France is preparing for its next general elections to be held in April/May 2017 and the most focal point of discussions and on agendas are the Muslims. Does the presence of a large, if diversified, Muslim community in France threaten to dispossess French society of what has held it together in the past – culture, language, lifestyles and, above all, the republican values that have sustained it for more than two centuries? The latter include a single legal system for all citizens, adherence to basic freedoms, gender equality and a strict separation of religion from the public sphere.
When you follow the controversies in France on Muslim-related matters, the tough stand taken by the All India Muslim Personal Law Board on the Uniform Civil Code and the sharp reactions to it have all the trappings of an inter-collegiate debating competition. The next French presidential election will be held in April-May next year. But the campaign for it is already underway. Niggardly economic growth, unemployment, steady dismantlement of the welfare state and the Brexit shock are some of the issues that pit one party against another.
Overriding them all however is this question: Does the presence of a large, if diversified, Muslim community in France threaten to dispossess French society of what has held it together in the past – culture, language, lifestyles and, above all, the republican values that have sustained it for more than two centuries? The latter include a single legal system for all citizens, adherence to basic freedoms, gender equality and a strict separation of religion from the public sphere.
The Muslim question has gained greater salience in public discourses and private conversations in the wake of a succession of Islamist terror attacks in France over the past two years. Add to this the continuing influx of migrants from Africa and the Middle East. These developments have generated rage among the Right-wingers and rattled the Leftists and the liberals.
Leading the pack of Muslim baiters is Éric Zemmour, author of two books that have been instant bestsellers, a widely read columnist of the conservative daily Le Figaro and a celebrity panellist on radio and TV shows. Zemmour wields the axe when a surgeon’s knife would have done the job. Here’s one example: “There are no moderates in Islam. There are simply those who practice Islam to the letter and those who don’t. The ones you call good Muslims are regarded by Islam to be bad Muslims.”
Left-wing and liberal commentators have debunked Zemmour as a dangerous demagogue whose intent, they allege, is to shore up the electoral fortunes of the extreme Right-wing National Front. In their commentaries, they harp on the failure of the French state and society to address the issues that explain Muslim alienation: lack of education and skills, massive joblessness, a miserable existence in ghettoised suburbs, growing Islamophobia, French policies in the Middle East and so forth.
In the midst of the ideological battles, the publication of an opinion survey conducted by the prestigious Institut Montaigne on Muslims in France has nonplussed the Leftists and liberals and generated a wave of I-told-you-so gloating in the ranks of their adversaries. These are some of the findings: 29% of Muslims think that the shariah (Islamic law) is more important than the laws of the Republic; 40% believe that employers should pay heed to the religious obligations of their employers; the same percentage bats for polygamy and is hostile to secularism (an article of faith for the French); 60% favour the right of Muslim girls to wear the hijab in schools; 14% Muslim women don’t want a male doctor to treat them; and 44% won’t swim in a pool along with men.
Faced with these numbers, the debate on Muslims in France has, if anything, become more raucous and intractable. Over lunch in Paris last month I asked Régis Debray, one of the country’s most stimulating, if controversial, thinkers whether he saw a way out of the impasse. I was aware of some of his positions garnered through his books and interviews: when politics ceases to be a secular religion, when it is no longer a bearer of collective memory and hope, when it is driven solely by technology-led economic modernization, revealed religion once again assumes a political avatar. When the public weal is lost sight of, the trader, the networker, the spin doctor and the guru take over.
So what is in store for France in the presidential election? The question clearly bores Debray. He laments, without cynicism, that today the hoodlums of the Right and the mediocrities on the Left inspire no confidence since they are far removed from the cultural, historical and political DNA of the French. Que sera, sera …