How not to resist racism: a lesson from France

Issue: 160

Dave Sewell

A review of Jim Wolfreys, Republic of Islamophobia: The Rise of Respectable Racism in France (Hurst, 2018), £14.99

This April, French president Emmanuel Macron urged Catholic bishops to “engage once again” with the “political scene” and “repair” the relationship between church and state. “A French president who takes no interest in the Church and its Catholics would be failing in his duty,” Macron noted.1 Indeed, religion and the church play a prominent role in French public life, from being the backbone of protests against gay marriage in 2012-13 to receiving state subsidies in the Alsace-Lorraine region. Yet this sounds like an alternate universe compared to the France that’s invoked whenever it comes to Muslims. One absurd and intense moral panic after another is explained away by the myth that laïcité—an unusually virulent strain of secularism—is “a founding principle of the French republic”, as one historically illiterate Guardian article put it when armed police officers were forcing Muslim women to remove clothing on beaches last year.2 In Republic of Islamophobia, Jim Wolfreys forcefully and methodically exposes how in reality: “France’s problem is not laïcité but racism”.3

Politicians and public bodies make sure that school children can’t avoid eating pork, swimming pools can’t hold women-only sessions and corner shops can’t choose not to serve alcohol. The media gives ranting race warriors a permanent platform to spout the conspiracy theory of a “Great Replacement” of white Europeans by invading Muslims. And, while top journalists, politicians and “intellectuals” breezily dismiss the crimes of Roman Polanski and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the Muslim male is routinely singled out as the source of all sexism. Meanwhile, Muslim women’s clothing is rigorously policed; not content with banning hijabs, schools have moved on to bandanas and even “ostentatious” long skirts.

The atmosphere reached its ugliest in 2015 following terror attacks in Paris. School children were subject to police interrogation for making jokes out of step with the prevailing mood of “Je suis Charlie”. Thousands of people had their homes raided or were placed under house arrest after baseless denunciations by “concerned” neighbours, while mosques and Muslim-owned businesses were attacked. Politicians debated interning 11,000 people for “the mere suspicion of radicalisation”, or stripping benefits from families that failed to inculcate French Republican “values” in their children. Even those careful not to overtly blame all Muslims for terrorism cast them as suspects. Former prime minister Alain Juppé—candidate of least racism in 2016’s right wing primaries, branded “Ali Juppé” for his relative ­tolerance—said that Muslims were only free to follow their religion on the condition that they “clearly state that they have nothing to do with fanaticism, this barbarism, and that they subscribe fully to the values of the Republic”.4 Others in his party were more overt, calling the November 2015 Bataclan Theatre massacre “a heavy price for our cowardice in the face of communitarianism”.5

This Islamophobia epidemic, Wolfreys argues, “is due less to any inherent national characteristic revolving around a ‘tradition of secularism’ than to the way in which this tradition, in both its narrowly distorted and more progressive liberal forms, has rallied forces from across the political spectrum to a defence of state authority”.6

Islamophobia has been a corollary of the War on Terror across Europe and North America. Wolfreys argues that while in Britain and the United States this often reworked a legacy of Cold War paranoia, in France it was more shaped by the legacy of empire—particularly the organised contempt for North African culture that marked the French colonisation of Algeria. Public “unveiling” ceremonies that foreshadowed today’s hijab polemics were part of the “mission civilisatrice”, France’s version of the “white man’s burden”. Policy debates about the banlieues—poorer outlying suburbs often to some degree ghettoised and isolated from France’s cities—recycle the language and tropes of colonialism.

Yet for all its colonial roots, the racism confronting French Muslims is a contemporary one. As recently as 1989, many of the groups that later supported excluding girls in the hijab from school were robustly opposing the idea on anti-racist and human rights grounds. Since then, a new racism has been constructed around Muslims, racialising Islam through a series of moral panics around elements of Muslim culture. Wolfreys draws upon Arun Kundnani’s description of how: “cultural tropes such as the wearing of the hijab have come to serve as 21st century racial signifiers, functioning in ways analogous to the more familiar racial markers of ‘colour, hair and bone’ that W E B Du Bois identified”.7

The instigator of these moral panics has often been Marine Le Pen, leader of the fascist and electorally ascendant Front National (FN, recently renamed Rassemblement National).8 But she couldn’t have done it alone. Mainstream politicians have repeatedly tried to poach her policies, seeking to win away her votes and stop her attacking them for not being racist enough. The effect has always been the opposite: to vindicate Le Pen, legitimise her arguments and showcase her ability to deliver on her words. For example, in 2011, due to a lack of mosques, Muslims prayed outside in just a handful of streets—10 or 20 across France. Le Pen compared it to living under occupation. Within a year, the government had banned the practice. But far from diminishing her scaremongering, taking the issue mainstream has dramatically over-inflated public perception of the practice. The average poll respondent believed that almost 200 streets were affected.

The FN’s discriminatory idea of creating harsher punishments for some crimes when they are committed by foreign or dual nationals, was eventually taken up first by right wing president Nicolas Sarkozy and finally by Socialist Party (PS) president François Hollande. Le Pen gloated that, “When you see…a President of the Republic take up the Front National’s measures, there’s an astonishing aspect to this, an homage to the FN”.9 This opens the door for the FN to go even further. Wolfreys writes: “The problem, as mainstream politicians are finding out to their cost, is that this kind of politics has no endpoint. Once set in motion, such issues…can develop or be constructed into moral panics with their own momentum, difficult to control, bolstering the impression that only the authoritarian outsider can provide solutions”.10

Politicians’ embrace of Islamophobia reveals more than short-term opportunism. It’s also a response to a long-term weakness. The rise of French Islamophobia has coincided with a collapse in the job security, living standards and future prospects of workers and even the middle class. Even more strikingly, it has occurred in parallel with a series of immense revolts centred on the working class and the politics of the left, and an associated rise in the electoral fortunes of the radical left. This has all created obstacles to the construction of what Wolfreys calls a “neoliberal bloc”—a government with the resolve and breadth of support needed to implement the neoliberal reforms demanded by big business.11

Wolfreys expertly shows the two-way interaction between this political imperative and the dominant ideologies in French society, through which Islamophobia became a central ideological front in the class struggle. It’s in this period that secularism, for example, went from being a defense of religious freedom to a vehicle for religious persecution. But more fundamental has been the idea of Republicanism, inherited ultimately from the French Revolution. The Republic is held to be “one and indivisible”, its collective identity overruling the specific interests of any particular group. This contains a democratic, anti-elitist element to which generations of the left have rallied—against the power of the aristocracy or the church, or in defence of human rights. But it also contains a totalitarian injunction against minorities whose culture can be claimed to set them apart from the Republic as a whole.

Republicanism was historically most important to the left, and as late as the mid-2000s, Sarkozy was initially more interested in emulating US and British neoliberalism, including its trappings of tokenistic diversity, than in the tired Republicanism of his centre-left punching bags. But his conversion was so thorough that by 2012 he had begun moves to rename his party Les Republicains (LR). Republicanism offered an unparalleled vehicle for marshalling the left behind the agenda of the right, constructing a broad political bloc in support of the state and the ruling class agenda and neutering the opposition.

This was shown most recently in July when Danièle Obono—one of the most left wing MPs of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s party France Insoumise (FI, France Unbowed)—called on the PS and even LR, France’s equivalent of the Tories, to join a “Republican” alliance against Macron.12 Wolfreys laments that even after the French Republic’s slaughter of the Paris Commune in 1871, “in 1914 former Communards were to rally to the ‘sacred union’ in defence of the ‘Republic in danger’”.13 If the revolutionary left is to pose a real challenge to France’s rulers, Wolfreys argues, it needs to stop defending their Republic and start to pose a Marxist alternative.

The indivisible Republic represents a systematic denial of France’s multicultural reality—and therefore of any racist discrimination or inequality within it. No official statistics acknowledge ethnicity or race, hiding the reality of widespread discrimination in employment, education, housing and police violence. This year the clause guaranteeing equal rights regardless of race was removed from the French constitution, on the ostensibly anti-racist Republican grounds that there is no such thing as race. That means that when the inequality becomes impossible to hide—in particular after it exploded into the riots of 2005—the cause is sought elsewhere.

Instead of asking how French society discriminated against its black and North African citizens, the question became about how black and North African people’s culture prevented them from “integrating” into French society. In the search for “delinquent identities”, one politician went as far as to blame unemployment on polygamy. The existence of cultural differences as such became seen as a refusal to “integrate” into the dominant culture, with Islamophobic victim-blaming in the name of anti-racism.

And again, the left’s Republicanism has too often led to its complicity—to its own detriment. The PS was every bit as vicious towards Muslims when in government as its right-wing predecessor. That government ended in the party’s electoral meltdown. Mélenchon’s FI wraps its strident reformism in the national flag and national anthem and, though it has taken anti-racist stands, is fatally limited by its dogmatic secularism and nationalism. In May, for example, FI was busy building a national demonstration when Sorbonne student union president Maryam Pougetoux gave a TV interview about students’ protesting against Macron’s new Ucas-style student selection system. Because Pougetoux wore a hijab, this saw a two week feeding frenzy dominate the news agenda. The success of FI’s demonstration relied on mobilising the very students that Pougetoux represented against the government. Instead Mélenchon’s right hand man Alexis Corbière fell in behind government ministers to pontificate on TV about Pougetoux’s hijab.

Sections of the far-left, including the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA), did defend Pougetoux—real progress given a miserable record including “abject abandonment, if not outright hostility” towards Muslims.14 Where might the NPA be today if it hadn’t shamefully driven out would-be electoral candidate Ilhem Moussaid and her closest allies in 2010 following a witch-hunt over her headscarf? Wolfreys also points to how the NPA’s presidential candidate Philippe Poutou, otherwise dynamic and effective on TV debates, is instantly undermined by his inability to respond when Islamophobia is raised.

Some of the left’s surrender to Islamophobia rests on a mangling of Karl Marx’s words about religion being “the opium [sic] of the people”, which Wolfreys contrasts to the real record of Marx, and later the Bolsheviks in Russia, of standing against religious persecution.15 The identification of Islam with sexism by some leftists and feminists also creates a left wing version of the “mission civilisatrice”. Wolfreys traces the problem back to a wrong turn at the time of the 1894-1906 Dreyfus affair—when an antisemitic conspiracy wrongly condemned Jewish officer Alfred Dreyfus for treason.16 Those who rightly and courageously defended Dreyfus regrettably chose the Republic as the vehicle for their anti-racism.

In a series of powerful interviews with black and North African activists, Wolfreys shows how a new movement has begun to emerge since the 2005 riots, challenging “institutional anti-racism” with “political anti-racism”. This movement targets the state rather than defending it, and mobilises the oppressed rather than admonishing them. Alongside this is a generational culture shift on the left, with younger activists far more likely to side with Muslims against the state than get bogged down in surreal debates about secularism—as Pougetoux’s election within a militant student union exemplifies. Even so, the activists interviewed sound a powerful warning that the left is largely unwilling and unable to respond to Muslim anti-racists’ attempts to engage them. As Meriem, a Muslim NPA member in Paris, puts it:

As long as the left doesn’t have a clear position on Islamophobia, it’s missing something. They hope for a revolution but there won’t be one as long as the most oppressed section of our class is not a driving force, is not at the heart of building something to create another kind of society.17

Indeed, the dominance of Islamophobia contributes to rendering the working class—for all the resilience of its struggles—invisible. In a narrative as influential as it is divorced from the facts, nudged along by think-tanks and polls with leading questions, workers of “immigrant origin” are implicitly excluded from a working class which is consequently defined as white, closely identified with French nationalism, fragmented and under threat from immigration. The figure of the fearful, right-leaning “petit blanc” (little white person) replaces that of the militant, left-leaning worker. Wolfreys shows how removing unity from the picture of the working class removes its strength and agency too.

Wolfreys’s book would have benefitted from some additions. The relationship between Islamophobia and the previously dominant racism in France, antisemitism, is underexplored. Hypocritical and often theatrically shrill statements of opposition to antisemitism are frequently used to bash Muslims and the left, while some smaller currents have exploited the fears of some Muslims to whip up suspicion of Jews. Yet antisemitism and Islamophobia cross-fertilise. Restrictions on halal food and hijabs spill over onto kosher and kippahs. The FN builds its cadre through antisemitism and its mass audience through Islamophobia, incubating a new generation of Holocaust deniers. The tropes used to racialise Muslims come straight out of the antisemitic playbook—and indeed sections of Wolfreys’s analysis of French Islamophobia seem to echo the analysis of French antisemitism put forward by philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre after the Second World War.18

The justified focus on Republicanism also shouldn’t distract from the fact that sections of the right are now itching to radicalise beyond it. This was highly visible in the 2016 primaries and candidacies of the right, particularly from the team of eventual winner of the LR candidacy François Fillon who pitched to the idea of a pre-Republican France, its identity based on ethnicity and rooted in Catholicism. He argued that: “It is as absurd to deny that Europe has Christian roots as it is to claim that the history of France began in 1789”.19 The revival of Republicanism has been a catalyst for a rightward shift in French politics—but one that may have laid the ground for its own negation.

But, as Wolfreys concludes, France is in many ways just one advanced case study in a broader epidemic—one whose lessons it’s essential to apply elsewhere. Islamophobic demonstrations in Germany and Britain dwarf any the FN and its satellites have pulled off. French politicians look to Britain’s Prevent strategy with envy, while the FN’s cousins in the Freedom Party in Austria (FPÖ) are in government. And for all the peculiarities of French Republicanism, it provided a template for the ideology of bourgeois democracy wherever it exists, laying the same traps for the left all over the world. With his expert knowledge, political nous and a satisfyingly wry intolerance for hypocrisy, Wolfreys has provided a clear analysis that any serious anti-racist will find useful.


1 See press reports such as Samuel, 2018.

2 Cited in Wolfreys, 2018.

3 Wolfreys, 2018.

4 Cited in Wolfreys, 2018.

5 Cited in Wolfreys, 2018.

6 Wolfreys, 2018.

7 Kundnani, 2014, cited in Wolfreys, 2018.

8 Wolfreys has elsewhere rejected the argument that the FN is now “detoxified” to the point where it cannot be considered fascist, in Wolfreys, 2017.

9 Cited in Wolfreys, 2018.

10 Wolfreys, 2018.

11 So has the inability of either the centre-right or the centre-left to rally all of their supporters behind neoliberalism, with the right split between neoliberalism and nostalgia for Gaullism. The result is that supporters of neoliberalism are not just a minority overall, but they have, at least until 2017, been split between the two main antagonistic blocs of French politics. See Giudicelli, 2017, for an analysis of last year’s political realignment.

12 It was Le Pen who opportunistically responded, to Obono’s visible horror.

13 Wolfreys, 2018.

14 Wolfreys, 2018.

15 French writer and activist Pierre Tévanian deconstructs the argument on the French left in detail in Tevanian, 2013, starting with the calls on the NPA to “reread Marx” during the witch-hunt against Moussaïd. A number of previous articles in this journal also give useful background: Molyneux, 2008 explains the real significance of Marx’s argument, Boer, 2009 shows how it emerged from philosophical debates in Marx’s time and Davison, 2016 looks at analogous debates on the contemporary German left.

16 A very readable recent account is in Michael Rosen’s The Disappearance of Émile ZolaRosen, 2017.

17 Cited in Wolfreys, 2018.

18 Sartre argued in particular that the racialised figure of “the Jew” was constructed by antisemites, that these were a product of a class-riven society and its dysfunctional politics that needed an outsider figure to create a sense of unity, that this process was hostile to the working class, and that bourgeois Republican democracy offers at best a tame anti-racism that can easily slip into racism itself. “For the Jew who is conscious and proud of being a Jew…there isn’t that much difference between the antisemite and the democrat. The former wants to destroy him as a man to leave in him only the Jew, the pariah; the latter wants to destroy him as a Jew to leave in him only the man, the universal and abstract subject”—Sartre, 1954.

19 Meeus, 2016.


Boer, Roland, 2009, “The Full Story: On Marxism and Religion”, International Socialism 123 (summer),

Davison, Kate, 2016, “Atheism, Secularism and Religious Freedom: Debates Within the German Left”, International Socialism 150 (spring),

Giudicelli, Vanina, 2017, “Interview: The Meaning of Macron”, International Socialism 155 (summer),

Kundnani, Arun, 2014, The Muslims Are Coming! Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror (Verso).

Meeus, Carl, 2016, “François Fillon: ‘Mon projet est le seul qui permette le redressement du pays’”, Le Figaro (20 May),

Molyneux, John, 2008, “More than Opium: Marxism and Religion”, International Socialism 119 (summer),

Rosen, Michael, 2017, The Disappearance of Émile Zola: Love, Literature and the Dreyfus Case (Faber and Faber).

Samuel, Henry, 2018, “Macron Accused of Undermining French Secularism over Call to ‘Repair’ Relations between Church and State”, Telegraph (10 April),

Sartre, Jean-Paul, 1954, Réflexions sur la question juive (Editions Gallimard).

Tévanian, Pierre, 2013, La haine de la religion: Comment l’athéisme est devenu l’opium du peuple de gauche [Hatred of Religion: How Atheism Has Become the Opium of the People of the Left] (La Découverte).

Wolfreys, Jim, 2017, “The Dangers of Detoxification”, Jacobin (20 April),

Wolfreys, Jim, 2018, Republic of Islamophobia: The Rise of Respectable Racism in France (Hurst).