Refugees, secularism and Middle Eastern politics in French elections

Both candidate’s views are drastically different on a series of topics such as security, immigration and integration of Middle Eastern minorities

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Less than three months before the Presidential elections in France, the ruling socialist party organizes its primary election in the hope of finding the candidate that would follow the footsteps of Francois Hollande to the Elysee Palace and defend the chances of a political party exhausted by five years in power plagued by terrorism and disappointing economic results.

Stunned by the French President’s decision not to seek reelection in light of his abysmal popularity outside of his party, socialist militants scramble to select a new champion that would compete with the likes of right wing candidate Francois Fillon, extreme right representative Marine Le Pen, communist leader Jean Luc Melenchon and the surprise media darling Emmanuel Macron.

The first round of the election offered an unexpected outcome as seasoned Prime Minister Manuel Valls trailed behind Benoit Hamon, a short lived Minister for Education and Social Economy. Both candidates represent the two irreconcilable streams of a socialist party whose feud have garbled the economic and political strategy throughout the Hollande administration.

While Manuel Valls’ government implemented a liberal economic agenda doubled with a tightening of security laws, Benoit Hamon – a Bernie Sanders admirer – was a key figure of the rebellious majority congress members who accused Manuel Valls of corrupting the socialist ideals of expansionary economics and international humanism.

Also read: ‘Draconian’ EU security laws target Muslims: Amnesty

Valls and Hamon’s views are also drastically different on a series of societal topics such as security, immigration, integration of Middle Eastern minorities and policy towards Israel and the Palestinian Authority. To a large extent, Manuel Valls can be considered a law and order strongman while Benoit Hamon always privileged a more inclusive approach, criticized sometimes as naïve or populist by his opponents who saw him gather support from minorities in the Parisian suburbs.

This core opposition between the two men can be best exemplified by three topics: the policy towards Syrian refugees, the reinforcement of French secularism and the attitude towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On all three issues, Hamon has been a constant critic of the Valls government’s decisions and advocates for a radical change in the Socialist party strategy, lashing the lukewarm attitudes and decisions taken during the Hollande Administration.

In regards to the refugee crisis, Benoit Hamon points at the immoral profits made by criminal organizations who smuggle daily migrants across the Mediterranean, stripping them of their meager savings to avoid military patrols. He advocates for an ambitious humanitarian visa, insidiously tackling the policy led by the Valls government by stating that France had not been up to scratch in its historic responsibility organizing the reception of migrants.

The disagreement between the two candidates is sharper in regards to the French concept of secularism with Prime Minister Manuel Valls wanting to reaffirm a strict - almost rigorous – vision of the French “laicite” to prevent the rise of communitarianism and the defense of women's rights. His strong condemnation of ostentatious religious signs such as the integral veil or the “burqini” is a direct result of this fundamental belief.

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Benoit Hamon is however reluctant on including French secularism within the French Constitution as he opposes the sacralisation of a concept that does not address the daily existence of French citizens. He is more accepting of the use of the veil and defends a bottom up approach that would challenge establishments. For Hamon, the rise of fundamentalism is as much caused by the lack of integration and difficulty of minorities to access certain jobs or neighborhoods than proselytism through rigorous dressing codes.

This more ambivalent position defended by Benoit Hamon has been heavily criticized over the last few days. Some of Valls’ partisans claimed that Hamon represents an “islamo-leftist fringe” of the society because of his leniency towards the “radicalization” of some suburbs where segregation between men and women has started to spread. The extreme right Front National was prompt in unfairly labelling Hamon as the candidate of the Muslim Brothers.

The disagreement between the two socialist candidates is deeper and linked to their understanding of what constitute the French identity. It was most obvious when Benoit Hamon frontally opposed Manuel Valls on his proposal to strip radicalized binational individuals of their French citizenship as it would have introduced an imbalance between categories of citizens.

Benoit Hamon has a far more ambitious and inclusive position towards the integration of minorities and migrants. In particular, he strongly favors voting rights for foreign residents in local elections, one of Francois Hollande’s promises that was immediately buried by Manuel Valls when in government. This radical measure has been caricatured by right wing leaders such as Fillon and Le Pen as an open door for a Muslim takeover of French suburbs.

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Such disagreement can also be traced in the positions defended by both candidates on foreign policy and in particular towards the Middle East. If both share the same ambitious military objectives against Daesh and global conflict resolutions, they regularly clashed on the French policies towards Israel and Palestine. Benoît Hamon, a long-standing supporter of the Palestinian “cause”, is one of the main instigators of the 2014 recognition of a Palestinian state by the National Assembly.

This parliamentary vote was however never followed into act by the French government headed by Manuel Valls, who declined to antagonize Israel while Paris was trying to play a role as a mediator. Benoit Hamon’s support to the Arab cause might also be infused by electoral interest as his constituency is home to one of the most vocal Muslim communities in France. Nevertheless, his position was also driven by a sincere normative belief in the two-States solution and the conviction that the right wing government in Israel had to be pressured into negotiation.

The chances of a Socialist presidential candidate are often downplayed by pollster in the light of the shift to the right of the French electorate after terrorist attacks and the rise of alternative candidates on the ashes of Francois Hollande’s unpopularity. However, it would be incorrect to assume that neither Valls nor Hamon have a chance to become the next French president.

Frontrunner Francois Fillon is jumping from one faux pas to the other and is now marred by a scandal, having employed his wife as his parliamentary assistant for years. Marine Le Pen is incapable of building support beyond her party and the two other candidates, Melenchon and Macron, have limited experience and a weak party basis. The choice between Hamon and Valls next Sunday therefore does matter as it would be way too soon to write off their chances.