The Islam issue has long been a thorn in the side of the French establishment. With France nearing presidential elections, far-right views have permeated public discourse on the Muslim community, immigration and security.
For Anasse Kazib, the country’s policies and laws over the past few decades have attempted to restrict the Muslim way of life under the guise of fighting “terrorism” and “Islamism.”
The 35-year-old Moroccan railway worker and son of Moroccan immigrants ran on April 10 as a far-left candidate in the first round of the French presidential elections. But he failed to gather the required 500 sponsors from elected officials to get on the ballot and said the establishment reaction to his candidacy was based on fear and hostility.
“When I ran for election, the traces of Islamophobia and reactionary politics were there,” he said. “In Paris there were posters with my face and the words ‘0% French, 100% Islamist’. As a political activist you don’t have the right to be a Muslim or even an Arab.”
Unlike the other candidates, Kazib did not get campaign airtime from the mainstream media, which he says is evidence that his political message is disrupting the system.
“I think they were afraid of us, of what we represent, of the radical ideas we represent – and prevented my candidacy,” he said. Kazib said he was running on behalf of youth, working-class neighborhoods and people who don’t feel represented in the election.
“It goes beyond the issue of airtime; They denied our existence,” he continued. “When your name is something like ‘Anasse Kazib’, it’s even worse. Islamophobic and xenophobic prejudices are at stake.”
Though he prides himself on being an immigrant descendant, a laborer and from a working-class neighborhood, he didn’t mince words when asked where Muslims fit into French society.
“French identity does not include the Muslim community,” he said. “They never respected us as French. They want to decide how French we are.”
Stigmatization of the Muslim community
According to Julien Talpin, a political scientist at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), President Emmanuel Macron’s first term in office was “bleak” for French Muslims – with the passage of the separatism law in the summer of 2021 of particular significance.
While the government claims its legislation aims to strengthen France’s secular system, critics say it unfairly segregates the Muslim community and restricts religious freedom.
“We clearly saw in the debate in the National Assembly that the goal is the Muslim community,” he said. “There’s this idea that there’s a massive problem of separatism and communitarianism in the community that France should fight with laws.”
The law was first introduced after the gruesome murder of Samuel Paty, a teacher who was beheaded by an 18-year-old Russian Muslim refugee after he showed his students Charlie Hebdo cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed.
The consequences for the Muslim community have been particularly damaging, Talpin said. In addition to dozens of mosques being forced to close, the organization Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) was shut down and several Muslim charities were disbanded.
“There is a clear discrepancy in the rhetoric we hear after every major attack in France – this need for Islam to organize, to unite behind one voice,” he explained.
This attempt to create an “Islam in France” – a version of Islam that would fit into French identity – is nothing new.
“At the same time, it is seen as suspicious when Muslims try to organize collectively without following in the government’s footsteps,” he said. “This is one of the biggest consequences of Macron’s tenure – this increase in the stigma of Islam and its community in France.”
France has an estimated 5.7 million French Muslims, the largest Muslim population in Western Europe.
But according to academic researchers, discrimination, racist violence and reactionary anti-community policies have prompted many of them to emigrate from France in search of better job opportunities and more freedom.
Olivier Esteves, a professor of British Studies at the University of Lille and a researcher who conducted interviews with 148 French Muslims living abroad, said the resulting “brain drain” was something that was “quintessentially French”.
“Of course Islamophobia affects the majority of Western democracies, but it is a matter of scale how strong the hostility towards Muslims is,” he said. “In France, it goes far beyond other countries.”
According to the study, the top destinations for these emigrants are the United Kingdom, United Arab Emirates, Canada, Morocco and Algeria.
In the broader survey, which included 1,074 respondents, at least 69 percent of respondents said discrimination and racism were reasons they left France, 63 percent said they left to practice their religion more peacefully, and 40 percent said they left France .5 percent gave professional reasons.
When asked if they would return to France, just 4.56 percent answered yes, and 44.7 percent said they would never come back.
Esteves said people who wear visible signs of religious affiliation, such as a beard or hijab (headscarf), often do not have access to the labor market in France.
“You have very educated people with college degrees who feel that if they should stay in France, their only option is to work in a halal supermarket,” he said. “If their Muslimness isn’t as visible, they may work for a large corporation, but often feel that their perceived religious identity is holding back their careers.”
Another key aspect alienating French Muslims is laicism, or secularism — a central French principle that Esteves says is becoming increasingly associated with French identity.
“This is typically scrambled speech,” Esteves said. “It’s dog-whistle policy to talk about Muslims without sounding Islamophobic.”
The French identity should be separated from Lacit, he continued.
“There is an urgent need to separate French secularism, a legal principle, from this kind of tribal, Gallic, subjective love of country,” he said.
For Talpin, the issue of French identity seems to be polarized by the right and the extreme right, who see being French linked to Christian identity, the country’s history and acceptance of the republic’s values.
“Others will defend and accept the melting pot that France has become,” he said.
But for Kazib, a multicultural society does not mean acceptance.
“The extreme right only defines us as French on paper,” he said. “The right say these are banlieues [suburbs] and Quarters Popular [low-income neighbourhoods] are no-go zones, and the left say these areas will be forgotten by the republic.
“No matter what, there is a form of perpetual subordination in France to descendants of immigrants – not just Muslims.”