The controversial Burkini Ban has been rightly overturned in French courts. Despite this, the ban was only the latest event in a series of Islamophobic attacks endured by French Muslims. This is not a recent development. The French government was exploiting Muslims long before the recent terror attacks. However, it is undeniable that these events have sent Islamophobia in France to fever pitch. Of the 3,500 raids conducted since January 2015, only six have led to investigations. In December, authorities in Eure et Loire, admitted that they were targeting Muslims with no evidence against them, on a supposedly ‘preventive’ basis. Many innocent Muslims have been handcuffed and dragged from their beds by heavily armed police. When a State of Emergency was declared after last year’s attack on the Bataclan, 274 people were placed under house arrest, the vast majority of whom were Muslims. In addition to this, Mosques have been violently ransacked by police. Around twenty Mosques have been closed, with many more to be soon shuttered. Political organisations with Muslim links such as solidarity with Palestine and the BDS Movement have been outlawed in the name of national security. Things are even harder for Muslims appealing for Asylum, many of whom have had their camps destroyed and have been made vulnerable to deportation measures.
In pursuing these sorts of policies, French politicians have knowingly ignored the reality of state sponsored Islamophobia. Combined with military activity in Muslim countries this has only fuelled further extremism, and encouraged the same kind of social isolation that encourages people to join groups like ISIS. The correct response to this, from those of us on the left, should be to recognise Muslims as victims of capitalism and neoliberalism, and to show solidarity with them. However, when it comes to defending the right of French movements, the Radical Left has been missing in action. Reluctance to defend religious Freedom and fear of being labelled ‘terrorist sympathisers’, seriously undermines the left’s solidarity with Muslim refugees. This blog post will look at where the problem of Islamophobia in France stems from and why the left should do more to tackle it.
The political roots of Islamophobia
There are about 5 million Muslims living in France today. At roughly 7.5 percent of the population, this is the largest share of any country in Europe. Out of these, just over a Third say they actually practice the religion.
Historically, Muslims came to France following the country colonization of North Africa. This means that the contemporary relationship between the Muslim population and the French government, was conditioned by the legacy of imperial history and economic exploitation. Unlike other colonies, Algeria was officially considered a part of France, meaning that Algerian Muslims could freely live in France. In spite of this, they often faced brutal repression. Indeed, antagonism with a Muslim population is even written into the French political structure. The current constitution, which established the Fifth Republic, was explicitly designed to quell Muslim resistance to colonialism. Although General De Gaul called for constitutional reform in 1958, he did so in order to restore presidential authority, which had been weakened by the Upheavals during the Algerian war of independence.
During the Algerian Independence Movement, members of the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) inflicted real damage on French authorities. One of their many actions saw them setting a fuel depot near Marseilles alight in 1958. In response to this, the French state intensified its repressive tactics. In 1961 – the year before Algeria gained its independence – at least one hundred Algerians were massacred by Paris police, simply for protesting curfew orders that had been placed on them. This conflict is not easily forgotten. After Algeria rightly gaining independence in 1962, the Algerian community in France often discouraged its members from seeking French nationality, as doing so would mean identifying as citizens of the very nation that had persecuted them. Indeed, it would be a mistake to say that persecution of Muslim communities in France is a thing of the past. 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 authoritarian tracking of immigration. In addition to this, many former French colonists live in the southeast of France. Unsurprisingly then, characterised by racist hate crime, this is one of the strongholds of the far right. However, if we are to truly analyse Islamophobia in France, we need to look far beyond constituency politics.
The Economic Roots of Islamophobia
In addition to understanding the political status of French Muslims following colonialism, it is also important to understand their economic position and relation to the labour movement. In 1904, there were already five thousand Muslims working in French industry and mining. In contrast to the current climate, the French government and employers saw catering for religion as very important. The main reason for this is that they saw religion as having the potential to counterbalance the influence of Labour unions on North African immigrant workers. Businesses would sometimes even make prayer rooms available to their employees. This marks a startling difference from today, when the private sector is actively collaborating with the government to eradicate Islamic religious expression in all public spheres.
Allowing a Muslim workforce to pay was nothing more than a token gesture from French employers. Improvement in living standards only came from militant organising. Many Muslims supported the Popular Front movements in the 1930s. Today, Muslims hold progressive views on many social issues including social welfare, redistribution and racism. They are also a left of centre voting bloc. In 1982, Islam was brought to the forefront of French political life when there were strikes against redundancies in the car industry. Immigrant workers initiated a major industrial conflict when they occupied the Citroen and Talbot factories in Aulnay and Poissy, with the backing of unions. As a result of this, factory owners believed that the immigrant workers were being manipulated by unions and pressed for police intervention. This marked the first time the word ‘Muslim’ entered public discourse as a standard label for a segment of the population, replacing class based descriptions. While the spread of Islamophobia can be partly attributed to the spread of racist ideas, in line with the electoral success of the National Front, it also has strong economic and political roots. What this means is that rising Islamophobic attacks by the state, despite being undoubtedly racist, grew out of the governments need to manage working class resistance.
Inequality under the Law
Political secularism has deep roots in French life, originating with the post 1789 fight against Catholicism’s reactionary power. Indeed, secularism has been signed into the French constitution since 1905, when a law was passed guaranteeing the separation of the Church and State. Anticlericalism, which initially referred to hostility towards the Catholic Church, is now all too often used as a pretext for anti-Muslim tirades. When Charlie Hebdo publishes racist cartoons directed at Muslims, as it regularly does, they are celebrated as expressions of French secularism and anticlericalism. This ideology traces its roots back to republicanism, the principle which underlined the 1789 revolution that demanded freedom and equality. As such, when French politicians invoke secularism today they often do so to affirm the importance of the republics founding ideals. In practice however, appeals to secularism and republicanism simply serve to disguise and consolidate inequalities. It rationalizes the dominance of the French ruling class, by providing them with an excuse for whatever policies they want to implement. Manuel Valls, the current Prime Minister, is a prime example of this kind of ideological manipulation. As interior minister in 2013, Valls cited ‘republicanism’ in order to justify the destruction of Roma camps and the expulsion of many thousands of people. Likewise, his authoritarian response to the November attacks was also justified in Republican terms.
What secularism and republicanism have meant for French people depends largely on their religious beliefs. In the past, secularism meant the separation of church and state. In recent decades however, it has undergone a repressive reinterpretation. As can be seen by the Burkini ban, it has been used to strip Muslims of their outward religious affiliations. As a result, Muslims must renounce an element of their identity if they are to be treated equally under the law. 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. When an earlier version was proposed in 1994, the Prime Minister reassured France’s Jewish representative body that the measure would not target students wearing the Yarmulke. Young Muslim girls, banned from wearing headscarves to school, undergo the most pressure. To illustrate this, 130 cases of schoolgirls being excluded from school for wearing headscarves were reported in 2014.
The laws hypocrisy and its status as an instrument of anti-Muslim repression are glaringly obvious: separation of church and state does not even exist in the eastern departments of Alsace and Mosselle, which were still part of Germany in 1905. There, rabbis, priests and ministers earn a government pay check-but a Muslim can be removed from a public school because of what she chooses to wear. State sanctioned disregard of secularism often goes further. In 2013, the National Front mayor of Marseilles set up a nativity scene in the town hall – directly violating the law - and suffered no penalty. It would seem as if only Muslims are required to enforce the separation of church and state. Indeed, how Muslim women constitute the state – and therefore threaten secularism by wearing headscarves – has never been adequately explained. The perception that they do is recent: In 1989, an attempt to ban school girls from wearing headscarves 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 US and the ensuing ‘war on terror’. All the law achieves however, is to exclude certain members of the public from education, therefore strengthening the use of schools as a repressive instrument. If the national education system in France is, as it purports, designed to treat everyone equally, the law makes no sense. Instead, it demonstrates that the school systems real purpose is moulding students so that they assimilate into an authoritarian and discriminatory French society.
What is perhaps less known is that leading members of France’s revolutionary organisations such as Workers Struggle (LO) and the Revolutionary communist League (LCR), played a major part in events leading up to 2004 law. They did this by pushing for the expulsion of two Headscarf wearing adults from public education. Alma and Lila Levy, the schoolgirls in question, did not exemplify the stereotypical problems of Muslim integration in contemporary France. Their mother came from a Muslim family but had been baptized a Catholic, and their father was a Jewish left wing lawyer. Despite this, the Communist mayor of Aubervilliers, supported the student’s expulsion. In fact, trying to control what Muslims can and cannot wear has become something of a tradition in left wing circles. A 2010 law banning the face veil was sponsored by Communist deputy Andre Gerin, working in concert with a right wing MP. People within the wider left wing movement are split on the issue. However, in my opinion, to take part in the anti-Muslim charge is to hold up those same ideas of inequality, perpetuated by our socio-economic system. Instead, the left should be directing our efforts towards anti -racist and anti – fascist activities. Only then, will we be able to call ourselves defenders of equality and political secularism.
The escalating Islamophobia in France is especially worrying considering the context. Left wing movements like Nuit Debout came to life in response to repressive labour laws that also target Muslims. In July, the mayor of Cannes banned the Burkini from his town’s beaches. The decision was copied in around thirty council areas, and was vocally defended by the Prime Minister, before the council of state reversed it on August 26th. How far the French elite will extend their Islamophobic attacks remains to be seen. As such, It is urgent that the left correct its record on the question of anti-Muslim repression to meet the challenge.