Islam amid France’s elections

How Islam has been used as a political weapon in France’s elections

Nahla Chahal
Nahla Chahal
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It is believed one of the reasons Allan Juppé was unable to win the nomination of France’s political right in the upcoming May election, was his yielding position on the issue of Islam in France, or at least that’s what his competitors tried to convey to the public. Issues that range from the hijab to the niqab, from food at school cafeterias to building mosques always ended with open discussions about homeland terrorism, broadcasted by the entire world.

At the time, critics named Alan ‘Ali’. Indeed, in French, the two names are very similar at least vocally; posters of Allan or Ali Juppé filled the streets. Manuel Valls, the former prime minister and a Socialist Party nominee hopeful for the presidential elections restored this fission in an effort to hurt his rival Benoit Hamon. The latter was chosen, by a landslide, by the Socialists for the Elysee fight, causing a surprise that reminded some of the victory of Francois Fillon in winning the nomination of the political right.

The Internal division on the issue of Islam, remains less severe in right-wing circles, with some very religious, while others are deeply conservative and close to the church. But there is a broader spectrum of views within the Socialist Party, which claims to have a bigger task, defending modernity and secularity as French attributes and while protecting a progressive “Republic”.

Benoit Hamon’s name was also changed by critics who gave it a Muslim leaning; his opponents renamed him Bilel. Although it doesn’t completely sound the same, it is the end game that matters. During the second round in the epic debate against Valls - where only one candidate could come out victorious - Hamon responded saying he thought the name Bilel was beautiful.

The Internal division on the issue of Islam, remains less severe in right-wing circles, with some very religious, while others are deeply conservative and close to the church

Nahla Chahal

‘A leftist Islamist’

As a matter of fact, a minister of the current government who chose to remain anonymous leaked to the newspaper Liberation that Hamon “is the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood”, while Malek Boutih (a deputy and leader of the Socialist Party of Algerian and Muslim origin, who was commissioned to be the chairman of an Organization against racism) publically called him “a leftist Islamist”.

Hamon responded quietly that as a deputy for the region of Yvelines, known to have a strong Muslim population, with a city that is described as dangerous, where the children of Immigrants who have become French, rag (including the star Jamel Debbouze and a number of other successful figures) asserted that these titles do not worry him.

He disclosed that he was not ashamed to receive veiled mothers of pupils who had come to protest the decision of the Government of Valls, which had banned them from accompanying their children on school trips. Nor, he said, was he ashamed that his spokesman was a member of the “rally against Islamophobia in France”. Benoit Hamon dismantled all the scandals around him, which his rivals, especially those closes to the circle of the former prime minister, try to exploit and highlight.

During a television debate Manuel Valls attacked Benoit Hamon’s “lenient” and “ambiguous” stance toward radical Islam. Hamon responded by stressing his views of co-existing and rebuffing the general political notion on the issue, saying he defended secularism but also the right of individuals to freely express their beliefs.

He aptly explained the “laicite” law that “solely permits believers and nonbelievers to be the way they want and ensure the neutrality of the public force and the state”. Hamon’s views totally contradict that of his competitor who urges for a strict interpretation of “laicite” and calling in his campaign to link the law with the constitution, in a gambit move for its amendment.

Laicite law

Valls believes the 1950 law which palpably defines “laicite” – the French concept of secularism - and its scope. He openly avowed adopting the views of the French philosopher Elizabeth Badinter and the writer Caroline Frouster, who spearhead an anti-Islam campaign under the slogan of fighting terrorism, extremism and religious ideology and the emancipation of women, implying that Muslims are incapable of integration with the French values. On the other hand, they have been accused by Hamon “they foresee the good Muslim as the Muslim who is not Muslim”.

He suggested creating an investigative discrimination body, similar to the fraud committee, to probe discrimination in government institutes and enforcing penalties. Valls’ stance, which involves going beyond the “laicite” to enact a law prohibit women covering (wearing hijabs) in universities, acknowledging at the same legal hindrance to executing his vision, he quipped saying “we will find a way to overcome obstacles. Previously the former French Minister defended a ban on burkinis in more than dozen coastal towns.

During the heated debate, Hamon, unlike his opponent, opted for a fluid approach, he accused Valls of breaching laws to fulfill his personal beliefs. He reminded him of the reply of 30 University Deans in response to his plan to ban hijab in university “Hijab is never a concern and causes no disruption to public order”.

Since the tenure of Sarkozy, Islam, as other grave crisis, has been the main focus of political debates in France. It has become the “scapegoat” of all the Socialists problems to duck from internal crisis promoted their debates, concepts, and principles establishing the supremacy of the fascist-right represented by the National Front and its candidate, Marine Le Pen who lead the French presidential race in the first round of voting.

This article is also available in Arabic.
Nahla Chahal is a writer, journalist, researcher and activist. She is a columnist at London-based Al Hayat newspaper and is president of the Arab Women Researchers Association.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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