According to latest opinion polls, security issues remain the primary concern of French voters for May’s presidential elections. Security stands ahead of social issues, including unemployment which is cruising at an average 10 percent, and the future of the social security system that is threatened by the need for further cuts in public finances.
This stems from the context of the persistent terrorist threats weighing on the country after the wave of attacks which started in 2015, furthered by presidential candidates who are fuelling fear to lend credence to their programmes and rally a very dubious and volatile electorate.
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Focusing on France’s specific concept of secularism – something no one knows how to implement any more – has become a convenient way for candidates to avoid addressing the sensitive issue of Islam in France head on.
As such, the candidates are also avoiding the risk of facing accusations of Islamophobia and creating an amalgam between Islam and terrorism.
Secularism is de facto used as an adjustment variable to define how to reassert French identity, culture, tradition, roots, and secure France from any attempt to change its “core DNA”.
This definition marks the split, dividing French society into two camps in a political battle: is today’s diversity of race and religion, globalisation and immigration an opportunity or a threat?
Fearmongering against Muslims
For Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front, which, with 26 percent, currently leads voters’ intentions in the first round, France must barricade itself from outsiders to guarantee both its unity and security.
In accordance with the “Appeased France” campaign slogan, she is casting her traditional net wider.
Muslims are not our enemies but “Republic-compatible” citizens, provided that they accept assimilation as “secular Muslims” in a Christian-rooted society.
The real enemy of the nation is radical Islam, that she pledges to bring to its knees, and its twin brother, jihadism.
On the domestic front, she maintains that shutting down Salafi mosques, kicking foreign imams preaching hate out of the country, forbidding foreign funding to Muslim organisations, deporting dual citizens with jihadi links and stripping them of their French nationality when they return to France from the jihadi fronts.
All these positions are equally shared by the candidate of the main right-wing party, The Republicans, Francois Fillon – whose fate is still uncertain since the “Penelopegate” scandal – with some “minor” differences.
For the former prime minister Fillon, running on a “stand-up” vision for France, banning the radical expression on French soil as part of the fight against “Islamic totalitarianism” includes Salafism, as well Muslim Brotherhood and Wahhabism.
The two candidates agree on the need to reinforce controls over national borders and to stop welcoming refugees for security and social reasons. Fillon also calls, for “reviewing our diplomatic relations with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia”, and expects clarifications on its “ambiguous role” in exporting extremist ideologies worldwide, including to Europe and France.
Le Pen has conveniently avoided addressing this issue in public. Yet she and Fillon both consider Russia as an ally in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria and Iraq, breaking with the Socialist government’s line under Francois Hollande’s presidency, shared by Benoit Hamon, the Socialist primary’s elected candidate, which denounces Russian operations as “war crimes”. Hamon was part of the “defiant” trend within the left-wing party.
The security front
Advocates of the hardline secularism waging war against the “useful idiots” of Islamism – political jargon for an ignorant or naive person used by propagandist leaders to spread their message – refer to Benoit Hamon as “Bilal Hamon”.
Indeed, Hamon calls for a more effective and preventive approach to defeat radicalism and terrorism rather than a solely repressive approach, which he feels exposes France to more terrorism as it discriminates and divides, thereby serving the enemy’s agenda.
Unlike his opponents, Hamon’s campaign slogan “Make France’s heart beat” refers to traditional left-wing values and more specifically to a tradition of generosity and tolerance – or what remains of them.
The state of emergency, which has been extended five times since November 2015, cannot become a permanent extraordinary response to meet terrorist threats.
He advocates investing in efforts for social cohesion rather than increasing prison capacity, using diplomatic initiatives to resolve crises rather than military engagements, and the better integration of refugees rather than targeted accusations that they are damaging France’s soul and its security.
Seemingly close to his stance, is Emmanuel Macron, who served two years as Hollande’s minister of the economy, before quitting last August to launch his own independent movement “Forward” and entering the presidential race as an “unidentified political object” – as a former investment banker he disclaims any political affiliation, promoting a “neither right nor left” political stance.
Despite not yet delivering his political programme, he is currently second in the polls, ahead of Fillon thanks to the “Penelopegate”, which has damaged the self-proclaimed person-of-virtue’s popularity. Fillon’s campaign has been based on public morality and his own alleged probity.
For the young Macron – he is 39 – “it is a mistake to consider that the programme is the heart” of an election campaign, given that “style” and “heart” are more decisive. However, when it comes to security matters, he distils a more general formula, mainly echoing Hamon’s proposals.
Despite these divergences, points of convergence emerge from the two dividing camps in France’s current presidential campaign on how to tackle terrorist threats.
The state of emergency, which has been extended five times since November 2015, cannot become a permanent response to meet terrorist threats. The capabilities of intelligence and security forces need to be reinforced and better coordinated.
As for addressing the real roots of radicalisation and terrorism in French society – such as social and economic marginalisation, inequality of opportunities, foreign policy choices – efforts that would outlast a generation are needed.
It is far longer than a five-year presidential mandate, so let’s pass the buck to our successors…
Anne Giudicelli is an international expert on geopolitical and security issues. She runs International Intelligence Cluster – Terr(o)Risc, a consulting organisation she founded in 2005. She previously worked as a security analyst for the French foreign office in Paris and in the MENA region.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.