Racial prejudice in France, each time it manifests, is generally expressed under guise of secularism or laïcité. We’ve got nothing against Muslims – runs the argument, which can come from the left or the right – we just don’t believe that religion has a place in the identity of the French nation.
The public debate launched by Nicolas Sarkozy on November 2nd last year on the subject of ‘L’Identite Nationale’ was a misguided manoeuvre designed, at least in part, to purloin votes from the far right. It backfired, of course, mainly because there is a structural paradox inherent in French culture that makes it impossible to have a measured debate on this issue. Frenchness, since the Revolution, is supposed to be rooted in the so-called universal values of The Enlightenment, which include such vaguaries as the individual before the state, reason before custom. The result is that for most French people Frenchness can only really be defined by its opposite: i.e. being French means not being English or worse, American, or even worse, Romany or Muslim.
With this in mind it is not hard to understand why a recent poll attempting to assess attitudes towards Muslims in France and Germany, found that a staggering 42% of French people believe that “the presence of a Muslim community in France represents a threat to the nation.”
Consequently, most people know that when Nicolas Sarkozy waves the flag of anti-Arab sentiment, he is trying to control his plummeting popularity. It often works – for a moment, as it did last December when he condoned the Swiss ban on minarets and at the close of the year when he confirmed his intention vigorously to enforce the law banning the burka.
President Sarkozy has invited Abderrahmane Dahmane – President of the not-very-representative association, the Council of Democratic Muslims of France – to be his ‘advisor’ on the unpopular practice of praying to Mecca in the streets. The shortage of mosques means that it is not unusual in certain areas of northern Paris on a Friday afternoon, to see a street lined with kneeling men, their discarded shoes, lying neatly in the gutter behind them. In raising this issue again, only weeks after Marine Le Pen publicly compared Muslims praying in the streets to the Nazi Occupation, Sarkozy is once again pandering to the extreme right.
Recession tends to bring out this uglier side of French politics. For that is what anti-Muslim prejudice is in France – an ugly political consensus which frequently uses Marine Le Pen’s extremist outbursts as a cache-sexe for its own intractable bigotry.