The Roots of Islamophobia in France

The rise of Islamophobia in France grew out of elites' need to manage working-class resistance.

The “Burkini ban” pursued in Cannes and about thirty other towns might have just been overturned in the French courts, but it was only the latest and most absurd Islamophobic assault endured by Muslims in the country.

The French state has excluded and exploited Muslims for decades. The intensity of this assault varies, but the jihadist attacks in Paris in January and November of last year, and in Nice and Rouen in 2016, have sent it to fever pitch.

Of the 3,500 raids conducted since the start of that period, only six have led to investigations. In December, authorities in Eure et Loire admitted that they were targeting Muslims on a purely “preventive” basis, without any specific evidence against them.

Children have watched as their parents are handcuffed or dragged from their beds by heavily armed police. In the first three months of the state of emergency enacted after last year’s Bataclan attack, 274 people were placed under house arrest, the vast majority of them Muslims. Racial profiling is rampant.

Mosques have been violently ransacked by the police. Worshippers are humiliated and degraded, including through the use of police dogs. Around twenty mosques have simply been closed, and more will soon be shuttered.

Political organizations with Muslim links have also been threatened with closure; demonstrations, including pro-Palestinian ones, have been banned; the BDS movement has been outlawed.

Muslims appealing for asylum find themselves even more vulnerable than residents. The government delivers anti-Islamic broadsides while destroying refugee camps in Calais and elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the French have blessed the European Union’s deal with Turkey on refugees, under which Syrian refugees arriving by boat on Greek islands are deported to Turkey.

In pursuing these policies, French politicians have knowingly ignored the fact that long-standing and state-sponsored Islamophobia, combined with military activity in Muslim countries, has only encouraged extremism. The political classes have refused to recognize how their economic and social policies fuel the alienation that drives people to join groups like ISIS.

A ferocious escalation of Islamophobic propaganda from all quarters of French culture and politics accompanies these measures. According to Abdellali Hajjat and Marwan Mohammed, “the construction of the ‘Muslim problem’ over recent years constitutes one of the main vectors for French and even European elites’ unification” across the political spectrum.

Islamophobia has become, they say “the very ground on which the organizational and ideological future of the French right is most directly played out.”

But when it comes to defending the rights of France’s Muslim population, the Left, including much of the radical left, has been missing in action. Reluctance to defend religious freedom seriously undermines the Left’s solidarity with Muslim refugees.

As a result, Islamophobia strikes at the heart of one of the most urgent political projects for European radicals.

A History of Violence

There are around five million Muslims living in France today. At roughly 7.5 percent of the population, it’s the largest share of any country in Europe. Only about a third say they actually practice religion, but that number has grown in recent decades.

Historically, Muslims came to France following France’s colonization of North Africa. The contemporary relationship between the French state and its Muslim population — much of it better described as an underclass — was conditioned by the twin legacies of imperial history and economic exploitation.

Unlike other colonies, Algeria was officially considered a part of France, meaning that Algerian Muslims could come freely to France to live. Once there, however, they faced systematic and often brutal repression.

In fact, antagonism with a subject Muslim population is written into France’s political structure: the current constitution — which established the Fifth Republic — was designed to resolve the state crisis provoked by Muslim resistance to colonialism.

When General De Gaulle called for constitutional reform in 1958, he did so precisely in order to shore up presidential authority, weakened by the upheavals of the Algerian war of independence.

During the Algerian independence movement, Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) militants inflicted real damage on France. In 1958, they set a fuel depot near Marseille alight. It burned for days.

The French state intensified its repressive tactics in response. In 1961 — the year before Algeria gained its independence — at least one hundred Algerians were massacred by Paris police after they protested the curfew orders that had been placed on them.

Conflict of this intensity is not easily forgotten. After independence, the Algerian community in France often discouraged its members from assuming French nationality, since doing so would mean identifying as citizens of the very nation that had persecuted them.

Even today, support for colonialism persists on the Right. Many pieds-noirs — “black-feet,” former French colonists — and veterans of French colonial forces live in southeast France.

This region, not surprisingly, is one of the far right’s strongholds, characterized by a history of violently racist crimes. Nationally, studies show that over 50 percent of police and armed forces members voted for the National Front (FN) — the far right’s ascendant party — in the 2015 regional elections.

Radical Islam

Apart from the postcolonial context, the political history of Muslims in France can’t be understood without an appreciation of their economic position and relation to the labor movement.

By 1904, there already were five thousand Muslims working in French industry and mining. In contrast to the current climate, the French government and employers frequently fostered religious observance in the first decades of the twentieth century, despite the newly enacted separation of church and state.

The political establishment saw religion as a useful counterbalance to the influence of labor unions on North African immigrant workers.

Firms sometimes made prayer rooms available to their employees, a startling difference from today, when the private sector is collaborating with the state to eradicate manifestations of Islam in every sphere outside the home.

Allowing a slum-dwelling Muslim workforce to pray was a token gesture from French capital — improvement in living standards only came through militant struggle.

In fact, many Muslims supported the Popular Front government in the 1930s. Today, Muslims still hold progressive views on most social questions (social welfare, redistribution, racism, and xenophobia) and are a left-of-center voting bloc.

In 1982, Islam came to the forefront of French political life in the context of strikes against mass redundancies in the car industry. Immigrant workers initiated a major industrial conflict when they occupied the Citroën and Talbot factories in Aulnay and Poissy, more or less with the unions’ backing.

The factory owners believed the immigrant workers were being manipulated by unions, and pressed for police intervention and their employees’ expulsion.

This marked the first time the word “Muslim” entered public discourse as a standard label for a segment of the population, replacing class-based descriptors. Its emergence is sometimes seen as concomitant with the arrival of neoliberal political ideas in France.

Contemporary wisdom often attributes anti-immigrant sentiment in France to the spread of racist ideas — a development supposedly also responsible for the National Front’s mounting electoral success since the 1980s. According to Hajjat and Mohammed, however, that narrative gets things wrong.

As they argue, the state itself, not independent social trends, fueled Islamophobic political impulses. Hajjat and Mohammed highlight the French government’s new orientation toward immigration in the aftermath of Algerian independence.

Starting in 1966, a new agency — the Directorate of Population and Migration — enforced policies that limited Algerian migration to France, restricted family reunion migration, and enhanced bureaucratic tracking of immigrants.

Under Valéry Giscard d’Estaing — elected president in 1974 — immigration from outside Europe was suspended for three years. Between 1978 and 1980, amid rising unemployment, Giscard even tried to pass legislation that would mandate the forcible repatriation of hundreds of thousands of Algerians — and their French citizen children. Parliament blocked the scheme.

Hajjat and Mohammed believe that the government’s hostility to immigration

was not a reaction by the government to the 1973 oil crisis. It was first and foremost the result of the initiative of administrators convinced that immigration was a problem that had to be controlled … Suspending immigration was justified not principally by unemployment or the economic situation, but by demographic imbalances with third world countries (French society was supposedly threatened by “anarchic immigration”) [and] the risk of a possible new May 68 supported by a mass of foreign workers . . .

They conclude that the rise of Islamophobia in France did not come from any organic racism within the French public: in a familiar pattern, it grew out of the elites’ need to manage working-class resistance.

Islamophobia’s Legal Roots

Muslim repression is ideologically grounded in three linked keywords: secularism (laïcité), republicanism, and feminism.

Political secularism — codified in the famous 1905 law separating church and state — has deep roots in French life, originating in the post-1789 fight against Catholicism’s reactionary power. Anticlericalism, which initially referred to hostility toward Catholic priests, persists in French culture, and now often provides license for anti-Muslim tirades.

When Charlie Hebdo publishes racist cartoons directed at Muslims, as it regularly does, they are predictably explained — and, in fact, celebrated — as manifestations of a distinctively French secularism and anticlericalism. The right to ridicule Islam has become a de facto symbol of the republic itself.

Secularism emerges directly from republicanism, the ideology of the 1789 revolution that demanded freedom and equality. Unlike other bourgeois democracies, French republicanism is harnessed to a strong central state and is strongly invested in the original revolutionaries’ ideals — for whom, of course, Islam as a political issue was hardly on the horizon.

As the current French constitution expresses it, “France is an indivisible, secular, democratic, and social Republic. It guarantees the equality before the law of all citizens without distinction of origin, race, or religion. It respects all beliefs.”

When French politicians invoke republicanism today, they often do so to assert the state’s neutrality in the face of individual differences and to affirm the universality of the republic’s founding ideals. This neutrality, they argue, leads to the equal treatment of all as, simply, citizens.

In practice, however, appeals to republicanism dampen social contestation by disguising and consolidating inequities. It rationalizes the French ruling class’s dominance by providing its members with a made-to-measure justification for whatever policies they want to implement.

Manuel Valls, the current prime minister, is a past master of just this kind of ideological manipulation. As interior minister in 2013, Valls cited “republicanism” as justification for the destruction of Roma camps and the expulsion of many thousands of people. His hawkish response to the November attacks was likewise justified in “Republican” terms.

Inequality Under the Law

What secularism and republicanism have concretely meant naturally depends on citizens’ religious beliefs. In the past, secularism allowed priests to be elected to Parliament and to attend it in their religious dress. In fact, when the 1905 law was passed, Parliament rejected an amendment that would have banned priests from wearing vestments in public.

In recent decades, however, secularism has undergone a repressive reinterpretation: now, it means that the state can strip citizens of signs of their outward cultural or religious affiliations. As a result, Muslims must renounce a central element of their identity if they wish to become publicly visible.

The 2004 law on the “secular character of schools” is the most famous instance of this ongoing exclusion of Islam. While the law prohibits students from wearing any “conspicuous” religious signs, it has not been applied equally.

In fact, when an earlier version was proposed in 1994, the prime minister, Edouard Balladur, reassured France’s Jewish representative body that the measure would not target students wearing the yarmulke.

Young Muslim women, banned from wearing headscarves to school, undergo the most pressure. In a direct echo of the public unveilings of Muslim women organized by the French in Algeria, 130 cases of schoolgirls being excluded from school for wearing a headscarf were reported in 2014. Even long skirts have been interpreted as religious symbols, and schoolgirls wearing them excluded.

The law’s hypocrisy and its status as an instrument of anti-Muslim repression are glaring: separation of church and state doesn’t even exist in the eastern departments of Alsace and Moselle, which were still part of Germany in 1905.

There, rabbis, priests, and ministers earn a government paycheck — but a Muslim student can be removed from a public school because of what she chooses to wear on her head.

The government not only tolerates Alsace-Moselle’s exceptionalism, it celebrates it. As Valls has stated on several occasions, “the President of the Republic, the Prime Minister, and the Government are attached to the specificity of the existing arrangements in Alsace-Moselle.”

State-sanctioned disregard of secularism often goes further. In 2013, the FN mayor of Marseille set up a nativity scene in the town hall — directly violating the law — and suffered no penalty. Only Muslim women, it would seem, are required to enforce the separation of church and state.

The original 1905 law was intended to break the influence of Catholicism over the state. In schools, its most straightforward application is to prevent teachers, as agents of the state, from openly displaying their religious identity. How school students constitute the state — and therefore threaten secularism by wearing headscarves — has never been adequately explained.

The perception that they do so is recent: in 1989, an attempt to ban schoolgirls from wearing the headscarf was rejected by the courts. The change brought about by the 2004 legislation is usually explained as a direct response to the 9/11 attacks in the United States and the ensuing “war on terror.”

As many critics have pointed out, the 2004 law paradoxically excludes certain members of the public — adolescent Muslim girls — from public education. Further, the prohibition normalizes the state’s use of the educational apparatus as a repressive instrument.

For example, when the government instructed schoolteachers to report students who showed signs of Islamic support after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, it extended the logic of the headscarf law.

If the Éducation Nationale is intended to treat all young people equally, the law makes no sense. Instead, it demonstrates that the school system’s real purpose is molding students so that they assimilate into French society and culture.

To put it differently, public authorities have imposed republicanism as the one-size-fits-all template for French citizenship — a gambit intended to ensure the establishment’s ideological power over the rest of a necessarily diverse society.

The school has, then, become a key instrument of state control of Muslim women. But this only continues the symbolic repression long associated with the centralizing and authoritarian character of French public education generally.

No one with experience of French schools or universities can deny the extent to which they serve to “format” students according to rigid norms. In doing so, they reinforce a central plank of republican ideology: that, in the words of Joan Wallach Scott, equality comes from sameness.

Rather than encouraging students to release their individual potentials for the common good, French education shapes them as acceptable citizens — a process which alienates students from their intrinsic social and intellectual capacities as often as it nurtures them.

The brazen self-assurance of this ideology shines through in an 1989 open letter to the education minister, initiated by feminist intellectual Elizabeth Badinter, urging that headscarf-wearing schoolgirls be removed from schools:

You say, Minister, that excluding people [from school for wearing the headscarf] is unacceptable. We’re touched by your kindness, but our reply to you . . . is that forbidding things is acceptable. An exclusion is only discriminatory if it targets a pupil who obeys a school’s rules. When it affects a pupil who has broken the rules, it is of a disciplinary character. The current confusion between discipline and discrimination ruins discipline. And if discipline is no longer possible, how can the disciplines be taught? If the law only applies to those who are willing to comply with it, how can a teacher practice their profession?

For Badinter and her cosignatories, then, state authoritarianism and control are part and parcel of the very mission of public education. Or, perhaps, just effective cover for bigotry: this January, Badinter said that people shouldn’t be afraid of being labeled Islamophobic.

Left Islamophobia

What’s perhaps less known is that leading members of the country’s main revolutionary organizations — Workers’ Struggle (LO) and the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR) — played a major role in the sequence of events that led to the 2004 law, pushing for the expulsion of two headscarf-wearing young adults from the school where they taught.

This quickly snowballed into the defining political moment of France’s pre-ISIS relation to Islam.

Alma and Lila Lévy, the schoolgirls in question, did not exemplify the stereotypical problems of Muslim integration in contemporary France, as is frequently assumed.

They did not grow up in a strongly Muslim family: their mother, a teacher, came from a Muslim background, but had been baptized a Catholic, and their father was a Jewish left-wing lawyer.

Neither of the parents practiced any religion, and the girls’ decision to wear the headscarf was personal. The national controversy that their choice sparked is in many ways still alive.

As their father, Laurent Lévy, emphasizes, the question of Islamophobia, and specifically that of headscarves in school, cuts across the Left’s usual political divides. The Communist mayor of Aubervilliers, the Parisian suburb in which they lived, supported the students’ expulsion.

In fact, trying to outlaw Muslim clothing has become something of a tradition in Communist circles: a 2010 law banning the niqab (the full face veil) in public was sponsored by a Communist deputy, André Gerin, working in concert with a right-wing MP.

The debate continues: in the wake of the recent Nice attack, a number of figures on the Right have called for the outright banning of the headscarf from public spaces in France, extension of the headscarf ban to universities and, of course, some French beaches recently outlawed the burkini.

If some prominent members of left-wing organizations led the anti-headscarf charge, opinion among their comrades has been far from unanimous: left-wing groups, as well as civil-society antiracist organizations, were split on the issue.

In March 2010, this tension came to a head when the fledgling New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) — the LCR’s successor — ran Ilham Moussaïd, who wears a headscarf, in the regional elections.

The divisions in the NPA that Moussaïd’s candidacy revealed remain unresolved and have been an important factor — perhaps even the most important factor — in the obvious weakening of the party.

A leading member, Denis Godard, criticized the dogmatism of the anti-headscarf camp, arguing that it would prefer that “the collective energy of the NPA [be] oriented more to general programmatic debates and a propagandistic profile than towards practical and political intervention in the movement.”

Those activists who would disqualify a headscarf-wearing woman from membership in a revolutionary party ignore the clearest politics in the Marxist tradition. Rosa Luxemburg, to give just one example, unequivocally stated that bourgeois anticlericalism is to be opposed, not supported:

The Socialists have to fight against the Church which is an anti-Republican and reactionary power, not to agree with middle-class anti-clericalism, but to get rid of it. The incessant guerrilla warfare waged for the last ten years against the priests is for French middle-class Republicans one of the best ways of turning away the attention of the working-class from social questions, and of weakening the class struggle.

Mainstream politicians have apparently studied Luxemburg more thoroughly than some revolutionaries. At various points, government focus on Islam has handsomely served the mainstream political agenda, diverting public attention from neoliberal reforms or other sensitive issues.

For example, the headscarf affair in 2003 accompanied the Jean-Pierre Raffarin government’s contentious reforms to pension laws.

Nuit Debout’s Missed Opportunity

If the far left has acquitted itself dismally in relation to Islamophobia, things are even worse closer to the center. The well-known left figure, presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, maintains a strongly republican, nationalist position.

In 2011, he went so far as to call for a prohibition on street prayers. He therefore lacks the political credibility needed to offer any real opposition to anti-Muslim attacks.

As far as the Socialist Party is concerned, the normalization of anti-Muslim policies represents just one element of its longstanding ideological decomposition. The official antiracist movement — much of which the Socialists control ideologically — has offered virtually no support to Muslims.

Liberal intellectuals have also played a prominent role in reinforcing the state’s domestic and external hostility to Islam: following the November 2015 attack, numerous writers and academics fell into line and provided ideological rationales for the government’s announcement of a military riposte.

In 2003, frustration with the ambient racism of the liberal feminist left specifically led to the creating of a new group, the movement — later the party — of the Republic’s Indigenous People (PIR). It sets out to “struggle against all the forms of imperial, colonial, and Zionist domination which ground white supremacy” in France and internationally. It describes its main goal as

bringing about, within a single antiracist and decolonizing dynamic, the convergence of all spaces of resistance created by immigrants and their children, people who live in working-class areas, and the populations originally from the dominions and territories. Our aim is to construct an autonomous indigenous political force with the ability to influence the development of French society and public policy.

Autonomy from the existing left is one of the PIR’s founding principles. Their difficulty influencing other left political actors came starkly to light this year, during the Nuit Debout movement.

Nuit Debout’s nightly assemblies in Paris and around the country drew thousands of people for open debates centered around people’s alienation from politics and desire to end corporate control over democracy. For a short but dynamic period, the movement constituted a prominent pole of opposition to both the Socialist government and the rest of the French political mainstream.

But the fact that Nuit Debout never succeeded in appealing to the immigrant-origin populations from which PIR draws their base underlines the political divides in France. PIR commented:

Nuit Debout had urged the “areas,” the “suburbs,” and “racialized” people to join the social movement. Nuit Debout wanted to organize marches to the suburbs, so that, finally, the dream of the union of workers, the oppressed, and the under-oppressed would be made real. We replied: the general convergence can’t be decreed; it will happen when you come to join our struggles.

The French left’s failure to join these struggles is especially serious in this context, since Nuit Debout came to life in response to a repressive new labor law that also targets French Muslim women. Article L.1321-2-1 allows the private sector to impose discriminatory practices like the headscarf ban on its own workforce.

Since the passage of the law, Islamophobic repression has escalated: in July, the mayor of Cannes banned the burkini from his town’s beaches. The decision was copied in around thirty other council areas, mainly in the south, and vocally defended by the prime minister before the Council of State reversed it on August 26. Both Ensemble, a component of the Left Front with a number of revolutionary activists, and the NPA denounced the ban immediately.

How far French elites will extend their attacks is an open question. As many voices are now arguing, it is urgent that the Left correct its checkered record on the question of anti-Muslim oppression to meet the challenge.