Tensions over race, religion in France's presidential race
Paris — From attacks on “wokeism” to crackdowns on mosques, France’s presidential campaign has been especially challenging for voters of immigrant heritage and religious minorities, as discourse painting them as “the other” has gained ground across a swath of French society.
French voters head to polls on Sunday in a runoff vote between centrist incumbent Emmanuel Macron and nationalist rival Marine Le Pen, wrapping up a campaign that experts have seen as unusually dominated by discriminatory discourse and proposals targeting immigration and Islam.
With Le Pen proposing to ban Muslim headscarves in public, women like 19-year-old student Naila Ouazarf are in a bind.
“I want a president who accepts me as a person,” said Ouazarf, clad in a beige robe and matching head covering. She said she would defy the promised law should Le Pen become president and pay a fine, if necessary.
Macron attacked Le Pen on the headscarf issue during their presidential debate Wednesday, warning it could stoke “civil war.”
In the first-round vote, far-right candidates Le Pen and Eric Zemmour together collected nearly a third of votes. An elementary school teacher in the ethnically diverse Paris suburb of Saint-Denis on Thursday described pupils who are “scared to death” because of the campaign.
Le Pen’s National Rally party, formerly called the National Front, has a history of ties with neo-Nazis, Holocaust deniers and militias that opposed Algeria’s war for independence from colonial France. Le Pen has distanced herself from that past and softened her public image.
But a top priority of her election program is to prioritize French citizens over immigrants for welfare benefits, a move that critics see as institutionalizing discrimination. Le Pen also wants to ban Muslim women from wearing headscaves in public, to toughen asylum rules and to sharply curtail immigration.
She has gained ground among voters since 2017, when she lost badly to Macron. This time around, Le Pen has put a greater emphasis on policies to help the working poor.
Saint-Denis student Yanis Benahmed, 20, said he was unconvinced by the candidate's attempt to broader her appeal.
“We live in this city, and we know exactly how things are, the kind of people you have here," he said. Le Pen "wants to ‘clean’ everything. With everything she’s said and her family history, we know exactly what her plan is. And Zemmour didn’t make it any better.”
The rabble-rousing Zemmour, who placed fourth in the first-round vote, boosted Le Pen's popularity by making her seem softer. He has multiple convictions for inciting racial or religious hatred in France.
Zemmour also has promoted the baseless “great replacement” conspiracy theory, used as justification by the white supremacists who committed massacres in New Zealand’s Christchurch and in El Paso, Texas, and attacked a California synagogue.
“Eric Zemmour’s presence placed the issue (of Islam and immigration) on the side of aggressive and violent stigmatization,” Cecile Alduy, a Stanford semiologist who has studied Zemmour’s language, told The Associated Press. “Meanwhile, there is a decline in humanist values: words such as equality, human rights, fight against discrimination, or gender are qualified as politically correct or ‘wokeism’ by a large swath of media, public intellectuals, and ministers of the current government.”
For some experts and anti-racist groups in France, Macron, too, is at fault for the current climate. His administration has adopted legislation and language that echoes some far-right mottos in hopes of eating into Le Pen’s support.
Racial profiling and police brutality targeting people of color, which activists in France have long decried, have also remained a concern. During Macron's presidency, France saw repeated protests against police violence after George Floyd, a Black American, died at the hands of police in the U.S.
Also under Macron's watch, France passed a law against terrorism that enshrined in common law a state of emergency imposed after the deadly 2015 attacks on the Bataclan theater, Paris cafes and Charlie Hebdo newspaper.
The law extended the government’s right to search people, conduct surveillance, control movement and shut down some schools and religious sites in the name of fighting extremism.
Human rights watchdogs warned the law was discriminatory. “In some cases, Muslims may have been targeted because of their religious practice, considered to be ‘radical,’ by authorities, without substantiating why they constituted a threat for public order or security,” Amnesty International said.
In 2021, the government passed another law targeting what Macron labeled “separatism” by Muslim radicals. The measure extended the state’s oversight of associations and religious sites. The government’s own watchdog argued that the law’s scope was too broad.
Abdourahmane Ridouane has seen this firsthand. In February, two police officers handed him a notice of closure for the mosque he manages in the southwestern town of Pessac in Bordeaux wine country.
Authorities argued the mosque’s criticism of “state Islamophobia” allegedly encouraged and justified Muslim rebellion and terrorism. The authorities also criticized anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian posts on the mosque's social media page.
Ridouane challenged the action and won on appeal. The appeals court found the closure was a “grave and manifest illegal infringement on religious liberty.” The state took the case to France’s highest court, which is expected to rule in the case soon.
“I felt deeply saddened by a process I deemed unworthy of a democratic state,” Ridouane told the AP.
Islam is France's No. 2 religion, though there are no hard data on the races and religions of voters because of France's doctrine of colorblindness, which sees all citizens as universally French and encourages assimilation. Critics say the principle allows authorities to ignore deep-seated discrimination, both on the French mainland and in overseas French territories where most voters aren’t white.
France has also seen the rise of criticism of “Islamo-leftism” and “wokeism,” and Macron’s government has commissioned a study into its presence in French universities. Yet race or colonial studies research departments don't exist in French universities, because they are seen as contrary to French universalism.
“The election comes in this climate, the increasing right-wing and conservative discourse, a retreat into a white, universalist, colorblind discourse blind to all discriminations and systemic racism in French society,” said Nacira Guénif, an anthropology and sociology professor at Paris VIII University who focuses on race and gender.
On the left, meanwhile, “denial prevails,” Guénif said, because many left-wing French voters are “profoundly uncomfortable with the question of race because they think that talking about race makes you racist.”
The criticism of so-called “wokeism,” championed in particular by Zemmour’s campaign, is reminiscent of attacks on critical race theory in the U.S. Critical race theory is an academic framework that analyzes American history through the lens of racism. It centers on the idea that racism is systemic in U.S. institutions, which maintain the dominance of white people.
Despite concerns over some of the policies adopted in France under Macron, Ridouane, the Pessac mosque director, has no doubt for whom he will - and for whom he won't - cast his vote for president on Sunday.
“If Le Pen manages to take the levers of power, it will be the worst thing we will have ever seen,” he said.
Elaine Ganley in Paris and Sylvie Corbet and Alex Turnbull in Saint-Denis contributed to this report.