Macron’s Not Worried About Islam. He’s Worried About Le Pen.

The French president’s talk of a crisis among French Muslims is the latest example of mainstream politicians pandering to the far-right.  

Marine Le Pen shakes hands with French President Emmanuel Macron after their meeting at the Elysée palace in Paris, on Nov. 21, 2017.
Marine Le Pen shakes hands with French President Emmanuel Macron after their meeting at the Elysée palace in Paris, on Nov. 21, 2017. LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP via Getty Images

Last Friday, French President Emmanuel Macron warned that a minority of France’s estimated 6 million Muslims could form a “counter-society,” and that Islam was facing a “crisis” all around the world, before unveiling his plan to tackle what he considered to be a “parallel society” in France.

It’s not a new argument in the country, which has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe. Macron has another, singular purpose: to brandish his tough-on-Islam credentials in a populist political environment at the expense of an already embattled French Muslim minority.

Ironically, Macron has failed to recognize that the cardinal principle of separation between church and state in France (laicité) and the state’s neutrality toward organized religion actually prohibit him from engaging in what is essentially a community’s own private religious discourse. But the situation is far more serious than that.

It was only last year that Guardian ran a piece titled, “The myth of Eurabia: how a far-right conspiracy theory went mainstream.” But the idea has been around for two decades, coined by Gisèle Littman (otherwise known as Bat Yeor), who has earned as much academic criticism debunking her concept, as she has invited fandom on the far-right, including from the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik.

The idea feeds a very simple falsehood: Muslims are in Europe to engage in a culture war to overturn European values, and white Christians have to fight to save their civilization. It’s a wild theory, but its respectable form, which is all about “Muslim separatism,” moved from the fringes to the mainstream a long time ago and has infected the left and the right in French politics and beyond.

It can be debated who is most responsible for beginning this discourse in France, but any list would have to include the likes of the commentator Éric Zemmour and the author Renaud Camus, who coined the theory of the “Great Replacement,” which has gone onto inspire many on the far-right worldwide. Macron’s statements are yet more evidence of that mainstreaming far beyond the fringes.

There are, of course, plenty of crises facing Muslims worldwide, both as national populations and as a confessional community. For example, huge swaths of Muslim populations live under authoritarian and autocratic regimes, which is a crisis of its own, though not an inevitable one. (And it’s not clear that Macron’s foreign policy views such regimes as problematic; indeed, it’s quite likely that he believes the contrary). If Macron took seriously the issue of good governance for Muslim populations worldwide, it would have significant repercussions for French foreign policy; his failure to prioritize it makes his talk of a crisis in Islam less convincing.

Muslim scholars regularly talk about the “crisis of authority” within religious education and the lack of sufficient investment into revitalizing different educational establishments as they try to recover from the legacy of colonial rule. Incidentally, Macron has not, to my knowledge, brought up the history of French colonialism in that regard, which is definitely pertinent, given that French rule in North Africa had a salient negative impact on different Muslim religious establishments, making those religious authorities less equipped to deal with the challenges of the modern world.

That legacy plays into the ideology of extremists, as do the authoritarian politics of the region.

But these aren’t the crises that Macron or other European politicians are complaining about. Macron’s statements are simply an attempt to appeal to right-wing voters ahead of the 2022 presidential election, where he is currently polling neck and neck with far-right National Rally leader Marine Le Pen, who is not afraid to blame Muslims for all of France’s ills.

Perhaps Macron genuinely believes his narrative about a crisis—but it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that far too many prominent European Union politicians, including those committed to liberal democratic values, no longer pause before pinning the blame for social problems on Muslim minorities. Doing so is likely to get politicians more, not less, votes. Genuine political leadership would mean countering that trend—not riding it.

Far too many prominent European Union politicians, including those committed to liberal democratic values, no longer pause before pinning the blame for social problems on Muslim minorities.

As Rim-Sarah Alouane, a French legal scholar at the Toulouse 1 Capitole University argued: “Anti-Muslim bigotry is a business model in France: It boosts audiences on 24/7 news networks, and it allows politicians to be more visible. The far-right might not be in power in France, but its spirit definitely is.” And if the choice once again comes down to Macron and the far-right, she added, “you will be asked to vote to save the republic when Le Pen reaches the second round of the election.”

Macron’s political party, En Marche, occupies the center ground of French politics—and that’s precisely why his discourse, and that of a number of lawmakers in his party, is so concerning. A couple of decades ago, a politician insisting that “Islam is a religion that is in crisis all over the world today,” would have most definitely been from a far-right party. The same would have been true for someone declaring that the hijab was “not in accordance with the civility of our country,” but Macron said that two years ago.

It would have been astounding not so long ago for anyone but a supporter of the far-right to say, “I cannot accept that someone comes to participate in our work at the National Assembly wearing a hijab.” But those are the words of another well-known member of the French Parliament who is in Macron’s centrist political party, Anne-Christine Lang.

Even worse, Lang’s attack was aimed at an elected student leader, who was visiting her country’s Parliament and participating fully as a citizen. For the supposed defenders of the secular republic, veils seem to matter more than civic values and individual freedoms.

For all the talk about separatism in France, more attention is given to Muslims in headscarves who are carrying out their civic duties than far-right populists who are actually committing crimes or violating the law—like the former member of Le Pen’s party who tried to set fire to a mosque, and then proceeded to shoot two men who sought to stop him.

As Alouane put it: “Not once has Macron mentioned the threat of white supremacy and the ultra-right, even though the racist so-called theory of the ‘great replacement’ has been developed in France and has been used by the terrorist who committed the horrific massacre in Christchurch.”

Depicting Muslims as a problem in the public sphere pays dividends at the polls in France and elsewhere in Europe—and it may win Macron a second term. Unfortunately, it will be an already embattled minority, the French Muslim population, who will pay the price.

H.A. Hellyer is a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Among other books, he is the author of Muslims of Europe: The ‘Other’ Europeans. Twitter: @hahellyer

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