Why the French left has a problem with Islamophobia

A recent anti-Islamophobia march in Paris has exposed deep divisions among French leftists on Islam.

Islamophobia march
A protester holds a placard reading 'Together against Islamophobia' during a march against Islamophobia, in Paris on November 10, 2019 [AP/Thibault Camus] [Daylife]

On November 10, thousands marched through the streets of Paris to condemn Islamophobia. The demonstration was organised by a number of French left-wing organisations and personalities after a mosque was attacked in Bayonne, a small town 700 kilometres south of the French capital, last month.

On November 1, the left-leaning newspaper, Liberation, published an open letter signed by a number of prominent leftists calling for a united front against Islamophobia. But there were some notable absences in the list of signatories and on the march.

Although MPs from the radical left party La France Insoumise (LFI) had originally committed themselves to the march, as the event drew closer, several senior figures distanced themselves from it, including Francois Ruffin who explained that he was going to play football instead. Some signatories, such as the Green (EELV) MEP Yannick Jadot also pulled out, while the Socialist Party (PS) argued that it could not support a text that denounced secular laws.

In the end, the only nationally-recognisable politician to attend the November 10 march was LFI’s leader Jean-Luc Melenchon. Meanwhile, parties across the political spectrum attacked the event, with the spokeswoman for President Emmanuel Macron’s party En Marche deriding it as a march in favour of political Islam.

So why is anti-Islamophobia action causing such division among French leftists?

Thirty years of debate

The French left has always had a difficult relationship with religion. For much of modern French history, it was the left that led the charge against the Catholic Church, as they sought to limit its influence over politics, civic life and education. Since the 1980s, however, the question of Islam – and Muslims – has taken centre-stage.

The tensions between the left and Islam came to public attention in October 1989, when three teenage girls were expelled from a school just north of Paris for wearing the Islamic headscarf. This led to wide public debate. At the time, the French left was divided between those who supported the girls’ right to attend school, regardless of their attire, and those who argued that the headscarf was an affront to France’s secular principles, which mandate that religion should be kept out of public schools.

Seen as a watershed moment, the 1989 “headscarf affair” was the first of many. Since then, France has legislated against wearing “religious symbols” in schools (2004) and full-face coverings such as the niqab in public (2010) and a minor moral panic was caused in the summer of 2016 over the so-called burkini.

Each of these controversies has reinforced a neo-republican agenda, which sees a strong form of secularism as central to French national identity. It can sometimes seem like Groundhog Day, as every few months, a new polemic erupts over secularism and Islam. This year alone, we have seen heated discussions over the “sport hijab“, access to swimming pools for women in full-body swimwear and a recent (non-binding) vote in the Senate to extend the ban on wearing religious symbols in schools to those supervising school trips, including parents.

The multiple iterations of the headscarf affair have challenged the French left’s position as the guardian of secularism, gender equality and, of course, anti-racism and the fight against intolerance.

In some cases, organisations have even shifted their position on the issue. For example, one of France’s most prominent anti-racist organisations – SOS-Racisme – supported the cause of the expelled schoolgirls in 1989. But, fast forward 15 years to 2004, and the same organisation was enthusiastically backing the banning of “religious symbols” in public schools.

Islamophobia as a dirty word

Already in 2004, there was a good deal of acrimony among various elements of the French left, not just connected to the issue of the headscarf, but also related to Islamophobia as a term to describe hostility towards Muslims.

This is the origin of the controversy surrounding the November 10 march.

In France, there is a deeply held aversion to using the word “Islamophobia” even by those who recognise the existence of persistent racism and discrimination against Muslims. Its critics regard the term as a malign attempt to shut down criticism of religion or a tool of political Islam. Many anti-racist groups and leaders simply refuse to use it, preferring terminology such as “anti-Muslim hostility”.

The French government’s official watchdog against racism and hate crimes (DILCRAH) does not employ the term and former socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls famously referred to Islamophobia as the Trojan horse of the Salafists“. In recent years, public intellectuals such as Philippe d’Iribarne and Pascal Bruckner have written books about the dangers of using – and legitimising – the word Islamophobia.

Academic conferences that have attempted to discuss the phenomenon have been shut down, while academics like Henri Pena-Ruiz have caused controversy for arguing that one has the right to be Islamophobic. Pena-Ruiz actually argued that he was defending the right to criticise all religions, but his words nevertheless provoked other leftists who believed he was downplaying the importance of anti-Muslim discrimination.

Such debates over the meaning of words can appear rather superficial, but they reflect long-standing disagreements on the French left about the proper relationship between universal principles and the management of religious difference. The risk, of course, is that the key message from the November 10 demonstration – ending discrimination as well as verbal and physical violence against Muslims – simply gets lost in repetitive debates around semantics.

Moreover, the recent controversy over Islamophobia undoubtedly makes it harder for French society to tackle anti-Muslim discrimination since those who do so find themselves accused of undermining France’s attachment to republican values.

The main task for the French left going forward is to find a way to remain true to its secular principles, while also doing a better job of – to use Melenchon’s recent words – “combatting an attitude of blind hatred leading to mistreatment and even crimes against real or imagined believers of a religion”.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.