At last: a fightback against Islamophobia in France?

18 November 2019
John Mullen

Islamophobia is hitting the headlines again in France, as over 20,000 marched joyfully against it in Paris in November, singing and chanting, backed by major trade unions and radical left parties. Are we finally seeing a real shift in the dreadful politics of the French left on Islamophobia?

A huge row about Islam and racism is on the front pages in France. At the end of October, a former candidate from Marine le Pen’s party (now called National Rally) attacked a mosque in Bayonne in south west France with a revolver and an incendiary bomb, seriously wounding two Muslims. This was the third and gravest racist attack on the mosque over the last five years, and a number of other mosques have suffered arson attacks or racist graffiti.

Two weeks earlier, a fascist representative on a regional council in the centre of France demanded that a Muslim mother wearing a headscarf (who was accompanying a group of schoolchildren coming to see how democracy works) be expelled from the public gallery. Voices were raised in protest but also many in support of the expulsion. The same week, the senate voted up (163 to 114) the first reading of a bill to ban mothers wearing headscarves from accompanying school trips. Although the bill will no doubt fall at a later parliamentary stage, it is a terrible symbol of the hatred faced by Muslims in France. A mainstream right wing senator compared women wearing headscarves to “Halloween witches”; he claimed that the women were not simply living their religion, but were “communitarianists” threatening the spirit of the Republic. A group of intellectuals published an appeal in Le Figaro in favour of banning Muslims wearing headscarves from school trips. The education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, declared that the headscarf should not be banned, but “is not wanted in our society”. In early November, in a nursery school which had organised workshops about “respecting other people” involving the children’s parents, the regional education chief on an official visit refused to enter the premises because there were three Muslim mothers with headscarves. In a recent poll, 42 percent of Muslims said they had faced discrimination on account of their religion. For those with higher education diplomas, the percentage was far higher (as long as – mostly Arab – Muslims stay in their place as cleaners or security guards, they do not get targeted as much).

The shocking blind spot of the French Left

For twenty years, Islamophobia has been used to divide in France, more so than in other countries because the left has been so criminally weak on the issue. A tradition on the left of despising believers, which goes back many decades, merged with lingering neo-colonialist attitudes and the new international Islamophobic priorities since 2001, to give rise to an unconsciously racist consensus which has gangrened the left. It is still not unusual to find activists who have spent decades fighting for refugee rights or combatting other forms of racism who have horribly backward ideas about Muslims, and in particular refuse to really imagine that one might be French and Muslim (so any discussion of Islam turns within seconds to comments about Saudi Arabia). Older readers can compare the situation to the way genuinely left people could be horribly homophobic fifty years ago.

In 2004, the law which banned headscarves among high-school students encountered no serious opposition from the radical left: demonstrations attracted a few dozen people only. Even the mainstream of the revolutionary left (at the time the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire), which had had better positions 10 years earlier, ran a front page “Neither this law nor the veil!”, abandoning its duty to defend oppressed groups. Most of the left supported the ban, and some far left activists ran campaigns locally to extend the ban to parts of universities, while their organisations, deeply divided, did not stop them. The 2010 follow-up law, which forbade the wearing of a niqab in any public space, saw even less opposition. This law was historic in that it was the first time a law had been passed to ban a practice followed by a tiny minority: its real motivation was to please racist voters by underlining “the problem” caused by Muslims.

In 2010, when a local group of the New Anticapitalist Party chose, as a candidate for municipal elections, a young Muslim woman who wore a headscarf, the highly emotional national conference was divided almost exactly fifty-fifty on the issue, and the young woman soon left the party. In 2016, when some right wing mayors banned full-body swimsuits on beaches, there were some press releases from the radical left in protest, and one small demonstration on a beach. But year after year, there have been no public meetings, no campaigns, pamphlets, books or demonstrations set up by left parties against Islamophobia, even though this form of racism is the one which is most helping to build the fascist National Rally in the country (its polls are presently around 23 percent of voting intention).

The result of this weakness was a heaven sent gift to Macron and to the right in general. Since attacking Muslims would not give rise to any concerted opposition from the left, it was the ideal tactic for any government pushing through austerity packages that wanted to put up a smoke screen. Macron’s modernist branch of the right has not traditionally been the one the most involved with pointing the finger at Muslims, but as his position becomes more and more precarious, what with the continuing Yellow Vest movement, electoral pressure from the far right, and upcoming mass strikes to defend pensions, Islamophobia is an irresistible tactic for him too.

Fighting Islamophobia at last

The attitude of left organisations is slowly and painfully beginning to change. On Sunday 10 November, over 20,000 marched in Paris, backed by the biggest national union confederation, the CGT, as well as the smaller, more radical confederation SUD, by the France Insoumise (biggest of the left reformist movements, a sort of French Corbynism), and by the Communist Party. The call was launched by Madjid Messaoudene, a left city councillor in Saint Denis and taken up by Muslim organisations, student unions and the New Anticapitalist Party before gaining wider support. Yellow Vest leaders and human rights organisations also marched. To my surprise, my local baker in the Paris suburbs had a pile of leaflets on his counter about the demonstration (whereas local Muslims have been more used to keeping their heads down than fighting back).

The march drew many thousands of Muslim women in headscarves, their faces showing joy and disbelief as crowds chanted “If you like being with Muslims, clap your hands!” and “Solidarity with veiled women!” The Yellow Vest signature song was adapted and sung en masse: “Here we are, here we are, even if Blanquer doesn’t want it, here we are! For the honour of the Muslims, for respect for our mothers, even if Blanquer doesn’t want it, here we are!” French tricolour flags were waved and many home-made placards announced, “We are proud of being French AND Muslim!” Other slogans included “We’re in danger, we’re not dangerous!”, “Criticising religion: yes! Hating believers: No!” and “Muslims aren’t the problem: Islamophobes are full of hate!”

Older activists against Islamophobia like myself were deeply moved: we have been waiting for this for 25 years. This change on the left is due to a number of factors in addition to the escalation of attacks on Muslims, the violence of which has been shocking. Firstly, non-white organisations, including many Muslim women, organising against police racism in particular, but also against Islamophobia, have built over recent years, small but dynamic independent campaigning networks, which are able to get a few thousand out demonstrating. As was the case in the past with gays and with women, the oppressed mobilising independently of the left are teaching left activists to improve their politics.

Secondly, inside each radical or revolutionary left organisation, the small minority that understands the importance of actively fighting Islamophobia has been plugging away for twenty years and is now considerably larger (though still a minority in every organisation).

Thirdly, there is a generational change. The older anti-religious campaigners, whether in feminist circles, in teaching trade unions or in radical or revolutionary left parties are happily not managing to convince younger generations of activists who have been immersed in multicultural communities since school days and do not see why their Muslim contemporaries should not be treated like everyone else, rather than ostracised.

Sunday’s demonstration has brought the row into the mass media. Blanquer, Macron’s education minister, spoke of “a deplorable initiative” opposed to the principles of a secular state. The (ever more Blairite) Socialist Party refused to join the march. Some of them have called for an alternative rally “for secularism and against racism”. Left wing politicians (including a couple of those who signed the call to demonstrate) have been searching through the list of 400 initial signatories to find someone who is sufficiently reactionary about some question or other, so as to have an excuse to distance themselves from the march. One humorous cartoon doing the rounds showed a left wing activist being asked “Are you going to the march against Islamophobia?” He looks unsure and asks in a worried tone “I don’t know – there won’t be Muslims there, will there?”

There will be a fierce backlash by the Islamophobic sections of the left and the right, which are both fairly well organised. There is even a popular weekly magazine, Marianne, for secularist Islamophobes who think they are on the left. In every left organization or trade union which supported the demonstration, there are large numbers who boycotted it. Very few trade unions brought their banners on the march. These people need to be persuaded. Meanwhile, Marine Le Pen is hoping to polarise around the march, claiming that everyone supporting it is playing into the hands of Islamic fundamentalism and accusing France Insoumise of being in reality “la France Islamiste”. Macron’s ministers are doing the rounds of television studios explaining how “foolish and naïve” the left is being.

But at least the fight is on. The march is an enormous step forward. The front page of the Paris local newspaper last week read “Muslims faced with racism”, whereas even vicious attacks in the past had only given rise to local demonstrations of a couple of hundred Muslims and always the same twenty or so of us activists from various left organizations.

Some Muslim activists are understandably sceptical, claiming that the upcoming municipal elections are the reason for the mobilisation of politicians looking for votes. This is unlikely – the terrible truth on the left in France is that an organisation is more likely to lose votes by supporting Muslims than gain them. A poll published last week showed that two thirds of French citizens think that mothers wearing headscarves should be banned from accompanying school trips! There is an urgent need for a broad campaign against Islamophobia.

Jean- Luc Mélenchon, leader of the parliamentary group of France Insoumise MPs, a group of 17 parliamentarians a few of whom are clearly unhappy about this march, has nailed his colours to the mast (previously his verbal opposition to Islamophobia was frequently ambiguous). There will certainly be resignations from the France Insoumise because of this demonstration (the grouping integrated left currents characterised by hard line secularism), so it was very heartening to see Mélenchon standing firm. “When our Muslim fellow countrymen, representing the second largest religion in France, are stigmatised, insulted and physically threatened, it is our duty to come to their aid” he said. In addition, the front page of the weekly newspaper of the New Anticapitalist Party called for people to join the demonstration. Even the Trotskyist organization Lutte Ouvrière (which has in the past enthusiastically supported laws against Muslim headwear) attended.

If this fightback can be sustained, it could remove from Macron’s hands a powerful divisive weapon. As unions in transport, education and health gear up for massive strikes from 5 December on, unity against racism and Islamophobia can be a big boost for our class. The class anger, amid rising poverty (9.3 million below the poverty line), must take centre stage, not racist division disguised as the defence of secular civilisation.

John Mullen is a revolutionary socialist and supporter of the France Insoumise in the Paris region.

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