This Sunday, France faces an uncertain test as voters head to the polls to elect the next president of the republic in the second and final round.
Choosing between the final candidates is desolately grim for many, but for French Muslims in particular, casting their vote for either President Emmanuel Macron or far-right candidate Marine Le Pen is akin to deciding between the least worst and worst option.
The country’s estimated 6 million Muslims have inordinately become a central focus of discussion this election, with both candidates using religion to score political points in their campaigns.
Angry and betrayed
The National Rally party’s Le Pen, known for fanning Islamophobia, has proposed a ban on the “veil,” a pejorative term used for the headscarf or the hijab, in public spaces to denote it as a suppressing piece of clothing forced upon women by Islamists. She also vowed to outlaw the ritual slaughtering of animals, called a halal practice by Muslims and kosher by the Jews.
Naima, a university student from Paris who wears a hijab and only gave her first name, disclosed that she voted for left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon in the first round to block Le Pen from advancing to the second round. But the inevitable result that qualified Macron and Le Pen for the final round has left her feeling angry and rejected.
“If the ban is implemented, I won’t be able to leave my house nor pay the successive fines…The only option I can think of today is to leave France, the country of my birth,” she said. She has reluctantly resigned to vote for Macron in the second round, as it “is the lesser of two outcomes” for Muslims and disadvantaged marginalized groups.
“Life will undoubtedly be worse under a Le Pen government, but Macron promises nothing good for French Muslims if he is re-elected,” she said, adding that under Macron's government, Muslims have witnessed an unabashed rise in Islamophobia in public opinion, media and within the government.
“So we can't really ask under which government the lives of French Muslims will be better, but under which government it will be the least worse.”
Voting Macron against the heart
While Macron has outright opposed the headscarf ban and deemed it unconstitutional, his government’s ideological slide towards the extreme right by singling out the Muslims has left the minority voters with a sense of betrayal.
“During these five years, through his speeches and political strategy towards Muslims, Macron has only increased and legitimized an already exacerbated Islamophobia, instead of fighting it as firmly as anti-Semitism,” said Taous Hammouti, member of the Citizen Alliance association.
She accuses Macron of being a hypocrite for feeding distrust towards Islam and Muslims when he was in power and now trying to absolve himself of the criticism by pandering to the Muslim electorate.
“We don't really have the choice between the plague and cholera,” Taous said, comparing the two candidates. “I would go to vote for Macron but against my heart.”
Abstaining instead of voting for Macron
In the charged political atmosphere after several terrorist attacks and the decapitation of a school teacher, Samuel Paty, in 2020, Macron vowed to defend the country’s secular values by tackling “Islamist separatism,” which he said was reflected by “the formation of a counter-society” and “the development of the separate community.” His statements spurred the creation of anti-separatism legislation that seeks French Muslims to proclaim their loyalty and prove Islam is not incompatible with the Republic’s fundamental values.
Under the law, the Interior Ministry carried out 24,887 structural checks which have led to the closure of 718 organizations, Muslim-owned establishments, mosques and Muslim schools, shops and businesses and the seizure of 46 million euros ($49.8 million) in assets.
British NGO CAGE described the crackdown as persecution and termed Macron's presidency as the “most oppressive for French Muslims in recent history."
For Hanane Loukili, director of the Meo High School private college in Paris that was shut down as part of the crackdown for allowing Muslim students to wear the headscarf, the law is “stigmatizing, repressive and liberticidal” towards independent Muslim institutions and French citizens of the Muslim faith.
“Macron does not fight radicalization in any way. He only seeks to seduce the fascist electorate by randomly targeting institutions with ‘visible’ Muslims,” she added.
A 2004 law bans headscarves and displays of other religious symbols from public schools, but private educational institutes and universities do not come under its purview. Yet her school was targeted over claims of practicing “separatism.”
Loukili plans to leave the ballot blank or abstain rather than voting for either Macron or Le Pen as she says “they are the same two profiles that despise the French people.”
When both candidates were finalists in 2017, the choice of voting for Macron, a young banker with no political experience, over Le Pen was less risky for the French and French Muslims.
Status quo or change for worse ?
But many Muslims are now torn between maintaining the status quo by electing Macron and repeating the under the radar Islamophobia that is pervasive in mainstream politics rather than changing it for the worse by electing Le Pen, whose anti-Muslim platform is more pronounced.
Islamic associations appear to have made the choice to defeat the extreme right and are rallying the Muslim electorate formally and informally and voting for Macron.
After Le Pen qualified for the second round with 23.1% of the vote behind Macron’s 27.8%, the Muslims of France, one of the largest nonprofit collectives, released a statement appealing to citizens of the Muslim faith to vote against Le Pen.
“There is an imminent danger to see this political party at the head of the executive of our country,” it said, referring to the National Rally.
In the penultimate week before the polls on April 24, Chems-eddine Hafiz, the rector of the Great Mosque of Paris, who has frequently denounced the scapegoating of French Muslims after terrorist attacks, organized an iftar, or fast-breaking meal during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, in “support for the re-election of Emmanuel Macron."
Muslim voters say they are tired of frequently being made a scapegoat and portrayed as radicalized, violent and suppressed. They feel that candidates in the high-stakes presidential election must focus with urgency on intrinsic issues around the economy, the environment, climate change, social inequalities, corporations evading taxes, and politicians circumventing justice, rather than invoking discussions of laicite (the distinctive French form of secularism), religion, and what women should be allowed to wear.
Naima, the hijab-wearing student, believes that governments should not be concerned with religion, as stated by the 1905 laicite law on church separation. The law has frequently been used as a weapon against the Muslim community by extreme-right wing parties and succeeding governments. She argues that if the law was implemented in spirit, French society would be more harmonious.
“If this was the case, then we wouldn't have to face the choice between the extreme right and...the extreme right,” she said.