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French Muslims vote for ‘whoever spits in their face least’

France’s Muslim minority, estimated at about 8% of the 68 million population, became one of the main issues in the presidential election.

Supporters of French President Emmanuel Macron celebrate reports of his victory April 24, 2022, in Paris. (AP Photo/Lewis Joly)

PARIS (RNS) — Is there a “Muslim vote” in France? If so, where is it and who is it rooting for?

These questions are confounding political strategists as they analyze the results of President Emmanuel Macron’s reelection Sunday (April 24) and their hopes of forging a majority in Parliament in June.

France’s Muslim minority, estimated at about 8% of the 68 million population, was one of the main issues in the presidential election. Unfortunately for the Muslims, the discussion was mostly negative, often stridently so.

Far-right candidates spoke about banning the Muslim headscarf and fighting Islamist radicalism. A center-right hopeful echoed the “great replacement” conspiracy theory that Muslims would take over France. Macron and his centrists stressed their measures against “Islamist separatism.”

So 69% of Muslim voters supported the far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon on April 10 in the first round of the presidential election, according to the pollster Ifop. His outspoken stand against anti-Muslim intolerance helped earned him a strong third place, just behind far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

For the runoff, he didn’t urge his left-wing supporters to back Macron but did hammer home the message that they could never vote for Le Pen. So for Sunday’s second round, the Muslim community voted 85% for Macron, again according to Ifop.

Centrist candidate and French President Emmanuel Macron, left, and far-right contender Marine Le Pen pose before a televised debate in La Plaine-Saint-Denis, outside Paris, Wednesday, April 20, 2022. (Ludovic Marin, Pool via AP)

Centrist candidate and French President Emmanuel Macron, left, and far-right contender Marine Le Pen pose before a televised debate in La Plaine-Saint-Denis, outside Paris, April 20, 2022. (Ludovic Marin, Pool via AP)

In both cases, it was, as the French say, a choice between plague and cholera. “Muslims (are) forced to support whoever spits in their face the least,” said Nagib Azergui, head of the small French Muslim Democrats party, or UDMF.

As Lyon political science professor Haoues Seniguer puts it, France has no “Muslim vote” but does have “Muslim voters.”

Campaigning for the two-round parliamentary vote, due on June 12 and 19, began even before Macron won the presidential runoff with 58.5% on Sunday. The fight for swing voters is on the left, so the president began touring the rough suburban towns where many Muslims live.

Macron has a lot to live down. A fresh face when he first ran in 2017, he now has a record of five years of increasingly tough measures culminating in a law against “Islamist separatism,” his term for Muslim radicalization.

The law passed in early 2021 after the murder by decapitation of a teacher for showing pupils caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. Repeated Islamist attacks in France in recent years have boosted calls for an official crackdown, which Muslim leaders say would unfairly target Muslims, the vast majority of whom are peaceful. 

The law empowers officials to close places promoting hate, require religious contributions from abroad to be declared if more than 10,000 euros, tighten regulations on home schooling and fine doctors who perform virginity tests.

Clearly targeting radical Muslims, the law has led to an estimated 700 closures of places determined to be “frequented by fundamentalists,” including mosques, sports clubs, private schools and restaurants.

Macron’s Cabinet ministers of the interior, education and citizenship have promoted a strict version of France’s official laïcité (secularism) policy that the far right also uses to agitate against Muslims. 

“He protects three ministers who make him look like a fascist, while his own remarks on this subject are rather measured and balanced,” Lova Rinel of an anti-discrimination group called Pluriel told the daily Le Monde. “We don’t understand, it makes no sense.”

FILE- Marine Le Pen walks on stage, at a National Rally event in Frejus, Sunday, Sept. 12, 2021. French nationalist Marine Le Pen has softened her rhetoric and her image as she tries to unseat centrist President Emmanuel Macron in the upcoming election, taking place in two rounds on April 10 and 24. She is honing in on the pocketbook issues that voters care about most. But the woman who has been known for her fierce anti-immigration stance is also facing a challenge from TV pundit Eric Zemmour, a more provocative candidate who styles himself after Donald Trump and embraces racist conspiracies. Their rivalry illustrates France’s tilt toward the hard right. (AP Photo/Daniel Cole, File)

Marine Le Pen walks on stage at a National Rally event in Frejus, France, Sept. 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Daniel Cole, File)

The strong Muslim vote for Macron in the second round included many ballots not for him but against Le Pen, whom several Muslim leaders called on their followers to defeat.

Another factor weakening that apparently strong showing is that Ifop said 42% of Muslim voters abstained in the second round.

Mélenchon hopes to translate his strong support into a parliamentary majority that could make him the No. 2 man of the Macron presidency.

“I urge the French to elect me prime minister,” he said, even before Macron had won the second round. Posters and pamphlets with a photo of “Prime Minister Mélenchon” are now being distributed across France.

He hopes to form a parliamentary majority with deputies from the ecologists, communists and other small leftist parties. They could then change the constitution, raise salaries for the poor and taxes for the rich, guarantee jobs, promote clean energy, annul the separatism law, reform Europe and leave NATO.

Muslim support would presumably be one pillar of this majority.

FILE - Women wait in line before voting for the first round of the presidential election at a polling station Sunday, April 10, 2022 in the Malpasse northern district of Marseille, southern France. French voters head to polls on Sunday in a runoff vote between centrist incumbent Emmanuel Macron and nationalist rival Marine Le Pen, wrapping up a campaign that experts have seen as unusually dominated by discriminatory discourse and proposals targeting immigration and Islam. (AP Photo/Daniel Cole, File)

Women wait in line before voting for the first round of the presidential election at a polling station April 10, 2022, in the Malpasse northern district of Marseille, southern France. French voters headed to the polls April 24 in a runoff between centrist incumbent Emmanuel Macron and nationalist rival Marine Le Pen, wrapping up a campaign that experts have seen as unusually dominated by discriminatory discourse and proposals targeting immigration and Islam. (AP Photo/Daniel Cole, File)

Negotiations among the squabbling left-wing parties have begun but Mélenchon has no guarantee his Popular Union proposal will succeed.

First, it has to win an overall majority, which is not sure. Even if he does, the French Constitution says the president chooses the prime minister, not the deputies. And Macron is unlikely to pick a rival such as Mélenchon as his prime minister.

“Coalitions are never built around radical figures, but always around centrists,” said Jean-Philippe Derosier of the Jean Jaurès Fondation think tank.

While some Muslims hope Mélenchon will succeed, the likelihood is that he will not and Muslim voters will once again find no party in Parliament that clearly represents their interests.

Mohammed Colin, director of the Muslim website SaphirNews, said the most important aspect of the whole election was the continued rise of the far right, made evident by the historic 41.5% result for Le Pen.

“The shadow of Le Pen has already crossed the threshold of the Élysée,” he wrote, referring to the presidential palace.

“We now have a respite of five years and the countdown has already begun. If nothing is done by then, our country will fall into the claws of the beast. Yes, that’s the force of gravity right now … winter is coming.”