On February 20, Marine Le Pen, the presidential candidate of the far-right National Front, paid a two-day visit to Lebanon. In Beirut, Le Pen had formal meetings with Lebanese political leaders, but her principal engagement was with the country’s Christian right. Her meeting with the grand mufti of Lebanon was cancelled because she refused to wear a scarf at the meeting.
In Lebanon, Le Pen generally ignored the country’s two-thirds Muslim population, and alienated most politicians by setting out her West Asia policy as consisting of: no more refugees, strong affiliation with the Christian community, and support for the Bashar al-Assad government, which she simply saw as the enemy of ISIS.
In public remarks, she also recalled the strong links between her National Front supporters and Lebanon’s Christian militia, calling it a “bond of bloodshed”, viewed by Muslims as celebrating the massacres of Palestinians and other Lebanese perpetrated by these militia in the 1975-90 civil war.
In Lebanon Le Pen was following in the footsteps of her rival, the 39-year-old centrist candidate, Emmanuel Macron, who is heading his own newly set up party, En Marche! (Onward!). He had visited Beirut in January where he was warmly received. He had called for a more balanced policy toward Syria, engaging with all parties, including al-Assad.
Everything associated with “Islam” is now up for debate: the headscarf, the burkini, the setting up of mosques, halal food, the association of Islam with terrorism, and even the shaky performance of the North African footballer, Karim BenzemaTalmiz Ahmad
While Le Pen was in Lebanon, Macron, went off to Algeria where he described his country’s colonial experience as a crime against humanity. This alienated the right-wing in France; he also lost left-wing support by opposing gay marriage.
Le Pen’s Islamophobia
Le Pen, today the leader in the campaign with 26 percent support, has promised to close Salafi mosques, get rid of foreign imams and foreign funding for extremist groups, and deport French citizens affiliated with militancy. Le Pen’s platform, sternly nationalist and anti-immigration and avowedly anti-Muslim, has surged in national appeal over the last two years, so that her party was in first place in the 2015 regional elections.
This has been clearly in response to the Charlie Hedbo attacks on January 2015 and the Paris attacks later that year, which have defined the country’s Arab Muslims as the violent and despised “Other”, and made immigration and “Islam” major issues in the presidential contest.
Le Pen’s views are also held by the other right-wing candidate, from the Republican Party, Francois Fillon, who has also promised to curb immigration and conserve France’s conservative values, saying: “Our country is not a sum of communities, it is an identity.” He also noted that Catholics, Protestants and Jews did not denounce the values of the Republic, unlike the followers of a certain other religion, an obvious reference to Muslims.
In terms of the number of worshippers, Muslims in France are second after Catholics, and are about 5-7 percent of the national population, estimated at five to six million. While most of the Muslims are migrants from the former French colonies in Africa, about 100,000 French are converts to Islam.
Radicalization of Arab youth
Everything associated with 'Islam' is now up for debate: the headscarf, the burkini, the setting up of mosques, halal food, the association of Islam with terrorism, and even the shaky performance of the North African footballer, Karim Benzema.
Early in the campaign, presidential candidate Alain Juppe was stigmatized as “Ali” Juppe, while another candidate, Benoit Hamon was nicknamed “Bilel”. Juppe dropped out early, while Hamon is struggling with his hard-left agenda. Muslim graves have been desecrated and mosques attacked.
France has changed over the last three decades. In the 1970s, while there were confrontations between Arab youth and police, Islam was not dragged into the fight. But, the Muslim underclass, leading squalid lives in the suburbs of metropolitan centres, gradually came to find a sanctuary and identity in Islam.
Observers note that in the riots of 2005 in suburban areas across France, Islam became the “identity bearer” of the marginalized Muslim youth against the society that had no place for them.
Since 2005, hundreds of France’s Arab youth have flocked to join extremist groups in West Asia, particularly ISIS in Syria. More seriously, the messages put across by ISIS on social media have encouraged some Muslim youth to perpetrate violence against soft targets in France.
In most instances, these people had shown little religious zeal earlier and had no contact with extremist groups in West Asia. Their profiles show them as under-educated and without regular employments, generally social misfits, with anger management issues and history of domestic violence.
One major victim of burgeoning French xenophobia could be the European Union (EU) itself: 60 percent of the electorate have negative views about the bloc, while 80 percent are hankering for a “strong leader willing to break the rules” to save the country.
Talmiz Ahmad is the former Indian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE.