Worry about rise of Le Pen unites French Muslims
London - As France enters the final week of what has been a frenzied and unpredictable election campaign, the only certainty is that there will eventually be a new resident at Paris’s Élysée Palace but only after a run-off.
Elections scheduled for April 23 will involve 11 candidates from across the political spectrum. No clear front runner has emerged with most observers predicting a run-off between far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen and centrist independent candidate Emmanuel Macron on May 7.
With nearly 40% of French voters still undecided for whom they will vote on election day, anything can still happen.
France’s large North African Muslim community has shown scant enthusiasm for an election campaign that has evidenced a rising tide of Muslim fearmongering. Muslims do not constitute an influential lobby or voting bloc in France. Surveys indicate they are less likely to vote than other French nationals.
“It’s true that Marine Le Pen is an Islamophobe but they all are, so what’s the difference? She is the only one who will talk about it openly, while the rest of the candidates keep it inside,” one Muslim French voter told the Local news website.
Most French candidates seem bent on exploiting the general anguish over recurring terrorist acts after the bloody incidents that shook France during the last few years.
Speaking during the final televised presidential debate, Le Pen vowed to limit immigration and warned against the threat represented by “radical Islam” towards French society. “France has become a university for jihadists,” she said.
Embattled centre-right candidate François Fillon, who had been viewed as a front runner before recent legal troubles, has also strongly criticised Islam’s role in French society. Fillon, author of “Conquering Islamic Totalitarianism”, called for administrative oversight of Islamic institutions in France. He repeatedly called for the banning of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist-affiliated organisations.
Macron and other candidates from the left have appeared more conciliatory towards Muslims in France, playing down the row over the ban on burkinis on some beaches and being at pains to differentiate between ordinary Muslims and radical Islam. Macron, however, faces credibility problems from France’s Muslim community.
The 39-year-old former economy minister has sought to bolster his foreign-policy credentials, promising a “firmer” French foreign policy in the Middle East. He vowed to put an end to a French-Qatari tax exemption agreement and to seek “clarifications” from Riyadh and Doha if elected. “I will have many demands from Qatar and Saudi Arabia in terms of their international policies, requesting total transparency about the role they play in the financing or in their activities they can lead vis-à-vis terrorist groups,” he said.
However, France’s estimated 5 million Muslim voters, who make up less than 10% of the population, appear unimpressed with the candidates and seem more likely to vote against Le Pen than for any particular standard-bearer.
“The candidates in the French presidential election know nothing about Islam or Muslims,” Amar Lasfar, head of France’s Union of Islamic Organisations, said in a statement.
He said that while the “Muslim vote” had come out in favour of President François Hollande against his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy in the previous elections, it was not likely that French Muslims would be voting as a bloc for any particular candidate.
However, Slimane Nadour, the head of communications at Paris’s Grand Mosque, told the Local that he was hearing increasing concerns about Le Pen’s election prospects.
“There’s a push towards extreme right and xenophobic parties across Europe but especially in France. Obviously, French Muslims are worried,” he said.
Nadour said that, if Le Pen makes it to the second-round run-off, the Grand Mosque was considering issuing an unprecedented public call. “If in the second round there’s a risk of the National Front winning, we may call on French Muslims to vote against Le Pen,” he said.
Polls indicate Le Pen and Macron are running neck and neck in the first round with about 24% of the vote each. Macron was universally projected to comfortably win the second round against Le Pen with more than 60% of the vote as the field would likely unite against Le Pen. However, in a post-Brexit and Donald Trump 2017, in which polls have famously been wrong, anything could happen.
In an interview with the Journal du Dimanche, Macron acknowledged that the final week of campaigning would be crucial. “They [the polls] show exactly that I feel — that nothing is decided yet. We are entering a crucial phase,” he said.