France has assumed the rotating European Union presidency for the next six months, however, with the country's anti-radicalism bill having already created an uncomfortable climate for France's Muslims, experts worry Paris may attempt to impose its anti-Muslim views on the bloc as a whole.
“There are already examples where you can see the interference of the French government on a European level when it comes to the existence of Muslims and Muslim visibility,” Farid Hafez, a visiting professor of International Relations at Williams College and nonresident scholar at Georgetown University's Bridge Initiative told Daily Sabah.
Listing instances of the French government going against the European Commission, Hafez recalled that European Commissioner for Equality Helena Dalli was attacked by French ministers for meeting with representatives from a Muslim youth organization that was participating in a campaign organized by the Council of Europe. He also pointed to the civil rights group Alliance Citoyenne, which actively defended Muslim women's rights but lost its funding.
“Therefore, I think, France will impose its views on Europe. The question is how much other European countries allow the French government to influence how Muslims are seen and positioned in the European Union.”
The French government announced earlier this year that it would step up checks of places of worship and associations suspected of spreading so-called extremist religious propaganda.
The crackdown came after the October 2020 murder of teacher Samuel Paty who was targeted following an online campaign against him for having shown controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad published by the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo during a civics class.
Hafez highlighted that after Paty’s death, France and Austria in particular pushed for the EU to release a harsh statement framing the problem as rooted in Islam. Most EU countries pushed back, he said, explaining that therefore France's presidency may not directly increase Islamophobic views within the EU.
The attack came in the midst of a heated debate over Macron's campaign against what he called "Islamist separatism" in immigrant communities, where conservative Muslims are accused of rejecting secularism, free speech and other values taught in school.
“I see that France is one of the most problematic countries when it comes to Islamophobia in Europe,” Hafez said. “France has been one of the harshest governments in the legislation against Muslims, we not only see hijab bans but also after the murder of Paty, the French government used this incident to crack down on the Muslim civil society – raided mosques and even closed anti-racist organizations for nothing else but speaking against Islamophobia.”
According to Interior Ministry figures, since November 2019, 3,881 establishments have been inspected and 126 closed, mostly small businesses but also two schools.
The proposed law and the Cell to Fight Radical Islam program, led by prefects in each region, are just part of a many-layered operation to rout out what authorities call “enemies of the Republic.”
The Interior Ministry said in December that around 100 mosques and Muslim prayer halls out of France's total number of more than 2,600 have been investigated over recent months because of suspicion that they were spreading "separatist" ideology.
Six sites were being probed with a view to closing them down on the basis of French laws against extremism and separatism, it said.
France's Muslim population is estimated to number about 5 million people, many of whose family origins lie in Algeria or other parts of its former empire.
Speaking to Daily Sabah, Abdennour Toumi, North Africa expert at the Ankara-based Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM), said that the roots of the current anti-Islam atmosphere go back to “a rhetoric set by the far-right party of Ms. Marine Le Pen (RN), the corporatist media and the arrogant elite anti-Muslim in the Parisian chic quarters of the right and the left banks,” enhanced by the several terror attacks the country has suffered.
“Emmanuel Macron, whose Muslim views were more or less like his predecessor, are moderate, and I don’t believe he is anti-Islam. But his political survival and the imperatives of the post-Charlie Hebdo and Paris attacks, have shaped his policy on Islam. Thus, he wanted like President Nicolas Sarkozy to domesticate the Muslims in France,” he said.
Toumi does not believe that France will be successful in influencing the bloc’s policies on Islam and the Muslim community. However, he warns that the country’s interior minister is more hawkish and aims to eradicate so-called “radical” Islam.
“For the EU’s reaction on Islam, the issue is not homogenous for the 27 members, which currently, are facing other challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic variants and macro-economic questions.”
Speaking on the effects of France’s policies on the community, Toumi highlights that the minority group of millions is still protected by national and European laws.
“The question of 'radical' Islam has complicated the real fight of this thorny issue that needs deep logistic and educative tools to one day contain this national security issue that became political discourse. In the end of the day, Muslims in France are well integrated and the third generation of the Muslim immigrants, notably the Maghreb communities, feel fully French and patriots.”
He says that such policies “would destabilize further President Macron," who is on the cusp of a heated presidential election that will take place in the spring.
"La laicite has become the state's religion," Toumi added.
But on the right, voters and politicians have long been urging tougher action to restore the state's authority in what a group of teachers described in a 2015 book as the "lost territories of the Republic."
They include controversial media pundit Eric Zemmour, a possible candidate for the presidency in next year's vote, who has declared Paty's murder proof that France is in a "civil war" with radical Muslims.
Toumi said that Muslims represent around 1% of the French electoral corps – and its vote does not weigh seriously on national elections with those voting being generally the elder and not the youth.
Macron, who was elected in 2017 on a pledge to reform France and restore its status as a global power, is the overwhelming favorite to win the election but analysts caution his victory is far from certain.
“This election is going to be historical, and eventually a political big-bang in the French fifth Republic,” Toumi said, indicating that Macron's top challenger is Republican candidate Valerie Pecresse.
Pecresse campaigned on promises to halve the number of residence permits for non-EU migrants, stiffen judicial sentences in tough neighborhoods where police are under pressure and ban women accompanying their children on school trips from wearing a Muslim headscarf.
"I feel the anger of people who feel impotent in the face of violence and the rise of Islamist separatism, who feel their values and lifestyle are threatened by uncontrolled immigration," she said.
“It’s an opportunity for the Muslims to emerge as a serious actor in French politics and will create a new social and political imperative in the next elections.”
Toumi said that the Muslim community in France should unite and make their voice heard.
“Their voice could be a solid argument for the voiceless and will silence the anti-Muslim elite and politicians.”
Hafez said that France’s main concern is the future of French society and that Paris does not want self-organized Muslims who are proud of their religious identity to have a say in what France is and how it should look in the future.
“The Islamophobia question is a power question, It’s a question of the role of Muslims in France today and tomorrow.”
France last year engaged in a bitter feud with Muslim countries, including Turkey, over the statements and policies made by top French officials following the republication of offensive caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. Muslims across the world denounced satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo's decision to republish cartoons that disrespect the religion and the prophet.
The Observatoire National de Lutte contre l’Islamophobie recorded 235 Islamophobic acts from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, 2020, a 53% increase from the previous year. According to a 886-page report titled the "European Islamophobia Report 2020" co-edited by Enes Bayrakl%u0131, an international relations professor at the Istanbul-based Turkish-German University, and Hafez, there was a 14% increase in acts and a 79% increase in threats.
"The year 2020 marks a turning point in Islamophobia and in the treatment of Muslims in France," the report said, adding that for some years now, the French government has been "misusing the concept of “laïcité” (French version of secularism) to make it a weapon to the disadvantage of French Muslims and Islam – leading to the socio-economic exclusion of many Muslims, and in particular Muslim women wearing headscarves."
Furthermore, Shada Islam in her article published in the Guardian also touched upon what she called “France’s Muslim-panic” and said that “Once restricted to the EU’s far-right groups, France’s fixation with Muslims has extended across the European political landscape; Islam is seen either as a threat to national secular traditions or to the idea of “Christian Europe.”
Following France’s decision to pass the controversial anti-radicalism bill, Turkey stressed that the move would further marginalize Muslims and other religious minorities.
Turkey's communications director in July said that though France claims to champion the principles of freedom, equality and fraternity, it has increased interference in the way of life of religious minorities through the bill.
States bear great responsibilities in these times when attacks against Muslims in Europe are increasing, he said, adding that Turkey will continue to closely follow the developments concerning the bill.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry similarly slammed France's decision, accusing it of following a distorted approach in an attempt to control migrant communities in Europe by establishing fabricated concepts.
The ministry said the mindset behind the law was mainly the result of false understandings of sociological and historical facts, further inciting xenophobia, racism, discrimination and hatred towards Muslims.
The statement continued by suggesting that the French state embrace more constructive rhetoric that will meet societal, religious and ethical needs – rather than looking at the people and religious issues solely through a security perspective.