Emmanuel Macron managed to beat fascist Front National (FN) leader Marine Le Pen in the French presidential election this time last year.
“It demonstrated that a majority of voters were not prepared to see an openly Islamophobic party with fascist roots take over the highest office of the state,” argues socialist author Jim Wolfreys. But Le Pen’s vote also showed “that over 10 million people were”.
Wolfreys’ new book, Republic of Islamophobia, looks at how racism against Muslims has become the defining issue that seeps into every aspect of French politics.
“Identification with Islam marks individuals out as a potential ‘foreign’ threat” held back by “a religion that breeds riots, terrorism and the subjugation of women,” he writes. And the problem is that “this kind of politics has no end point”.
The French state’s racism was brought to worldwide attention by the “burkini ban” in August 2016.
The defining moment was when four policeman, armed with batons, guns and teargas, forced a Muslim woman to strip on a beach in the southern city of Nice.
Authorities claimed that the burkini full-body swim suit was “ostentatiously religious” clothing and threatened “security, secularism and the republic”.
The cops’ actions were met with outrage and protests across the world—and were seen as a watershed moment. It was the logical consequence of the spiral of Islamophobia in French society.
This has particularly targeted a Muslim woman’s right to wear whatever she chooses.
The burkini clampdown followed bans on the hijab headscarf in schools in 2004 and the niqab face veil in all public spaces in 2011.
The spiral that Wolfreys describes has been dressed up as a fight against clerical oppression of women.
“Racist intolerance had found a new means to assert itself,” he writes, “seeking justifications in the language and customs of France’s secular tradition” known as laïcité.
After Islamist attacks in 2015 Socialist president Francois Hollande said schools would observe a new secular day on 9 December.
It was to mark when the law of separation of church and state was passed in 1905.
Wolfreys takes apart the idea the Islamophobic clampdown is justified under the 1905 law.
“It sought neutrality for the state, and state actors, but freedom of expression for individuals and tolerance of their views,” he writes.
But the problem is more fundamental than people misinterpreting French secularism.
The French Republican tradition was progressive during 1789 revolution.
Then the battle against clericalism was about breaking the power of the Catholic church which sought to justify the rule of the aristocracy.
Republicanism is now simply a cloak for racism and nationalism—and targets the poorest and most oppressed sections of French society.
Since debates about secularism came to the fore in the 1990s, it has been “primarily concerned with policing what Muslim women wear”.
“Put bluntly, France’s problem is not laïcité but racism” Wolfreys adds “It has simply become the most ‘respectable’ and therefore effective means for it to be expressed today.”
The main driving force behind the rise of Islamophobia has been the West’s “war on terror” since the 9/11 attacks. Islamophobia was used to justify the West’s imperialist interventions in the Middle East and break opposition to them at home.
This was reinforced in France after the terror attacks on the Charlie Hebdo magazine in January 2015 and the Bataclan theatre in November 2015.
Hollande’s Labour-type Socialist Party government brought in a state of emergency and toyed with the idea of making it a permanent part of the constitution.
Of course targeting Muslims after terror attacks isn’t unique to France. Across the US and Europe, the war on terror has seen Muslims painted as an “enemy within”, a suspect population that must prove its loyalty to the state.
But the rot goes much deeper and is part of the rehabilitation of French colonialism that has been taking place.
“The French ‘war on terror’ predates 9/11,” explains Wolfreys. “Its origins go back to the Republic’s colonial mission, whose tropes and reflexes were revived in the early 1990s as the Algerian civil war spilled into France.”
Islamophobia was mixed in with French colonialism before the 21st century.
During the Algerian War for Independence in the 1950s forced unveiling was presented as part of imperialism bringing for women’s liberation.
And the idea of Muslims as a suspect population also builds on racist debates from the 1980s about the “integration” of immigrants from former North African colonies.
Despite being given the right to citizenship in 1945, they are still treated as foreigners.
This has combined with a broader shift to a view of citizenship and national identity as culturally based.
“The booing of the Marseillaise national anthem at a football match between France and Algeria the month after 9/11, became symbolic,” writes Wolfreys.
It supposedly showed “the threat to national identity posed by young people living in the banlieues (working class neighbourhoods on the urban outskirts)”.
Behind these broader debates lies the failure of the French ruling class to force through the free market reforms it has long desired.
Attempts to drive through attacks have seen traditional parties of right and left hollowed out and disconnected from their bases.
This was summed up by the fact that neither the right wing Les Républicans nor the Socialist Party presidential candidates made it to the second round of last year’s election.
Wolfreys explains that this flows from a gap between “an economic orthodoxy shared by mainstream parties, but not by their electorates”.
“The rise of respectable racism in the 21st century, accelerating since the 2008 financial crisis, should be seen as a product of this,” he writes.
Politicians have “resorted to negative themes based on the scapegoating” to “compensate for a lack of positive affiliation to their core economic project”. Right wing president Nicolas Sarkozy was at the forefront of this strategy.
He drove the spiral of Islamophobia—and fuelled a rise in support for the fascist FN.
Sarkozy could blame Muslims and migrants for inequality and social deprivation—but racist clampdowns would not solve them as migrants and Muslims were not to blame.
They simply made more racist clampdowns necessary.
The mainstream right could not outflank the fascists on racism. But it did pull the traditional parties, including the Socialists, and the wider debate further to the right and this intensified the Islamophobic spiral.
The left has also fallen into this because it accepts most of the right’s argument about Muslims.
Even the revolutionary left has not fought against Islamophobia because its politics are tied to Republican secularism. And they don’t just fall in behind the right’s racism, they actively push it themselves.
Teachers who were members of far left LRC and LO parties were behind the expulsion of two Muslim students for wearing the niqab at a school in 2008.
The New Anticapitalist Party distanced itself from one of its own candidates who wore the niqab.
The left has not addressed the poisonous legacy of French colonialism in the working class movement.
France saw a powerful social movement—including anti-capitalist activists and the unions—in the 2000s.
But Muslims were treated with suspicion when they tried to get involved with the anti-capitalist activity or feminist marches.
The anti-war movement was far smaller in France than in Britain and was hampered “by putting terrorism on an equal footing with US intervention”.
And many on the French left counterposed the 2005 revolt in the banlieues to workers’ resistance to free market reforms.
Nothing is inevitable about this process—and it can be resisted. There are new organisations across France that seek to fight Islamophobia.
While rising Islamophobia is particularly bad there, the factors behind it are not unique to France. It is a stark warning of what happens if we don’t fight Islamophobia and for a united working class.
Wolfreys says that turning the tide in France will need “a political anti-racist response among the radical and wider left”. And that “begins with the most basic question that can be asked of anyone confronted with injustice—which side are you on?”
Republic of Islamophobia by Jim Wolfreys, published by Hurst, £15.99
Say It Loud: Marxism and the Fight Against Racism by various authors, £9.99
The meaning of Macron by Vanina Giudicelli, bit.ly/Macronmeaning
Available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to bookmarksbookshop.co.uk