Opinion poll results just released in France were alarming to many in the Muslim and Maghrebi communities there. Poll results published in October by the daily Le Figaro showed that “the presence of a Muslim community in France” was considered by 43 per cent of the respondents to be a “threat to the identity of the country”. Only 17 per cent thought it to be a “source of cultural enrichment”.
The ratio of fear of the “Muslim community” varied according to political affiliation — from 14 per cent among the Green Party followers, on the left, to 84 per cent among the followers of the extreme right-wing party, Le Front National of Madame Marine Le Pen. The perception of Muslims as a “threat” averaged a high 59 per cent among sympathisers of the moderate right-wing party of the UMP and 18 per cent among the followers of Francois Hollande’s Socialist Party.
Not only are Muslims viewed negatively, but Islam itself too. The most salient trait of the Islamic faith, according to 63 per cent of the French public, is its “rejection of western values”, followed by “fanaticism” (57 per cent) and “violence” (38 per cent). Those who associate Islam with “tolerance” are not more than 14 per cent of the public. Those who associate it with protection of women are 5 per cent, and those with democracy, even less (4 per cent).
Sixty per cent of the public perceives Islam as wielding “too much influence” and having too much “visibility”. Those opposed to the building of Mosques rose from 22 per cent in 2001 (the year of the Al Qaida attack on the Twin Towers in New York) to 43 per cent today. Those who are opposed to the wearing of the veil or the headscarf on the street rose from 32 per cent in 2003 to 63 per cent today.
Results of the poll were confirmed by a more recent survey, published last week by Le Journal du Dimanche, showing that 75 per cent of French public feels that “Islam is advancing too much” and 66 per cent believe there are “too many immigrants”.
However, some analysts take the issue with the methodology used by polling agencies (such as those the IFOP agency, which conducted Le Figaro and Le journal du Dimanche’s most recent polls). Critics find the surveys filled with leading questions (insinuating for instance that Muslims constitute an alien “community” even though they are in their majority French nationals).
Qualms about the formulation of poll questionnaires cannot wipe out the problem at hand, though.
In periods when people are worried about economic hardships and availability of jobs, such is the case in France today, immigrants and minorities tend to be the first “suspects”. This may explain why less educated and less wealthy segments of the population score higher in terms of “suspicion” of Muslims than the rest of the society.
Fears of Muslims are also augmented by French society’s strong traditions of anti-clericalism and anti-sectarianism, especially when coupled with the perception of Muslims as being bent on ostentatiously practicing their faith and displaying symbols of their religious affiliation in a country that is clearly one of the most secular in Europe. Highly-publicised polemics about the full-veil or open-air prayers have in fact played in the hands of those interested in portraying Muslims as refusing integration.
According to a survey conducted by the state TV watchdog, Le Conseil Superieur de l’Audivisuel (CSA), 51 per cent of the public perceives Muslims as living “separately” from the rest of society — more than Jews (25 per cent) and Protestants (10 per cent). Maghrebis are perceived to be more “isolated” than Asians or blacks.
Mohammad Moussaoui, president of the French Council of Muslim Faith, sees “irrational fears” about Islam as stemming from the misleading identification of Muslim faith with increasing waves of immigration or with extremist and terrorist acts. On the eve of the elections, the French public was jolted by the bloody misdeeds of Mohammad Merah, a French-born Muslim of Maghribi descent, who killed seven people in cold blood, including French Muslim soldiers and Jewish children. Media attention to Merah and his fanatical family background have continued to nourish the scare and confusion even months after the scooter-borne shooter was killed.
Political propaganda by the extreme right, led by Le Front National, has consistently amplified the suspicion of Muslims as “invasive” foreigners. Extreme-right wing group Generation Identitaire has been also clamouring for a referendum on immigration and the building of Mosques. The group is borrowing a sheet from recent Swiss political experience, where a referendum eventually showed the majority to be against the building of mosque minarets. In recent days, young activists close to the French extreme-right group occupied a mosque construction-site in Poitiers, a place of historical significance. It is there that in the 8th Century, the Franks stopped the march of the Umayyad armies. But Islamophobia is not a right-wing monopoly. Alain Gresh, a leading journalist in leftist Le Monde Diplomatique sees an islamophobic role being played in media and intellectual circles by “quite an important current on the left of the spectrum”.
Because of legal prohibition, there are no official figures of followers of various religions. Muslims in France are, however, estimated at about five million. Amongst them, the top three national groups are Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian.
French Muslims want to become more actors than victims of politics. Already, three members of the current French government hail from Muslim and Maghrebi ancestries. One of them is Najat Vallaud-Belgacem, a dual French-and-Moroccan national, who serves as government spokeswoman. Two other cabinet members are of Algerian extraction: Yasmina Benguigi and Khader Arrif. There are many other Muslims and North Africans in prominent positions in civil service and private businesses.
More tangible progress is yet to happen for a better political representation of French citizens from the Muslim and Maghrebi communities. Recent poll results deserve serious scrutiny as indicative of serious problems that have to be addressed. Muslim French citizens are not likely to succumb to panic. They always have learned not to let prejudice prevent them from the pursuit of opportunities in all walks of life. It did not discourage them from excelling in such fields as culture, science and sports. Their successes are already a source of cultural enrichment to their society and a matter of pride to their countries of origin. A fact, which even polls cannot deny.
Oussama Romdhani is a former Tunisian minister of communication.