French Politicians Seek Re-election by Targeting Muslim Symbols

April 27, 2021

The political situation in France is forcing Emmanuel Macron to balance precariously on a tightrope. Here is how.
People hold placards during a demonstration to protest against Islamophobia, near the Gare du Nord in Paris, France on November 10, 2019. Photo by Mustafa Yalçın. Anadolu Agency.

Recent controversies have risen over several amendments approved by the French Senate. The amendments in question relate to the Anti-Separatism Bill (2021) whose goal is to combat “radical Islam” and separatism in France. Theoretically, this bill seeks to eradicate religious radicalism, yet its actual target is Islamic education and the headscarf. Focusing on such factors highlights a deeply flawed system.

Followers of the Islamic faith in France are now prevented from actively practicing their beliefs because of legislative changes which unfairly censor their basic rights. Censorship of fundamental principles of faith is against basic human rights, and several human rights organizations have already opposed and reacted to the bill.

Notably, these developments in France are not new. Rather, they reflect a process of advanced secularization that has gradually reached its peak. The Anti-Separatism Bill is a blatant violation of basic human rights and openly defies the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). For example, Article 9 of the ECHR protects one’s fundamental right to thought, religion, and belief. This extends to anyone wanting to change their religion (privately or publicly) with additional protection to practice faith or belief openly, the right to worship, and the right to observe religious teachings.

Not only does the Anti-Separatism Bill go against Article 9 of the ECHR, it also violates Article 14 which prohibits discrimination on the following grounds: race, gender, sex, and religion. In fact, it breaches a number of principles. It is evident that the bill objects to the desire of Muslim women to practice their religion and observe wearing the headscarf, something which the French government deems as unlawful for any Muslim under the age of eighteen.

A fifteen-year-old in France can decide to have an abortion without parental consent, but a young Muslim woman aged seventeen is barred from choosing to wear a headscarf.

The irony here is that a fifteen-year-old in France can decide (without parental/guardian consent) to have an abortion, but a young Muslim woman aged seventeen is barred from choosing to wear a headscarf. The double standards displayed by French lawmakers are indeed alarming. Such disparity makes me question whether it is possible for this bill to be effectively implemented.

Hierarchically, if we are to observe the order of political authority, European law is more powerful than the law of EU state members. The ECHR and all other international treaties in which such civil and human rights are contained, take precedence and prevail over national legislation.

The legal aspect is one feature – the political aspect is rather more complicated. What may be legally impossible is not always politically impossible and therefore, it is interesting to analyze the underlying intentions behind this law. To obtain a better understanding it is important to outline the current context of this debate.

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VIDEO: French women react to proposed headscarf ban

France has one of the largest Muslim communities in Europe. Although a minority group, Muslims make up 5.7 million of the French population, a figure which grows significantly every year. This population growth is due to several factors. Firstly, the birth rate among Muslims is higher.

A demographic study conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2016-2017 revealed that Muslims have an average of 2.6 children per family, in comparison to 1.8 for non-Muslim families. A simple calculation based on this statistic leads to the conclusion that in 2050 France will have a Muslim population of 8.6 million. This is a population growth of almost 3 million Muslims in 30 years – without any form of migration included.

The second major issue is migration, which has and will continue to have a major impact on the future of France and Europe as a whole. The Pew Research Center drew up an extensive report on the issue presenting three possible scenarios: “zero migration,” “medium migration,” and “high migration.”

According to the report, the Muslim community in France will grow in number primarily as a result of high migration rates following the crisis that has resulted from the outbreak of the Syrian civil war and the series of anti-government protests known as the Arab Spring.

Evidently, migration into Europe is one of the greatest challenges of European history. This influx of migration has boosted the popularity of far-right political parties and xenophobic groups who react to the crisis by promoting and spreading fear and hatred towards minorities.

The perception of a large Muslim population as threatening to the existing French identity has been further solidified by political campaigns and social media. People have been led to believe that a “Great Replacement” is taking place.

The idea of the Great Replacement is a remarkably popular white-nationalist conspiracy theory that proposes that the entire French population will eventually be demographically and culturally replaced by non-Europeans (mainly Muslims or Arabs), that the French identity will be lost, and Islam will become the predominant religion in the country.

As a result, neo-Nazi youth groups have emerged all over Europe and far right parties have achieved unprecedented success. In France, the most famous of such youth groups was Génération identitaire, which was recently dissolved by the French cabinet for being too hateful.

Despite the dissolution, the far right continues to gain support in France. Fueling the migration crisis with the spread of Islamophobia is a resourceful tactic utilized by French politicians to gain momentum and popularity in the electoral polls.

Macron feels increasingly pressurized by the extreme right and wishes to secure his leadership by showcasing himself as the “defender of the Republic.” To maintain his image as a protector, Macron takes firm action against anything that is Islam-related. The headscarf, for example, has become the center of an anti-Islam campaign. It is an easy target because in the West there is still a stigma whereby people interpret the headscarf as a means of oppressing women.

The Jewish kippah is considered a sign of religious freedom. In contrast, the headscarf has become the ultimate symbol of “Islamization” for many right wing-minded French. An attack on the headscarf is therefore equated with a symbolic halt of the growth of Islam in France. By putting forth this claim, Macron can present himself as the protector of French values ​​and norms and keep the far-right parties pacified whilst winning their electoral support.

In France, Islam as a religion is negatively portrayed and this ideal is reinforced by leading political figures. An example of this negative portrayal is French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin who once said in a debate with Marine Le Pen, chairwoman of the far-right National Rally, that she is being “too light” on the fight against “radical Islam.”

Macron does not want to be associated with left-wing parties in order to protect his reputation as a “tough enforcer.” After the attack and beheading of Samuel Patty, a schoolteacher who was killed after showing images of the Prophet Muhammad to his class during a lesson on free speech last October, a new term has been coined in France: Islamo-gauchisme, also known as “Islamo-leftism”. This is a vague term referring to the progressive left-wing of the French political spectrum.

On the one hand, we have political parties in France that care too little about extremism and radicalization, and on the other, we have political parties that completely oppose issues of Muslim identity. The sensitive political situation has forced Macron to balance precariously on a tightrope. In the meantime, and most importantly, the Muslim community in France are victims of bigotry and political tactics in which their fundamental basic rights are increasingly restricted and unfairly violated.

Stijn Ledegen is a Master student of International and European Law at the VUB (Free University of Brussels). He completed his Foreign International Law studies at Bilgi University in Istanbul. Prior to Brexit, Stijn was employed at the European Parliamentary as a former Political Research Assistant for the British Conservative Party. For several years, Stijn Ledegen has been active in the field of religious advocacy in which he writes to condemn the rise of Islamophobia in Belgium and works to establish a fairer environment for religious people in secularized Europe. He continually strives to preserve the right to religious freedom and actively uses social media platforms to channel his views. Stijn is the author of ‘Islam Through the Eyes of a Convert.’

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