After the Paris attacks: An Islamophobic spiral

Issue: 146

Jim Wolfreys

“There will be a before and an after,” French prime minister Manuel Valls declared in the wake of the appalling murders that took place in Paris in early 2015, the slaughter of a dozen people at the Charlie Hebdo offices on 7 January by Chérif and Saïd Kouachi and the killing of a police officer and four shoppers at a kosher supermarket by Amedy Coulibaly over the next two days. Pledging to be pitiless in defence of fundamental French interests, Valls expressed concern both to preserve “national cohesion” and to avoid acting in haste.1 He managed neither. Within weeks of the murders the “after” was manifesting itself as an aggravation of the “before”, accelerating the process of essentialisation and stigmatisation of France’s Muslim population, belying any pretence of cohesion.

This article deals with the reaction to the attacks, locating it in the context of an Islamophobic spiral that has permeated French politics and society over the past 25 years. It attempts to explain how the unprecedented outpouring of public emotion that followed the atrocities and the generosity of spirit informing popular expressions of solidarity with the victims, in defence of “free expression” and against anti-Semitism, have been channelled into a government clampdown on the freedom of expression of France’s Muslim population, subjecting it to new levels of scrutiny that have further intensified this spiral.

For many people the self-styled “dumb and nasty”2 cartoons that featured in Charlie Hebdo were provocative but harmless digs at authority in all its guises, from the state to public figures to religion of all kinds. As one journalist put it, “we all have that childish desire to mock our ‘betters’, to shock and outrage like swearing children, to vent our spleen against those who are doing us down”.3 Since it was indiscriminate in its choice of targets, the argument ran, Charlie could not be accused of Islamophobia—it attacked all religions. The magazine’s roots were in the irreverent iconoclasm of the 1968 era, but since its relaunch in 1992, under the editorship of Philippe Val, it had reflected the trajectory of an element of the post-1968 left that had become increasingly hostile towards Islam. In 2006, after it had published caricatures of the prophet Mohammed, Val was one of the signatories to a manifesto that rejected “Islamophobia” as “an unfortunate concept that confuses criticism of Islam as a religion with the stigmatisation of believers”.4 This attitude was not the sole preserve of Charlie Hebdo, nor can it explain or justify why Val’s successor Charb and his colleagues became the victims of a reactionary jihadist attack apparently motivated by the humiliations meted out to Muslims worldwide via the war on terror. But it is an attitude that has hardened since the January murders, exacerbating an anti-Muslim climate that is dissolving the very values of liberty, equality and fraternity that Muslims themselves are constantly reproached for undermining.

The rise of Islamophobia in contemporary France, against a backdrop of the war on terror, long-term structural unemployment, poverty and stalling social mobility, is based on three key elements:

  • The far-right’s attempts, via the think-tanks of the so-called Nouvelle Droite (new right) to rehabilitate racism by focusing on culture rather than race, scapegoating immigrants and their descendants via their religion rather than their skin colour.

  • The complicity of mainstream parties in this process, initially by pandering to far-right propaganda and more recently by vigorously embracing the new racism.

  • The failure of the left to counter Islamophobia with any consistency, its most progressive elements undermined by the affiliation to France’s secular republican tradition that pervades most ­significant left of centre organisations in France, from the social liberal mainstream to the radical left.

  • What follows illustrates how these three elements have combined, in different ways, to leave France’s Muslim population ever more isolated by a racism that has become entirely respectable.5

    The clampdown

    On 21 January President François Hollande announced a major mobilisation of schools in defence of republican values.6 Any student contesting these values would be reported to the head of the establishment who would then contact the parents and, if necessary, dispense sanctions: “Every time…a word is pronounced that calls into question a fundamental value of the school and the republic there will be a reaction,” he pledged.7 “Citizens’ reserves” recruited from civil society would be established, ready to intervene in schools. Pupils and parents would be obliged to sign up to a “Secular Charter” and celebrate a “Secular Day” every 9 December, the anniversary of the 1905 separation of church and state. Meanwhile, a poster appeared on the government’s “Stop Jihadism” website, directing citizens towards tell-tale signs of “radicalisation”, advising them to be on the alert for changes in lifestyle—no longer listening to music (a distraction from the jihadists’ mission); shunning old, “impure”, friends; changing their eating habits (the illustration showed a baguette with a cross through it); or wearing different clothes (public attention was drawn in particular to girls who began covering up their bodies).8

    Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, vice-president of Nicolas Sarkozy’s Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), complained on 2 February that in Mulhouse, Muslim children were arriving late for school because their parents were taking them to prayer in the mornings. Two days later she retracted her comments, acknowledging they were misleading, while reaffirming her commitment to help schools face up to the challenges posed by religious extremism and radical Islam.9 Aymeric Chauprade of the Front National (FN), an adviser to Marine Le Pen and member of the European Parliament, had gone further: “We’re told that a majority of Muslims are peaceful, certainly. But so were a majority of Germans before 1933 and national socialism”.10 If Marine Le Pen was quick to distance herself from such remarks, it was because she knew that the reactionary trajectory of contemporary secularism, discussed below, had provided her with the means to target Muslims more effectively. As if to prove the point, UMP deputy Éric Ciotti tabled a bill that would withdraw child benefit from parents found to lack respect for “the values of the republic”.11

    In the Paris suburb of Villiers-sur-Marne, the UMP mayor withdrew the Oscar-nominated film Timbuktu, by the Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako, from the local cinema on the grounds that it was “an apology for terrorism”, despite not having seen any of its previous showings in over 1,500 cinemas across France.12 Within a week of the January murders over 60 Islamophobic incidents had been recorded:13 pigs’ heads, firebombs and grenades were thrown into mosques, which were also targeted with gunfire; Muslim owned businesses were bombed; and there were reports of threats, racist graffiti and intimidation, as well as the murder of a middle-aged Muslim man in the south of France by a deranged neighbour who stabbed him 17 times shouting: “I’m your God, I’m Islam!”14

    In such a climate the fast-tracked award of French citizenship, and a medal, to Lassana Bathily—the Malian national who saved a dozen customers from the anti-Semitic attack on the kosher supermarket, at a ceremony attended by the prime minister and the interior minister, did little to counter the daily insinuations that most Muslims fell short of such “deserving” status. Bathily himself had initially been arrested and questioned by police on suspicion of being a suspect on escaping from the supermarket.15

    The prevailing view on how to respond to the post-7 January situation was expressed by Nathalie Saint-Cricq, political editor of a major national television station, France 2:

    It’s precisely those who are not “Charlie” that must be identified, those who, in certain educational establishments have refused the minute’s silence, those who “sound off” on social media and those who do not see how this fight is theirs. Well it’s they who need to be identified, treated, integrated or reintegrated into the national community. And their schools and politicians have a heavy responsibility.16

    By the end of January over 250 people had been accused of “apology for terrorism”. They included an eight year old boy who had announced at a school in Nice that he was “with the terrorists”, later confessing, when subjected to a police interview, that he didn’t know what terrorism meant.17 In Nantes a 14 year old girl was put under investigation for “apology for terrorism” after she told ticket inspectors on a tram “in a threatening tone” that she and her companions were the Kouachi sisters and were going to get out their Kalashnikovs.18 In the same town a 16 year old was put under investigation after he put up a drawing on Facebook appearing to mock the Charlie Hebdo victims.19 In Poitiers a philosophy teacher was suspended from his post after complaints from parents. He too was later put under investigation for several weeks, accused of “apology for terrorism” and remanded in custody for eight hours before the case was dropped. He had ventured opinions comparing Western imperialism to terrorism and likening French soldiers engaged in foreign interventions to terrorists.20

    The new secularism

    “We are at war against jihadism and terrorism…but France is not at war with Islam and Muslims,” declared Socialist Party prime minister Manuel Valls amid emotional scenes in the national assembly in the days following the 11 January march. Valls had by this time become a significant figure in the sustained campaign of harassment waged by the state against France’s Muslim population. His party had come to power in 2012 following an election campaign that underlined the mean-spirited and disenchanted reality of what the “republican tradition of secularism” has now become. On the eve of his election as president of the world’s sixth largest economy, François Hollande vowed to uphold republican values by insisting on mixed timetables in swimming pools, following histrionic outrage at reports of one local authority flouting these rules by reserving an hour of aquagym a week for a group of obese women, some of them Muslim. “Swimming pools are laboratories of jihadism in France,” proclaimed the reactionary secularist website Riposte laique.21

    Valls entered the interior ministry and concentrated its forces on other domains where secularism was deemed to be in peril: nurseries, prison kitchens and schools. He publicly backed the sacking of a nursery worker for wearing a hijab, in what he considered “an essential battle for the republic”, and personally intervened to condemn the serving of halal meat in a Grenoble prison, an act that he believed undermined the fundamental principles of secularism.22 While emphasising the need for Muslims to feel respected, he also emphasised his support for a ban on any mother wearing the hijab while accompanying her children on school trips: “The parents of children must respect the principles of neutrality and secularism”.23

    Relentless scrutiny of what Muslim women wear on their heads is the expression of the increasingly intolerant trajectory of republican laïcité (laïc—of the people) France’s secular tradition. Laïcité is often presented as homogenous or “indivisible”, but has always combined elements of openness and tolerance with exclusivity and divisiveness, as well as scope for exceptions. Contemporary advocates of legislation restricting religious expression in the public sphere routinely refer to the 1905 law of separation of church and state for justification. On the one hand the law marked a rejection of Catholicism and its influence over the state, effectively ending France’s role as “the elder sister of the church”; on the other it sought neutrality of the state and state actors, but freedom of expression for individuals and tolerance of their views. The new secularism,24 as discussed below, has departed from this framework, engineering increasing state suppression of individual expression.

    Article one of the 1905 law declared: “The republic ensures freedom of conscience. It guarantees the free exercise of religion subject to the sole restrictions enacted hereafter in the interest of public order”.25 An amendment was tabled to prevent priests from wearing ecclesiastical robes (the soutane, or cassock) in public spaces on the grounds that it constituted a provocation, that it infringed “freedom and human dignity” and that it amounted to a proselytising garment rendering the priest a “prisoner” or “slave”. Deputies overwhelmingly rejected such suggestions. “The day after separation,” declared Aristide Briand, principal author of the law, “the soutane becomes a garment like any other”.26 The national assembly instead adopted another amendment, which extended freedom of religious expression in public space. The deputy moving this amendment was unequivocal: “Respect for freedom of conscience leads to the mutual respect of beliefs and not to the prohibition of external manifestations of a cult in public”.27 As Jean Baubérot underlines, the 1905 law meant more, not less, freedom of expression.28

    Conflict between the church and republicans was understandable. The church had backed numerous attempts to restore the monarchy following the revolutionary upheavals of 1789-99 and retained its influence over the education system until the late 19th century. The Third Republic (1870-1940) broke this hold by banning priests from teaching in state schools. One legacy of this conflict is the strong current of anti-clericalism that remains a feature of French society today. Another is the role established by the state in forging a sense of “Frenchness”. Notably it served to break the affiliation of the peasantry to parochial allegiances and win it to an identification with the republic, turning “peasants into Frenchmen” as Eugen Weber has termed it, a process of state-led inculcation that he ­compares to colonialism.29

    There were other legacies, such as attitudes to women. One persistent argument against granting women the vote was that they were too influenced by the church and would therefore be a conservative brake on progress. This helps explain one of the faultlines of “republican universalism”. While universal male suffrage had first been established comparatively early, in 1848, and eventually consolidated following the formation of the Third Republic in 1870, female suffrage was not achieved until 1944, long after votes had been granted to women in most of the rest of Europe.

    The distinction between “open” and “closed” attitudes towards secularism is today often obscured by a tendency to present it as instinctive, rooted, intrinsic to France. “The French being what they are,” President Jacques Chirac announced in December 2003, “the wearing of the veil, whether we like it or not, is a kind of aggression which they find it difficult to accept”.30 At the other end of the political spectrum, Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the Front de Gauche argued that “our way of life, for us the French, is that we don’t wear the veil to school”.31

    Republican nationalism has generally prided itself on affiliation to a “colour blind” political model of citizenship, rather than ethno-culturalist appeals to tradition and lineage. One of the features of contemporary debates over national identity has been a blurring of the lines between these two models. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the attitude of the Front National towards republicanism. The party’s former leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, developed a grudging acceptance of the republic, acknowledging its role while simultaneously downplaying its significance: “France is made up of 4,000 years of European culture, 20 ­centuries of Christianity, 40 kings and two centuries of a republic. The Front National accepts all of France’s past”.32 His successor, and daughter, Marine Le Pen, is much less equivocal, presenting herself as the most trenchant defender of secular values. This allows the Front to pursue a line of argument developed by Le Pen, and refined by the think-tanks of the Nouvelle Droite, that certain immigrants and their descendants, notably Muslims of North African origin, are incapable of being assimilated and becoming French because their true allegiance lies with their religion, not the nation. This in turn allows the question of religion to become racialised, a process accelerated by the stigmatisation of those living in the banlieues, France’s poorest neighbourhoods, and the persistent focus on the question of the hijab, discussed below.

    Along with Marine Le Pen’s attempts to distance herself from the overt anti-Semitism of her father, this remodelling of the FN as a staunchly republican party has been crucial to its process of so-called “de-demonisation”, cited by many as the central factor in its recent resurgence. What the FN has benefited from more than any superficial changes to its image, however, is the fact that over the past decade racism has become respectable in a way that the organisation could only have dreamed of at its formation in 1972. Following poor parliamentary election results in 1973, when it achieved only 0.5 percent of the total poll, criticism was raised by hard-core fascist elements about the party’s stress on immigration since, it was argued, public opposition to immigrants had not yet crystallised into a political attitude. This meant that potential supporters were alienated from the FN, “traumatised by the issue of racism”.33 By 2011 one of France’s most prominent intellectuals, Élisabeth Badinter, was lamenting the fact that “aside from Marine Le Pen, nobody defends secularism anymore”.34 The following year a leading member of the Socialist Party, Arnaud Montebourg, was talking about a “consensus” between the Socialists, Sarkozy’s UMP and the FN on the immigration question.35 As one of the leading architects of “de-demonisation”, the FN’s vice-president Louis Aliot, has explained, “de-demonisation only concerns anti-Semitism. When handing out leaflets in the street, the only glass ceiling I saw was not immigration or Islam. Others are worse than us on these subjects. It’s anti-Semitism that prevents people from voting for us. Only that”.36

    Over the past decade the political framework that had shaped mainstream political responses towards the FN has begun to break up. The so-called “Republican Front” that used to see the two principal mainstream parties unite in attempts to isolate the FN in the second round of elections no longer functions. One recent study of second round voters in a parliamentary by-election held in the Doubs on 8 February 2015 showed that half of those who voted UMP in the first round backed the FN in its narrow defeat by the Socialists in the second, pointing to a growing fusion of the FN and UMP electorate.37 The UMP leadership refused to back either party. The consensus around the notion of “integration”, based on affiliation to shared values irrespective of background is also fragmenting. “Let’s not talk about integration any more,” declared Manuel Valls in the wake of the Paris attacks. “Let’s forget words that no longer mean anything”.38 In its place there is an increasing tendency for racial prejudice to be articulated in terms of culture, and particularly religion.39 The capacity for mass mobilisation against the FN, and racism more generally, has also declined alarmingly. Support for the FN was greater than for any other party in the 2014 European elections, with polls now putting it on course to make the second round of the 2017 presidential contest, but there has been no major national anti-racist mobilisation since 2006.40

    Various factors have underpinned this process: the emergence of Nicolas Sarkozy as a figure prepared to initiate, rather than simply imitate, racist offensives against ethnic minorities; the complacent view that mainstream bigotry would marginalise the FN rather than give it succour; the exhaustion of the Socialist Party’s capacity to play a meaningful anti-racist role and the inability of the radical left to mount a consistently effective challenge to this drift. Underpinning all this has been escalation of Islamophobia, bolstered by the deployment of republican “universalism” to justify the stigmatisation of Muslims, a story that begins with the extraordinary and ongoing obsession with what Muslim women wear.

    Anti-Muslim legislation

    When three students were excluded from a school on the outskirts of Paris for wearing the hijab in 1989, the controversy escalated to involve the council of state, the education minister, Lionel Jospin, and the King of Morocco, Hassan II. Five intellectuals, including Régis Debray and Élisabeth Badinter, responded to the controversy by writing an appeal to Jospin opposing the wearing of the headscarf and urging him not to “capitulate”. Only time would tell, they warned, if the bicentennial of the French Revolution would mark the “Munich” of republican education.41 Called upon to adjudicate on the matter by Jospin, the council of state ruled that wearing religious symbols was not itself incompatible with the principle of secularism, except when it interfered with education, was “ostentatious” or bore evidence of pressure, provocation, proselytism or propaganda. It was not the wearing of the hijab itself but how it was worn that counted. Jospin backed its view that school authorities should deal with the matter on a case by case basis. Following an intervention by Hassan II, two of the students, whose father was of Moroccan origin, returned to the school with their hair uncovered. The third eventually returned without her hijab in late January 1990.42 An editorial by Serge July in Libération noted the significance of the intellectuals’ intervention: “For once, alarm bells against the fundamentalist invasion have been sounded on the left. The chorus of hysterical anti-Islamism has been joined by the prestigious soloists of an anti-Islamism of the left”.43

    Over the next 15 years this alliance was to distort the meaning of secularism, shifting it away from its historic origins. In September 1994 conservative education minister François Bayrou produced a circular that banned “ostentatious” as opposed to “discreet” symbols in schools. An opponent of the hijab on the grounds that it “undermined the national republican pact and respect for the principles of the rights of man, and equality between men and women before these rights”, shortly before issuing the circular Bayrou had given an interview announcing his intention to ban the hijab, singling it out as an example of a symbol “so ostentatious” that it divided young people.44 The initiative came at a time of escalating violence in Algeria, as opponents of the hijab linked its presence in French schools to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. In November prime minister Édouard Balladur reassured the audience at the annual dinner of the CRIF (Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions) that the initiative had nothing to do with the kippah.45 The wording of the circular simply gave a “universal” gloss to a measure that was targeted above all else at Muslim students.

    Bayrou encouraged schools to integrate the circular into their ­regulations. Many told their Muslim students to remove the hijab or be expelled, with some students taking their cases to court where, in line with the council of state’s 1989 ruling, over half the exclusions were overturned, but often at a cost of months if not years of disruption to their studies.46

    Following his election as president in 2002 Chirac set up a commission to frame legislation on the question. After six months of deliberation the Stasi Commission (named after its chair Bernard Stasi) submitted its report in December 2003. By the following September, “the wearing of signs or clothing by which students visibly manifest a religious affiliation”, in primary and secondary schools, had been outlawed. This time, following the commission’s recommendations, turbans, kippahs and “outsized” crucifixes would also fall under the ban. As Jean Baubérot, the only member of the commission not to back the report, has pointed out, the exclusion of young women (estimates of formal and “silent” exclusions total several hundred)47 from state schools and colleges has forced them into distance learning—thereby “de-socialising” them—or into private education—a ­“paradoxical” outcome, as Baubérot remarked, “for a so-called secular law”.48 Other proposals by the commission, such as the creation of school holidays for Yom Kippur and Eid, were ignored.

    Whatever the “universal” pretext afforded by the outlawing of oversized crucifixes—and the very real collateral discrimination meted out to Jews and Sikhs—the principal achievement of the 2004 law was to give formal state authority to the stigmatisation of Muslims. Islamophobes could now declare open season, which they did. Education minister Luc Ferry announced that, “as soon as anything becomes a religious sign, it will fall under this law,” raising the prospect of a clampdown on beards or bandanas if it could be construed that they were being worn in a “religious” way.49 And this is exactly what happened. Some Muslim students wearing long skirts or dresses became the subject of disciplinary action and were told to wear something else or face exclusion, since skirts of such length could be construed—by others—as having a “religious connotation”, amounting to a “provocation”.50 Similar “connotations” were imputed to bandanas, with students facing expulsion and long appeals processes for wearing them. One journalist declared that the sight of Muslim men turning up to work with “black beards” was “unbearable”.51

    Secularism, once a means of protecting religious expression, has become a means of subjecting Muslims—and Muslim women in ­particular—to unprecedented scrutiny, anointing petty zealotry with the fake sheen of “universalism”.

    Wearing the full-face veil, or niqab in public was banned by legislation that came into force in 2011. Months of debate were devoted to denouncing the burqa and the niqab in a campaign led by the Communist André Gerin and the UMP’s Éric Raoult. Despite their much-trumpeted concern to enact legislation in the interests of gender equality, their commission chose to allow only one Muslim woman to address them, and they made her take off her niqab before doing so.52 Although the resulting legislation was clearly targeted at the niqab, it was framed in disingenuous universalist terms that expressed belated concerns about the threat posed to “living together” by covering the face. Motorcycle helmets, balaclavas and hoodies therefore also came under the remit of the law. Those contravening it were liable to a fine of €150 and would have to attend a citizenship class to remind them of the republican values of secularism and gender equality. Anyone making someone else cover their face “because of their gender” would be liable to a €30,000 fine and a year in prison. In cases concerning people under 18 years of age being made to cover their face the penalty could be doubled. This was justified in terms of government concern to fight “this new form of the subjection of women, which the republic cannot allow on its territory”.53

    In 2011, having played a key role in waging this fight, Raoult was charged, and later acquitted, of domestic violence, remarking that “telling your wife ‘you dress like a slut’ isn’t domestic violence”.54 In 2014 charges of sexual harassment were brought against him after he sent over 15,000 unsolicited texts to a female colleague who accused him of sacking her when she refused his advances, which included observations on her “triple A-rated breasts”.55 In his defence Raoult claimed, with characteristic macho bullishness, that the accusations were politically motivated and argued, with no trace of irony, that “she had no hesitation in showing her body. I’m suspected of harassment but nobody suspects a girl of enticement”.56

    Male advocates of legislation to regulate women’s access to garments they find offensive offer various interpretations of the sexual implications of the public display, or concealment, of the female body. For instance, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, writing in 2010, found the niqab not only “degrading” but also “obscene” since it reduced “the status of those wearing it solely to that of potential sexual prey”. Where Raoult complained of the temptations of naked female flesh, Mélenchon objected to the way he felt the niqab assumed all men to be sexual predators, since, in his view, it implied that the “object of desire” should be hidden from the “lust of all those who looked at her”. Criticising Jean-Marie Le Pen, whose view was that outlawing the niqab should be possible under existing legislation, Mélenchon argued that the secular character of the republic must be reinforced through a new law. Women who wore the niqab were engaged in a spectacle of “self-humiliation” that amounted to a “breach of public order”. Veiled in this way, women were denying their own status “as autonomous subjects”. They must therefore be instructed by the state to dress differently. Left wing deputies, he argued, should back the law but also press for it to go further: nobody should be permitted to request medical treatment by a doctor of the same sex, all municipal sporting activities should be mixed and separate swimming pool timetables should be outlawed.57

    Once Gerin and Raoult’s law was passed, women who wanted to wear the niqab, like those who wore other garments to cover their faces, were obliged do so in the privacy of their own home (dispensation was granted to allow women to wear the niqab in a car, provided it did not impair vision when driving). The twisted logic of the new secularism becomes clear. As Stéphanie Hennette-Vauchez and Vincent Valentin argue, by intervening ostensibly to protect women from the violence, pressure or subjugation presumed to be behind the wearing of the hijab, or the full-face or full-body veil, the state makes delinquents of those who refuse to accept its authority. Muslim women and girls are offered the choice between accepting restrictions on their autonomy in public space or being confined to the home or forced to accept private schooling. This recalls the suspicion of women that characterised the anti-feminism of anti-clerical attitudes in the early 20th century. Once vessels of the Catholic priest, women now posed problems as vessels of the imam: “for the Republic to make ‘progress’, women and religion must be relegated and confined to the private sphere”.58

    This is the spiral created by the anti-Muslim edicts and laws of the past two decades. The sentiment motivating the frequently cited 1905 law of separation—“respect for freedom of conscience leads to the mutual respect of beliefs and not to the prohibition of external manifestations of a cult in public”59—has been swept away in the name of sham universalism, against a backdrop of spiralling Islamophobia, a term, as we have seen, that the new secularism rejects out of hand: “Behind the word “Islamophobia’,” warns Valls, “we must see what is hidden. Its origins show that it was fabricated by the Iranian fundamentalists in the late 1970s to shame women who refused to wear the veil.” “Islamophobia” is nothing more than “a Trojan horse that seeks to destabilise the republican pact”.60

    The racist drift in French society has not been a linear process. The development of a powerful social movement in the mid-1990s re-energised anti-racist currents in French society which mobilised impressively between 1996 and 2002 in defence of undocumented migrants and against racist legislation and the FN. Mélenchon himself waged a vigorously anti-racist election campaign in 2012, frequently condemning the stigmatisation of Muslims. The blind spot created by anti-Muslim legislation, however, has meant that the left has been unable to provide a coherent response to Islamophobia, undermining its capacity to develop a consistent and united anti-racist movement. Sarkozy was able to spearhead attacks on the “dirty rabble” that inhabited France’s impoverished urban fringes, the banlieues, and propel the question of “national identity” to the fore of political debate. This paved the way for a resurgent Front National to seize the political initiative, which the present Socialist administration has done nothing to counter.

    An example of the destabilising effect of Islamophobia on the radical left was provided by the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA), a formation that embodied hopes that a decade of social movement struggles would find durable political expression, and a voice for the highly politicised currents emerging from the banlieues. When Ilham Moussaïd was chosen as a candidate for the party in the 2010 regional elections, her hijab immediately became a contentious issue. “She does not represent the majority,” complained Jean-Luc Mélenchon, forgetting that the defence of stigmatised minorities is an elementary function of any group aspiring to more than rhetorical anti-racism: “You can’t call yourself a feminist while displaying a symbol of patriarchal submission,” he sneered.61 Despite the backing of the NPA presidential candidate Olivier Besancenot for her stance, some leading members of the party refused membership to other women who wore the hijab. In one instance, they also actively campaigned for the exclusion of Muslim students from school unless they submitted to demands to uncover their hair.62 Things came to a head shortly before the party’s 2011 congress, marked by a bitter row over the hijab, when a dozen activists from Avignon, including Moussaïd, resigned. As one activist, Adil, put it at the congress, “Do you think they don’t have religious convictions in Tunisia or Palestine? It’s lovely to applaud the Egyptian Revolution, in a Che Guevara T-shirt, but the reality is that we’re unable to open up this party”.63

    The absence of an adequate response to Islamophobia from the radical left does not mean that there has been no response, however. Over the past decade a series of initiatives from beyond these organisations have established networks of resistance to the prevailing climate. A number of groups and associations were set up in the wake of the 2003 Stasi Commission and the subsequent 2004 ban on the hijab in schools, from the Collectif Contre l’Islamophobie en France (Collective Against Islamophobia in France, or CCIF) which records Islamophobic acts and provides a support network for victims, to the Indigènes de la République (the Indigenous People of the Republic), that identifies colonial racism as a defining element of the republic and seeks to organise among those suffering from its consequences, and Mamans Toutes Égales (Mothers All Equal), established by parents opposed to the exclusion of mothers wearing the hijab from school trips. Other initiatives have included the Forum Social des Quartiers Populaires (Social Forum of Popular Neighbourhoods), set up in 2007 to affirm resistance to racism and stigmatisation, drawing on the experience and struggles of these areas, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign and various groups organising against police violence and stop and search legislation.

    In 2011 a number of local committees were formed across France under the banner D’ailleurs nous sommes ici (From elsewhere/Moreover we are here) against racism, anti-immigrant legislation and in defence of undocumented migrants, building demonstrations in Paris and other towns and cities on 28 May. Later that year the Printemps des Quartiers, formed by associative networks from the quartiers populaires and anti-racist activists from the radical and trade union left, was launched. It took inspiration from the 2005 banlieue uprising, the Arab spring, the Palestinian struggle and the Indignados movement worldwide and has organised a series of national and local initiatives. In March 2014 a group of teachers launched a petition calling for the repeal of the 2004 law—to date over 30,000 people have signed.64 Alongside such developments, a series of arguments and analyses of Islamophobia have been developed by academics, activists and journalists in a range of websites, books and articles.65

    Such developments meant that, in the climate of moral panic created after the January attacks, there was a means of organising resistance to scapegoating. When dozens of organisations signed up to an appeal for a unity rally against Islamophobia in Paris on 6 March 2015, it provoked a debate on the left. Signatories were asked to justify their support for a meeting that was also backed by the Union des Organisations Islamiques de France (Union of French Islamic Organisations or UOIF). How, opponents asked, could left wing activists make common cause with such conservative, sexist forces that had opposed gay marriage? Under pressure from new secularist commentators like Caroline Fourest, who argued that the meeting amounted to “spitting on the dead of 7 January”,66 the Greens withdrew their support for the meeting, a decision publicly opposed by a number of leading party figures.67 Members of the anti-globalisation coalition ATTAC’s gender commission opposed the association’s participation.68 The Communist Party (PCF) and the NPA held firm in backing the initiative. The Front de Gauche, however, did not support it, arguing that the term “Islamophobia” blurred the distinction between racism and legitimate criticism of religion,69 although the Front’s Ensemble current did offer clear backing for the initiative. The meeting itself was a success, with over 500 people attending, indicating that the Islamophobic spiral will not go unanswered.


    The spearhead of the reactionary drift in French politics has been the mainstream and extreme right, which invokes laïcité to emphasise incompatibility between Muslims and “true” French national identity. The new secularism of the left, while not sharing the right’s ethno-cultural starting point, nevertheless contributes to the same end, the use of legislation to restrict religious freedom in order to impose a republican “way of being”. In this way, as Vauchez and Valentin argue, “new secularism nibbles away at freedom and instrumentalises equality, appearing in turn anti-liberal and pseudo-feminist”.70

    The 1905 law did not even mention secularism, in whose name expressions of affiliation to Islam are now being obsessively driven from the public sphere. A century ago the republic did not feel threatened by the clothes of those demonstrating affiliation to a church that had agitated, with considerable success and bloodshed, to overthrow its rule for over a century. The cassock, a long dress-like outfit, would become, after separation, “a garment like any other”. By contrast, the new secularists conjure up the spectre of Islamist insurrection in every niqab worn by a fraction of 1 percent of Muslim women in France, and a threat to “republican values” in every hijab, bandana or “provocatively” long skirt to enter a school on the body of an adolescent girl.

    Women wearing the hijab have consequently found themselves barred from accompanying their children on schools trips or working in nurseries. Volunteers for the Restaurants du Coeur soup kitchens have been told their services are not wanted if they choose to wear the hijab.71 In the autumn of 2014 members of the choir performing La Traviata at the Bastille Opera in Paris refused to sing until a woman wearing a niqab, whom they had observed sitting in the front row, was escorted from the auditorium. On holiday from the Gulf and unaware of the law, she was ushered out during the interval.72 (The public-spirited chorists, no doubt simply concerned at the implications for “living together” posed by the niqab, were themselves free to take part in the masked ball scene later in the opera thanks to the special dispensation written into the legislation that permitted theatrical performers to cover their faces).

    Islamophobia is not specific to France, but there are reasons why France’s Muslim population is currently suffering a more powerful racist backlash than any other in Europe. The bigotry of the Front National has been legitimised by the “respectable” racism of the mainstream parties that has cynically drawn on the sham universalism and pseudo-feminism of the new secularism. The left’s affinity to new secularism has in turn chronically weakened anti-racism, widening the gulf that separates the radical left from France’s Muslim population. The renewed emphasis since the Paris attacks on inculcating respect for “republican values” in schools, punishing those alleged to defy them, fast-tracking those accused of “apology for terrorism” through the courts, and increasing surveillance and “vigilance”, is unlikely to prevent this kind of atrocity from happening again. It will merely intensify the process of marginalisation of France’s Muslim population already under way, something that will not be reversed until the left is able to join forces with those being stigmatised in order to assert the values of an anti-racist tradition thrown off course by the distortions of the new secularism.


    1: RFI, 2015.

    2: Marlière, 2012.

    3: Clemitson, 2015.

    4: Remy, 2006.

    5: For more on Islamophobia in general see Hassan Mahamdallie’s article in this issue.

    6: Maillard, 2015.

    7: Le Monde, 2015a.

    9: Libération, 2015.

    10: CCIF, 2015a.

    11: Ciotti, 2015.

    12: Hoberman, 2015.

    13: Stone, 2015.

    14: L’Express, 2015.

    15: Debnath, 2015.

    16: La Rotative, 2015.

    17: CCIF, 2015b.

    18: Ouest France, 2015.

    19: Turgis, 2015.

    20: Boissel, 2015.

    21: Corbières, 2014.

    22: Wolfreys, 2015.

    23: AJIB, 2012.

    24: See Hennette-Vauchez and Valentin, 2014.

    25: “Loi du 9 décembre 1905 concernant la séparation des Eglises et de l’Etat”—

    26: Baubérot, 2011.

    27: Baubérot, 2011.

    28: Baubérot, 2006.

    29: Weber, 1976.

    30: L’Obs, 2003.

    31: Tévanian, 2004.

    32: Wolfreys, 1993.

    33: Cahiers Européens, May 1974—see Wolfreys, 2002.

    34: Le Monde, 2011; she did nevertheless acknowledge the work being done by Manuel Valls.

    35: Wolfreys, 2012.

    36: Confavreux and Turchi, 2014.

    37: Le Monde, 2015b.

    38: Agence France Presse, 2015.

    39: Fassin and Fassin, 2006, p122.

    40: 26 February 2006, following the horrific torture and murder of a young Jewish man, Ilam Halimi.

    41: Badinter and others, 1989.

    42: Chikha, 1990.

    43: Libération, 5 December 1989, cited in Chikha, 1990.

    44: Sud Ouest Dimanche, 1994.

    45: Tincq, 1994.

    46: Jones, 2009, p56.

    47: Wolfreys, 2013.

    48: Vincent, 2014.

    49: Henley, 2004.

    50: CCIF, 2011; Saphir News, 2012.

    51: Bernard Guetta, step-brother of the jet-set DJ David Guetta, on France-Inter, 20 September 2013—see Teissier, 2013.

    52: Malik, 2013.

    53: Assemblée Nationale, 2010.

    54: Beyer, 2012.

    55: Duportail, 2014.

    56: Sulzer, 2014.

    57: Mélenchon, 2010.

    58: Hennette-Vauchez and Valentin, 2014, p57.

    59: Baubérot, 2011.

    60: Le Liboux, 2013.

    61: Andrieu, 2010.

    62: Lévy, 2010.

    63: Alliès, 2011.

    64: Médiapart, 2014.

    65: See, for example, Pierre Tevanian and Sylvie Tissot’s website, Les Mots Sont Importants (; Hajjat and Mohammed, 2013; Fassin and Fassin, 2006; Bouamama, 2004; Plenel, 2015.

    66: Fourest, 2015.

    67: Khadre, 2015.

    68: Delarue, 2015.

    69: Sulzer, 2015.

    70: Hennette-Vauchez and Valentin, 2014, p57.

    71: CCIF, 2012.

    72: Solis, 2014.


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