Tensions about race and religion in France's presidential race

From attacks on "wokeism," to crackdowns against mosques, France’s presidential campaign was particularly challenging for voters of immigrant history and religious minorities as discourse portraying them as "the Other" has gained ground in a wide swathe of French society.

Tensions about race and religion in France's presidential race

French voters will head to the polls Sunday in a second round vote between incumbent Emmanuel Macron, and Marine Le Pen. This wraps up a campaign that experts consider unusually dominated and dominated by discriminatory speech and proposals targeting Islam and immigration.

Le Pen proposes to ban Muslim headcarves publically, putting women such as Naila Ouazarf, a 19-year-old student, in a difficult position.

Ouazarf said, dressed in a matching beige robe with matching headcover, "I want a President who accepts me" If Le Pen becomes president, she said she would defy it and pay a fine if necessary.

Le Pen was attacked by Macron on the headscarf question during their presidential discussion Wednesday. He warned it could spark "civil war."

Far-right candidates Eric Zemmour and Le Pen together received nearly a third each of the votes in the first round vote. On Thursday, a teacher at an elementary school in Saint-Denis, a Paris suburb with ethnic diversity, described how students are being "scared to their death" by the campaign.

Le Pen's National Rally party (formerly known as the National Front) has a history that includes ties to neo Nazis, Holocaust deniers, and militias that opposed Algerian independence from colonial France. Le Pen has retracted from this past and softened her public image.

Her election program will prioritize French citizens above immigrants for welfare benefits. This move is seen as institutionalizing discrimination by critics. Le Pen also proposes to ban Muslim women wearing headscarves in public places, to tighten asylum rules and reduce immigration.

Since 2017, when she was badly defeated by Macron, Le Pen has been gaining ground with voters. Le Pen is putting more emphasis this time on policies that help the working poor.

Yanis Benahmed (20, a Saint-Denis student) said that he wasn't convinced by the candidate’s attempts to broaden her appeal.

He said, "We live here, and we know how it is, and the kind of people that you have." Le Pen "wants everything to be 'clean. We know her plans from everything she has said and her family history. Zemmour couldn't have done it better.

Zemmour, a rabble-rouser, placed fourth in the first round vote. This made Le Pen appear softer. Multiple convictions have been made for Zemmour's inciting of racial and religious hatred in France.

Zemmour has also promoted the baseless conspiracy theory of "great replacement", which was used by white supremacists to justify the massacres in New Zealand's Christchurch, Texas, and attack on a California synagogue.

"Eric Zemmour’s presence put the issue (of Islam & immigration) on the sideline of aggressive and violent stigmatization," Cecile Aduy, a Stanford semiologist, said to The Associated Press. "Meanwhile there is a decline of humanist values: words like equality, fight against discrimination or gender are deemed politically correct or wokeism' by large swathes of media, public intellectuals and ministers in the current government.

Experts and anti-racist groups in France believe Macron is also responsible for the current climate. In an effort to win Le Pen's support, his administration has adopted legislation that echos far-right slogans.

Racial profiling and brutality by police targeting people of color has been a problem for activists in France for a long time. France witnessed repeated protests during Macron's presidency against police violence following the death of George Floyd, a Black American by the U.S. police.

France also passed a law to combat terrorism under Macron's supervision. It enshrined in commonlaw a state-of-exception following the 2015 terrorist attacks on Paris cafes, the Bataclan theatre, and Charlie Hebdo newspaper.

This law extends the government's rights to search people, conduct surveillance, control movements, and close down schools and religious sites for the purpose of combating extremism.

Human rights watchdogs warned that the law is discriminatory. Amnesty International stated that Muslims could have been targeted in some cases because of their religious practices, which authorities considered to be radical. However, they did not provide any evidence as to why they were a threat to public order or security.

The government passed a new law in 2021 that targeted what Macron called "separatism" of Muslim radicals. This law extended the state's control over religious sites and associations. The law's scope was too broad, according to the government's watchdog.

Abdourahmane Riedouane witnessed this firsthand. Two police officers gave him notice of closure in February for the mosque he runs in Pessac, Bordeaux wine country.

Authorities claimed that the mosque's condemnation of "state Islamophobia," a term used to describe Islamophobia, allegedly encouraged and justified terrorism and rebellion. Authorities also condemned anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian postings on the mosque's Facebook page.

Ridouane opposed the action and won an appeal. The appeals court ruled that the closure was an "illegal and grave infringement of religious liberty". The state then took the case to France’s highest court. It is expected to rule on the matter soon.

Ridouane said to the AP that he felt deeply saddened at a process he considered unworthy of a democratic country.

France's No. 1 religion is Islam. France's No. 2 religion is Islam, but there aren't any hard data about the races or religions of voters due to France’s doctrine of colourblindness. This doctrine sees all citizens as French and encourages assimilation. Critics claim that the principle allows authorities ignore deep-seated discrimination on both the French mainland as in foreign French territories, where the majority of voters aren’t white.

France has seen criticisms of "Islamoleftism" as well as "wokeism" rise. Macron's government ordered a study to examine its presence at French universities. French universities don't have any research departments for race and colonial studies because they are considered to be against French universalism.

"The election occurs in this climate," stated Nacira Guenif (an anthropology and sociology professor at Paris VIII University, who focuses on gender and race).

Guenif stated that the left is meanwhile "denial prevails" because many left-wing French voters feel "profoundly uncomfortable about the question of race, as they believe talking about it makes them racist."

Zemmour's campaign has criticized so-called "wokeism" and referred to attacks on U.S. critical race theory. Critical race theory is an academic framework which analyzes American history through a lens of racism. It focuses on the notion that racism is systemic within U.S. institutions which continue to favor white people.

Despite some concerns about Macron's policies in France, Ridouane (the Pessac mosque Director) has no doubt that he will vote for the president.

He said, "If Le Pen is able to seize the levers of power it will be the most terrible thing we have ever seen."


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