France’s Muslims fear for their futures as Le Pen’s far right party surges

Tensions are rising in France, home to one of Europe’s largest Muslim minorities, ahead of the snap election run-off.

A Muslim woman walks in a street in Nantes, France
A Muslim woman, wearing the style of dress called an abaya, walks in a street in Nantes, France [File: Stephane Mahe/Reuters]

Paris, France – Fatimata, a 22-year-old French Muslim woman, suddenly feels as though many of her compatriots are against her very being.

On Sunday, the far right led the first round of parliamentary elections and while it’s not yet clear if Marine Le Pen’s National Rally movement will form a majority after the July 7 run-off, many of France’s six million Muslims are, like Fatimata, paralysed with fear.

“I am feeling betrayed by France. Knowing that 10.6 million people voted for a party promoting the ban of the veil in the public space is hurtful,” she told Al Jazeera.

She represents the kind of French citizen that Le Pen’s party has long demonised.

She wears the hijab, she was born to foreign parents – Mauritanian and Senegalese, and she was raised in one of the banlieues, the impoverished suburbs circling Paris that are home to many immigrant and ethnic minority communities. She’s also a dual citizen.

Le Pen has called for the hijab to be banned in public spaces while Jordan Bardella, her protege who could become France’s next prime minister, has called the veil a “tool of discrimination”. He has railed against the populous banlieue north of Paris that he grew up in – Seine-Saint-Denis – and promised to ban dual nationals from some “the most strategic” state jobs if his party seizes power.

“I’ve experienced to the core the feeling of becoming a foreigner in one’s own country. I’ve experienced the Islamisation of my neighbourhood,” 28-year-old Bardella said in June.

Fatimata, a student, hails from Stains, a commune within Seine-Saint-Denis. It is possible that as a child, she may have walked past Bardella at a market or sat across from him in a cafe.

“I received French nationality when I was 13, and I can’t help to think that somewhere in my banlieue, there is a 13-year-old girl just like I was who won’t be able to achieve things because the first party in France is now the National Rally,” she said.

‘Compromising my future’

President Emmanuel Macron called the snap polls after suffering a humiliating defeat at the hands of the far right in the recent European Parliament elections. But his risky gamble has backfired.

While National Rally secured about a third of Sunday’s vote with 33.15 percent, the New Popular Front, a left-wing alliance, came second with 28.14 percent. Macron was left red-faced again, as his centrist alliance scored just 20.76 percent. Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets since to rally against the far right.

Elias, a 27-year-old who works in marketing, said many Muslims are considering emigrating from France if the National Rally ends up governing – a trend which has already taken hold among some professionals.

Earlier this year, the authors of a study titled La France, tu l’aimes mais tu la quittes (France, loving it but leaving it), conducted a survey of more than 1,000 people, interviewing 140 at length. They cited a “brain drain” of French Muslims quitting the country for jobs abroad because of the “harmful effects of Islamophobia”.

While a “valid” reaction to discrimination or the rise of the far right, Elias said he feels “torn”.

“If we all leave, who will continue to resist? I think it is important to stay, at least for the future generations,” said Elias, who has Algerian ancestry.

“What’s also making me very worried is the potential increase of police violence. There will probably be a surge of racial profiling and of violence, because the officers will feel protected and supported by the National Rally.

“I am scared for my little brother, who is 15 years old and who had his first police check when he was only 13.”

(Al Jazeera)

For Tiziri Messaoudene, an 18-year-old student of Algerian descent, it is Bardella’s position on dual nationals that is most frightening.

During a pre-election speech, Bardella justified his stance by evoking Russia’s war on Ukraine, saying, “Can anyone imagine a Franco-Russian working at the armed forces ministry today?”

“The National Rally is saying that dual-nationality holders will not be allowed to work in ‘strategic positions in the state’. This is compromising my future in this country. I am studying political science and would like to work in public affairs, so if this bill passes, would I have studied for nothing?” Tiziri said.

In Carpentras, Tiziri’s hometown in southern France, the National Rally scored 53.51 percent on Sunday.

National Rally was previously known as the National Front, the party founded in 1972 by Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. The movement has attempted to soften the hard-right image cultivated by Le Pen senior, who was known for, and convicted of, racist hate speech.

Middle school students, some wearing a hijab, listen to teacher Ilyas Laarej during an Islamic ethics class at the Averroes school, France's biggest Muslim educational institution
Many of France’s six million Muslims have long felt at odds with the secular state [File: Ardee Napolitano/Reuters]

Rim-Sarah Alouane, a French legal expert, said it would be “theoretically impossible” for the National Rally to carry out some of its aims.

“The bill on the ban on the veil in the public space would infringe on the laïcité (secularism) principle, while the bill on the dual-nationality holders would infringe on the principle of equality between the citizens,” Alouane told Al Jazeera.

“Nevertheless, the National Rally is a political party like no other, which means that it could do exceptional things if it comes to power.

“So in theory, those bills are against the Constitution. But in practice, we will have to see if the supreme institutions of the country will play their roles as counterweights.”

She believes that a “long process of normalisation” lies behind the far right’s success.

Under Macron’s government, controversial bills such as the abaya ban, the so-called separatism law and recent measures on immigration have rocked marginalised groups.

“It’s an important thing to remember,” said Tiziri. “Even under Macron, we lived in a nauseating Islamophobic and racist climate, where scapegoats were the Muslims and the people from foreign origin.”

According to Benjamin Tainturier, a doctoral student at Sciences Po Paris who researches far-right discourse in the media, the National Rally’s rise can be linked to the “demonisation of the radical left”, especially of Jean-Luc Melenchon’s France Unbowed party, as well as shifting theories on racism.

“After 15 years, the National Rally has succeeded in changing the definition of what racism is, through replacing a colonial and essentialist racism by a more subtle form,” he told Al Jazeera.

Macron’s Renaissance party also “stigmatised its left-wing opponents, by using the same demonising tactics that were used against the far-right before”, he said.

While campaigning, centrist politicians adopted the slogan “Ni RN, ni LFI” (Neither National Rally, nor France Unbowed).

Looking ahead, Tainturier shares Elias’s concern that police-led discrimination could surge if the far right dominates the parliament.

“If the ruling power conveys the idea that it is acceptable to discriminate against people according to their origins, it could legitimise police violence and thus increase it,” he warned.

Meanwhile, Macron, who faces the prospect of awkwardly cohabiting with a far-right premier, is urging voters to get behind the centre, ominously warning of “civil war” if the hard right – or left – triumphs.

Source: Al Jazeera