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In run-up to local elections, ‘French Values’ must not exclude Muslims

Once more, the French political establishment is placing itself at odds with its minority community.

French President Emmanuel Macron’s party — La République en Marche (LREM), perceived as ‘centrist’ in French politics — has conditioned its endorsement of a Muslim candidate in the upcoming June regional elections on the removal of her headscarf.

Such a demand is now common in many of France’s political circles, ranging from the right to the center, to the left.

Centre in this political storm is Sara Zemmahi, a 26-year-old engineer, who was slated to run with Macron’s party (LREM). Her crime is that she wore a hijab while being photographed with other candidates. The picture was quickly retweeted by one Jordan Bardella, a spokesman for the far-right Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party. The retweet included this question: “Is this how you fight separatism?”

Bardella was referring to a recent Bill, which was approved by the French Parliament’s Lower House, titled “Supporting respect for the principles of the Republic.” This Bill was drafted and adopted with the specific aim of fighting radicalism and separatism.

Establishment moving further right

Of course, French Muslims are not planning to create a separate state anytime soon. Muslims in France have not changed. Rather, it is French establishment that is moving further and further to the right. As the National Rally and other extremists are campaigning under banners of chauvinism, racism and anti-immigrant slogans, they are dragging with them the entirety of the French body politic.

Macron and the LREM insist that the Bill, along with other state-led efforts, is not specifically targeting Muslims. That may not be entirely correct. Anti-Muslim discourse has been omnipresent in French politics and media for years and it is intensifying, especially in the run-up to the local elections.

One of several examples is the May 11 comments by Stanislas Guerini, the ruling party’s General Secretary. In an interview with France’s RTL radio, Guerini said that LREM’s values “are not compatible” with wearing “ostentatious religious symbols’’ on campaign posters and materials. Effectively, he threatened to remove Zemmahi from the party’s list.

A spokesman for the French government, Gabriell Attal, had a more precarious viewpoint on the issue. While, on the one hand, he said that “legally, nothing prevents a person from running for an election with a religious symbol, in this case, a veil,” he insisted that preventing Zemmahi from running under the party’s name is a “question of political choice.”

A seemingly innocuous event — a woman’s choice to cover her hair — became the raison d’etre of French politics, mobilising the country’s top intellectuals and politicians against the young French Muslim engineer.

The Minister for Citizenship, Marlène Schiappa, also went on the offensive, in the name of defending “secularism”. She accused Zemmahi, without providing any evidence, of being a member of an international Islamic movement.

Sadly, not many in France’s mainstream politics or society stood in defence of Zemmahi’s freedom of expression, or her right to preserve her cultural identity and heritage. Instead, a burgeoning crowd continued to parrot the same talking points about the need to protect the “principles of the Republic.”

This single incident is indicative of the extremely narrow margin in which France’s Muslim citizens are allowed to operate.

Oddly, when Macron managed to win the 2017 elections, his victory was touted as a triumph against Le Pen’s chauvinism and populism. What happened since, however, is the exact opposite. Not only did Le Pen’s party grow in size and appeal, Macron’s own LREM began adopting similar slogans, shifting its political discourse, making it, in some respects, identical to that of the National Rally.

One can recall comments by Jean-Claude Juncker, the former President of the European Commission, when he addressed Macron following his victory: “I am delighted that the ideas you defended of a strong and progressive Europe, which protects all its citizens, will be those that you will carry into your presidency.”

Racism thrives, violence follows

If Macron, indeed, represents and defends European ideals, then all of Europe requires a serious rethink about its own collective values.

Whenever racism thrives, violence follows. According to the Head of the France-based National Observatory of Islamophobia, Abdallah Zekri, anti-Muslim violence has risen exponentially in the last year (2020), jumping by 53% from the previous year. Violence that specifically targeted mosques has also jumped by 35%.

In a recent speech, Macron claimed that Islam is “a religion that is in crisis all over the world”. The truth is, it is France’s own political values that are undergoing a serious crisis, one that is dictated mostly by right-wing chauvinism. Instead of confronting this crisis head-on, Macron and others are leading a war against an imaginary enemy.

Zemmahi, in fact, represents the exact opposite of the unfounded claims against French Muslims: she is opting for inclusion, not exclusion; for assimilation, not separatism. It seems that ‘French values’ are intolerant of anyone who does not think, look or act like Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron.

— Ramzy Baroud is a journalist and editor. He is the author of five books.