Posted on November 20, 2019

France’s Left Is Finally Fighting Islamophobia

Nick Riemer, Jacobin Magazine, November 2019

French Mediterranean coast

Prado beach in southern Marseilles, France. (Credit Image: © Reporters /

For decades, Islamophobia has been central to the exercise of political power in France. Now, after years of paralysis, the Left is finally starting to fight it.

On October 28, two elderly Muslim men were badly wounded when a gunman attacked a mosque in Bayonne in southwest France. In recent years, French mosques have been defaced, rammed, and burned down, and their congregations harassed and targeted. Bayonne represented a dangerous new escalation. The response in Paris last Sunday — as 25,000 people took to the streets demanding an end to Islamophobia — offers hope that the anti-Muslim consensus may finally have splintered.


Islamophobia is a fixture of “Republicanism,” the supposedly unchanging set of national values that emerged from the 1789 revolution that constitutes the ideology of the French political mainstream. Like hostility to immigration, it is particularly central to French conservatism.

This centrality was illustrated by a recent right-wing convention hosted by Marion Maréchal-Le Pen — the great hope of the far right — and opened by commentator Éric Zemmour. Maréchal had invited Zemmour as part of her bid to win traditional right-leaning voters to her own more radical positions.


Zemmour delivered exactly what Maréchal wanted, offering a sickening mixture of Islamophobia, attacks on other minorities, and red-baiting against the Left. In a perfect example of the acceptability of Islamophobia and the media’s complicity with right-wing extremism, his tirade was broadcast live on a top news channel.

Eric Zemmour

Eric Zemmour at a Paris book fair in 2015. (Credit Image: © Visual / ZUMA Wire)

But this Islamophobia isn’t limited to the Le Pen family or its friends. Although some voters backed him in the 2017 election as a bulwark against the far right, Emmanuel Macron’s government has, in fact, rarely stopped kowtowing to the RN’s politics. Barely a week goes by without a new Islamophobic frenzy. On October 8, following the attack in the Paris police headquarters, the president called for a “society of vigilance” against Islamist terror, inviting the public to spot and denounce what he called “the little gestures which indicate distance from the laws and values of the Republic,” whether they occur at work, during religious worship, or at school.


Far-right voters are the principal obstacles to Macron’s reelection in 2022, and he is determined to attract them to his side. Indeed, his government has just announced harsh new immigration and refugee policies to show them there’s no need to turn to Le Pen. Signaling his Islamophobia is part of this same approach. In a long interview controversially granted to the far-right Valeurs actuelles magazine, Macron said that women sometimes wear the headscarf as a sign of their desire to “secede” from the Republic.


French Senate voted for a bill, sponsored by the right-wing Les Républicains, to ban parents accompanying school excursions from displaying religious symbols — a measure targeting the headscarf first and foremost. The bill is unlikely to become law, since the education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, is opposed to it.


The intensity of Islamophobic racism and its centrality to the ideology of the French ruling class make it an urgent priority for left-wing political forces. But the French left, strongly committed to France’s secularist tradition, has historically not been up to the task.

Just after the November 2015 attacks, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, 2017 presidential candidate and popular figurehead of the left-nationalist La France Insoumise party, said that he disputed the very term “Islamophobia.” Mélenchon, who has consistently called for the prohibition of public displays of religion like Muslim street prayers, gave an explanation widespread across the political spectrum: “For my part,” he said, “I defend the idea that we have the right not to like Islam, we have the right not to like the Catholic religion, and that is one of our freedoms.”


Sunday’s march, with its demand to put an end to discrimination, hate speech, and “liberticidal” laws directed against Muslim people, may be the start of a major realignment. Initiated by Madjid Messaoudene, a local politician in the Saint-Denis suburb north of Paris, the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA), the CCIF, and activist groups fighting racist police violence, among others, the march was endorsed by the largest coalition of left-wing individuals and organizations ever assembled against Islamophobia. The Greens, Générations (a left split from the Socialists led by its unsuccessful presidential candidate, Benoît Hamon), Mélenchon’s France Insoumise, and the Communists were all on board, as were the Solidaires union, the general secretary of the important CGT union confederation, the UNEF (the French students’ union), and organizations like the French Jewish Union for Peace and the Human Rights League.

The call for the march was even signed by Lutte Ouvrière, a Trotskyist party historically unsympathetic to Islamophobia as an issue — indeed, some of its leading members played a major role in the process leading to the 2004 law that banned the headscarf in schools. As activist Houria Bouteldja commented, the march was a “victory in itself for political antiracism since it took fifteen years of preparatory work to get this result.”


The national political bureau of the Socialist Party (PS) declined to support the march at all: the head of the Socialist group, Olivier Faure, who recently told national radio that some areas of France were experiencing “colonization in reverse” by immigrants and their descendants, described it as “anti-secular and anti-Republican.” Socialist senator Laurence Rossignol said that while opposition to anti-Muslim racism is necessary, the march drew the anti-racist left onto the terrain of “political Islam” — a reference to the fact that the CCIF, one of the organizers, is sometimes claimed to have connections to the Muslim Brotherhood.


The sociologist Manuel Boucher condemned Sunday’s march as a “major political mistake for the Left”; others, including prominent philosopher Pascal Bruckner, attacked it as a concession to political extremism. Thanks to his 2017 book An Imaginary Racism: Islamophobia and Guilt, Bruckner is one of the most important intellectual apologists for French state racism. For Bruckner, Muslim religious signs like headscarves are mere “instruments for the conquest of the public space, tracts calling for sedition.”


Opposition to the march was also motivated by  revelations of reactionary statements by two signatories who added their names to the call, along with 300 others, after its initial publication in the newspaper Libération. In an old video exhumed by the far right in order to discredit the march, the imam Nader Abou Anas tells women that they should stay at home and not deny their husbands sex. As soon as this was revealed, the imam’s signature was withdrawn from the appeal. Another signatory, the Brest imam Rachid Eljay, was criticized for an old video excusing sexual abuse. Eljay, once a Salafist, has subsequently taken a government-endorsed course for imams, opposes the jihad in Syria and attacks in France, and is now seen as a moderate and, as a result, is targeted by the Islamic State.


The evolution in attitudes toward Islamophobia was particularly clear in Mélenchon. While some members of his own party, initially supportive of the march, hedged and backtracked, Mélenchon maintained his strong support, regardless of his reservations about the term “Islamophobia.” He noted that no concrete alternative was being offered by the march’s opponents, and he criticized the fact that “on the basis of a disagreement about a word, people are managing to refuse Muslims the right to be defended by people who aren’t Muslim and who want to put an end to the current atmosphere against them.”

Jean-Luc Mélenchon

Jean-Luc Mélenchon (Credit Image: Pierre-Selim / Wikimedia)

Even the electorally decimated Socialist Party, whose refusal to participate on Sunday was read by some organizers as an attempt to sabotage the march, may have been somewhat influenced. The fact that the most venomously Islamophobic Socialists, like former prime minister Manuel Valls, are no longer in the party (many having gone over to Macron’s La République En Marche! movement) has played a role here. Seeking to give the impression that they are committed to fighting racism, the PS says it will call for a different demonstration against anti-Muslim hatred in the coming weeks.


On Sunday, women in headscarves brandished their French identity cards as signs that they, too, are French citizens, insisting that the marginalization, discrimination, and state violence to which they are subject has to end.

Some will never listen to this, seeking to impute other motives to the protesters. In his 2017 charter for state Islamophobia, Pascal Bruckner offers puerile conjecture on the far left’s reasons for fighting Islamophobia, claiming that Islam provides “the substitute for a Marxism and a third-worldism in their death-throes” and “incarnates a power of devotion” that the Left has lost. At the same time, he thinks that leftists hope to use Islam as the “spearhead of a new insurrection,” and therefore see the fight against Islamophobia as an opportunity for entry into Muslim communities, with whom they also feel a “losers’ solidarity.”


Standing together should be a basic instinct of solidarity for the Left. Sunday’s march is a necessary and long-awaited first step in this direction.