paris with a high number of immigrants and children of immigrants], more than half of the eligible population doesn’t vote. But for this election, there have been a lot of controversies and tensions. Lots of people will vote, to punish the politicians responsible.
If you consider that a high percentage of the elderly vote, while the young have the highest rate of abstention. The Muslim electorate is a young population, so this applies to them.
But when there is a controversy, they are more likely to vote.
YR: There has been a lot of focus on Qatar’s investments in France throughout the campaign, to the point that Qatar put some of its projects on hold until after the campaign is over. Why is this?
MH: It’s true that Qatar, just like France’s Muslim population, has been a big campaign issue since the beginning of the year. Mostly this is being driven by the far-right, with Marine Le Pen accusing Qatar of investing money in France to help Sarkozy. The right wing columnist Eric Zimmour even suggested that Qatar was trying to create a lobby for its interests in France.
Unfortunately Qatar panicked, and withdrew the plan to invest 50 million euros ($66m) in the [French] suburbs until after the elections, because of all the attention. This is a shame because a lot of people were motivated and wanted to work.
The Socialists have also focused on this, because of their fears over Qatar’s relationship with Sarkozy.
I think Qatar’s intentions are just like those of any foreign investors.
YR: Will Sarkozy’s foreign policy have an impact on the Muslim electorate?
MH: I think the situation in France is what they are concerned about. They aren’t in a position to worry about what is happening overseas.
They will vote based on their situation here, where they are constantly under attack. They want political change, so that they won’t always be the focus of so much controversy.
You can follow Yasmine Ryan on Twitter: @yasmineryan