Growing Islamophobia in France: towards a revival of the extreme right?

As the French Muslim population has been steadily growing, so has violence against them. Absent from the media a few years ago, the term ‘islamophobia’ is now frequently used to describe prejudice and hatred towards Muslims, and has been at the center stage of political debates in France: anti-Islamic sentiments have been growing within the discourse of certain political parties – mainly right-wing – diffusing islamophobia through the public sphere.

Image courtesy of Tangi Bertin ©2010, some rights reserved

Image courtesy of Tangi Bertin ©2010, some rights reserved

Growing islamophobia and the rise in popularity of the extreme right-wing National Front party (FN) have led many analysts to fear the return of the radical right. The FN has been consistently rising in the polls, from the French presidential to the European parliamentary elections, attaining record-breaking numbers. A number of reports attempted to quantify the number of attacks against Muslims, and all agree on an upward trend – though with widely different results. While the National Observatory against Islamophobia1 found an 11,3 per cent increase of violence against Muslims in 2013 compared to 2012, the Committee Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF)2 found an increase of 47,33 per cent over the same year.

It is also worth mentioning that in the past decade, France has passed several laws to prevent the display of Islamic faith in public spaces. In 2004, “ostentatious” religious symbols were banned in public schools. Though the law targets all religions and is based on France’s secular republican values, many perceived it as a direct attack against the Islamic headscarf. More recently in 2011, lawmakers banned the burqa in public spaces.


How did islamophobia develop?

One of the prominent rationales used against Islam and Muslims in France is the alleged threat to ‘national identity’ stemming from the growing number of Muslims. In other words, the fear that Islam might one day overshadow France’s more ‘traditional’ values such as secularism.

According to a 2010 Pew Research Center report3, France, with 7.5 percent of the population, had the largest Muslim population in Europe. Some politicians and citizens find the rapidly growing number of Islamic worship places alarming. Today, these places of worship, ranging from large Mosques to small prayer rooms, amount to 2,400. However CCIF puts these numbers into perspective by emphasizing that there is on average one mosque for 12,500 Muslims, compared to one church for 630 Catholics.

Studies show that islamophobia often depends on the size of the local Muslim population: the bigger the Muslim minority, the higher the discrimination. According to Eurobarometer4, France was the European country with the highest perception of discrimination in 2012, with 66 per cent of the population admitting to notice religious-based discrimination. Therefore France not only has the largest Muslim population in Europe, it also has the highest religious-based discrimination rate.

The Pew Research survey also indicates that anti-Muslim sentiments are more common among people of the ideological right, paving the way for growing concerns over right-wing extremism and islamophobia.


The rise of the extreme right

Based on historical instances, islamophobia could be compared to anti-Semitism. Jean-Marie Le Pen, former National Front leader, was infamous for his anti-Semitic views. Today, it seems Islam has replaced Judaism as the main target of xenophobic hatred. Even in the political discourse, Muslims are labeled a racial group, as opposed to a religious group.

In the current economic context, it seems there is a widespread social fear of immigration, mostly, in the case of France, coming from North Africa. Extremist right-wing political parties such as the National Front easily instrumentalize these fears, and though they never openly encourage racial hatred or violence, their discourses can influence the behaviour of individuals in society and lead to islamophobia.

Elsa Ray, spokesperson of the Committee Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) told Foreign Affairs Review about the links between political discourse and anti-Muslim violence.

“In ten years, we have observed a clear correlation between hate-filled and stigmatizing speeches against Muslims, and the acting out of violence” she said. “This means that the more political and media discourses are stigmatizing and violent against Muslims – voluntarily and because of an electioneering and paternalist strategy – the more citizens feel free to discriminate and to be violent against Muslims.”

The National Front party is infamous for its racism and islamophobia. However in recent years – alongside the growth of France’s Muslim population – it has gained tremendous popularity among voters. While the FN usually ranked fourth or fifth party in French elections, it has now managed to establish itself as the third-ranked party in the country before the centrist party, and has had increasingly promising results during elections, scoring a party record of 17,9 per cent of the vote in the first round of the 2012 presidential elections. The party scored even better results at the European parliamentary elections. From an initial three Members of the European Parliament, their representation jumped to twenty after the recent May 2014 elections.

However the most promising figures for the National Front are those from a survey5 taken in August 2014, which found that Marine Le Pen, current FN leader, could win the next presidential elections in 2017.

Meanwhile, certain radical right-wing parties and organizations spread strong xenophobic messages disguised as national values: the ‘Bloc Identitaire’6, which organizes street protests against Islam, describes ones of its first commitment as follows:

“Attached to the defense of our identities, we firmly refuse not only the Islamization of our society but also all non-European immigration.”

As the Muslim population grows and the French fear for their ‘national identity,’ perceived stigmatization from the legislation and the media combined with a thriving far right are seen as reasons why the French population has become increasingly Islamophobic.

According to Elsa Ray, “while the National Front rhetoric convinces more and more French citizens, this is directly due to the banalization of the racist and Islamophobic discourse in all political parties, in the left as well as in the right.”