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  • Published in Book Reviews

Republic of Islamophobia effectively analyses the nature and rise of the vindictive Islamophobia that has come to grip French politics and society, finds Susan Ram

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Jim Wolfreys, The Republic of Islamophobia: The Rise of Respectable Racism in France (Hurst & Company 2018), 264pp.

Over the past two decades, Islamophobia has displaced more conventional, historic forms of racism to become the cutting edge of racist ideology. Stoked by the ‘War on Terror’ and the resulting refugee crisis, the process of positioning Muslims as some kind of civilisational threat to the West has taken hold across Europe while digging deep into the sludge of mainstream US politics. Racist state policies, often lifted wholesale from the far and fascist right, now bear down upon those who, by dint of religious faith, cultural heritage, country of origin, mode of dress, dietary code or other signifier of Islamic ‘otherness’, are deemed to require intrusive monitoring and interventions that range from the petty to the harshly punitive.

In the UK, a sophisticated state mechanism has taken shape to deal with this putative ‘enemy within’, its tentacles penetrating almost every public sphere, from education and health to the police and the various echelons of state security. Across the Atlantic, counter-radicalisation strategies targeted at Muslims, along with their relentless demonisation, have accelerated under successive administrations, in step with the intensification and spread of US military operations in the Middle East and beyond. ‘Fortress’ Europe, too, is awash with anti-Muslim initiatives and venom, amplified by a trumpet section extending from Viktor Orban in Hungary to Horst Seehofer, the German politician who crowned his recent appointment as interior minister in Angela Merkel’s new coalition government by declaring: ‘Islam does not belong in Germany’.

In France, the racialisation of Muslims and their identification as a uniquely toxic threat to national values and sensibilities have taken particularly virulent forms. As Jim Wolfreys documents in an important new study, there is a risible, theatre of the absurd quality to the actions the French state has resorted to over recent years to marginalise and punish its roughly four million citizens of Muslim origin or faith.  

A racist theatre of the absurd

Since 2004, when small girls across France were banned from wearing headscarves at school, the rap of the French state and legal system bearing down on displays of Muslim ‘difference’ has acquired metronomic regularity. In 2011, France stole a march on the rest of Europe by being the first state to outlaw the niqab (the full face-veil) in public places, making its wearing illegal virtually anywhere outside the home. The same year saw the banning of street prayers by Muslim worshippers lacking access to a mosque. Then swimming pools became the focus of a national panic, with both leading candidates in the 2012 presidential election campaign (François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy) lambasting, in their speeches and televised debate, the decision of a municipal swimming pool in Lille to allow a group of overweight women (some of them Muslim) to hold a separate aqua gym class. Elevating the swimming-pool timetable to the status of national threat, Sarkozy declared that those advocating such modification of the principle of equality had ‘no place on the territory of the Republic’.

The apogee (thus far) of this readiness to relinquish any semblance of proportionality or judgment occurred in the summer of 2016, when beaches along the Côte d’Azur became effective ‘no-go’ zones for Muslim women opting to keep their bodies covered when swimming or enjoying the sun. Beginning in Cannes, mayors of a series of resorts imposed bans on the wearing of burkinis, a new form of swimwear designed for women observing niqab (modesty), and on other forms of dress judged ‘inappropriate’ for a French beach. Dozens of women were fined, while others drew the attentions of missionary-minded cops bent on stripping them of ‘offensive’ long-sleeved tops and T-shirts. Endorsing this new beach sport, the then prime minister Manuel Valls (at that time still a high-ranking leader of the Socialist Party) described burkinis as ‘the affirmation of political Islam in the public sphere’. The madness was brought to an end only in September, when France’s Council of State overruled the bans and mayors reluctantly fell into line.   

As Wolfreys clarifies, the wellspring of much this petty bigotry and scare-mongering has been the Front National (FN), an openly fascist and Islamophobic party whose political stock has risen considerably over recent years, in tandem with its progress on the electoral front. While sometimes portrayed in the mainstream media as a ‘moderating’ moderniser, committed to ‘detoxifying’ the FN and remodelling it as some kind of anti-establishment force, Marine Le Pen, leader of the FN since 2011, is revealed by Wolfreys as an inventive architect of Islamophobia, an instigator of expressions and modalities of anti-Muslim racism particularly suited to the French context. Applying a distorting lens to history, she famously compared the sight of Muslims praying in the street to the Nazi occupation of France.

A running theme of hers, in a nation with a passion for food and the nuances of its preparation, has been talking up the ‘threat’ posed by Muslim dietary practices, whether the (non-existent) presence of halal meat in school canteens or the ‘bans’ on the inclusion of pork in school menus, allegedly imposed by religious organisations. In fact, pig meat seems to figure prominently in the FN arsenal, with party activists provocatively organising cocktail parties featuring red wine and dried sausage or organising ‘pig festivals’ in towns hitherto lacking such traditions.

The impact of neoliberalism     

That the petty vindictiveness, rabble-rousing and outright lies of France’s far right have been allowed to burrow deep into the fabric of French society, infecting political discourse and toxifying social relations across the board, has a great deal to tell us about contemporary French reality. Wolfreys argues that this process should be understood in terms of a particular dynamic: the interplay of France’s specific experience of neoliberalism with core elements of its republican tradition, in particular the concept of laïcité, the specifically French interpretation of secularism. Wolfreys, currently Senior Lecturer in French and European Politics at Kings College, London, draws on his work on neoliberalism in the European context as well as his expertise in the field of French far-right politics to present a persuasive argument at times undermined by a wandering structure.

In common with others who have identified the baleful implications of neoliberalism for democratic institutions and processes (for example, Colin Crouch’s notion of post-democracy and Tariq Ali’s ‘extreme centre’), Wolfreys draws attention to the multiple ways in which neoliberal policies have worked to hollow out core French political formations, particularly the mainstream parties of the left (the Parti Socialiste) and the right (the former UMP, now restyled as Les Républicains). He tracks the widening gulf between the mass of voters opposed to neoliberal ‘reform’ and a political mainstream committed to its embrace, a Europe-wide phenomenon which in the French context, he argues, has sought to be tackled through the weaponisation of social issues such as immigration and national identity. Drawing on still-potent tropes originating from France’s colonial past and on a morbidly reworked interpretation of republican secularism, this ‘cultural’ turn is seen to have acquired the force of a vortex:

‘A spiral has developed over the past three decades, with Islamophobia at its core, as political elites have attempted to compensate for a lack of positive affiliation to their core economic project by resorting to negative themes based on the scapegoating of immigrants, Roma people and Muslims’ (p.10).

While acknowledging the impetus given this process by terrorist attacks on French soil (the book’s opening chapter explores the state of emergency imposed following the Paris attacks of 2015, along with the repercussions of the Charlie Hebdo killings), Wolfreys excavates much deeper. His exploration of the French concept of laïcité, a ‘core’ republican value routinely extolled in state functions, by public luminaries and across the media, is particularly persuasive. He reveals the malleability of a principle held to be foundational to French identity by tracing the shift it has undergone since its enshrinement in the 1905 Law of Separation of Church and State.

Racist ‘secularism’

What began as a legally mandated repudiation of the Catholic Church’s meddling in state affairs, a statement of state neutrality, and a declaration of support for freedom of expression and tolerance of others’ views is shown to have transmogrified over the years into its present weaponised form: a bludgeon at the service of the state, geared to curtailing  the freedom of expression of a significant Muslim minority, delegitimising the external manifestation of their ‘otherness’, and bearing down relentlessly on practices central to their identity. Wolfreys endorses the view of Christine Delphy, a prominent French sociologist and feminist, that laïcité has come to mean ‘obliging Muslims, and Muslims alone, to make themselves invisible’ (Christine Delphy, Separate and Dominate: Feminism and Racism after the War on Terror, Verso, 2016, p.xiii; quoted by Wolfreys, p.94).

Along the way, specific interventions have helped speed up this process and enhance its destructive force. Nicolas Sarkozy, president of France from 2007-2012, contrived much in this direction during his single term in office. Wolfreys, who has written extensively on the Sarkozy phenomenon, gives him and his ‘hyper-presidentialism’ no quarter while acknowledging his acute political nose:

‘He appeared to grasp better than any other mainstream figure the relationship between racist demagogy and authoritarianism that underpinned the electoral success of the FN … Following [Jean-Marie] Le Pen’s poor showing in the second round of the 2002 presidential election … Sarkozy moved to position himself as the figure capable not just of making speeches about the danger of immigration, but of acting upon them … Sarkozysme was a symptom of the evolution of the French right as it embraced a neoliberal outlook reliant on a negative charge of scapegoating and discrimination’ (pp.54-55).

If Sarkozy emerges as something of a trailblazer in the business of aping the FN and bringing their ideology and tactics into the mainstream, his efforts have since been eclipsed by those of other political players and an ever-swelling chorus of idiots utiles (useful idiots). Wolfreys offers a ghoulish tally of the numerous public figures whose interventions, disseminated by an unfailingly pliant media, have contributed to the groundswell of anti-immigrant racism and Islamophobia in contemporary France. Media-favoured philosophers like Alain Finkielkraut and Elisabeth Badinter have proved particularly adept at stoking national insecurities and igniting culture wars, their efforts reinforced by writers such as Éric Zemmour, whose 2014 best-seller, Le Suicide Français, gave readers a thrillingly lurid and dismal evocation of national decline.

At times Wolfreys’ concern to reference every member of this warrior tribe combating the putative ‘enemy within’ gets in the way of his argument. The reader also becomes conscious of an element of back-and-forth motion, a return to events already discussed or statements cited earlier: something that sharper editing could have picked up on. 

While Wolfreys presents his material in an accessible, even racy way, there are times when one wishes he would lift his foot from the accelerator. A case in point is his discussion of the development of French neoliberalism. From the 1980s, he argues, France experienced ‘neoliberalism by default’ (p.61) as austerity displaced progressive reform in the early years of the François Mitterrand presidency. Since the start of the new millennium, and particularly after 2008, he sees the emergence of a ‘distinctively French’ version of the free market: one which has reshaped the role of the state, rather than displacing it or rendering it obsolete. In conjunction with other tendencies (a focus on regulation rather than the management of production and distribution; the rising profile of non-elected financial and public bodies; the intrusive attentions of EU institutions and officialdom; broad acceptance of the modern state’s regulatory rather than redistributive character), this has contributed to what Wolfreys describes as ‘the replacement of party government by administrative government or “government by inertia”’ (p.64).

Wolfreys devotes six pages to probing French neoliberalism, its role in a long-term erosion of democratic institutions and practices and the racialised trajectory of French politics. Rather than develop this line of enquiry, however, he simply buttresses his case with quotations from Peter Hall, Anthony Giddens and other diverse sources. One has a sense of something interesting building up, only to be left hanging.

The failure of the left

Towards at the end of the book, the author casts a critical eye at the ways in which the French left, including its anti-capitalist strands, has engaged with home-grown Islamophobia in all its ugly, racist, unity-fracturing reality. This is a dispiriting read, illustrative of the scale of the work that lies ahead.

Wolfreys’ discussion leaves few doubts about the extent to which a reactionary, weaponised recasting of secularism has penetrated the French left, distorting its understanding, crippling its capacity for unified action and consigning it to the sidelines at critical moments. One example was the failure of the left to respond adequately during the banlieue uprising of late 2005. These evens saw thousands of young people, many of them Muslim, erupting across France’s banlieues (peripheral urban settlements with very high levels of deprivation and unemployment) to stage the nation’s ‘biggest social upheaval since May 1968’. Wolfreys identifies the absence in France of a ‘consistent, assertive, confident anti-racist movement’ as both a weakness and a failing of the French left (p. 149).

One facet of the problem has been the repeated refusal of the left to engage with Muslims who, by virtue of their dress or other outward show of cultural identify, are perceived to reject integration and the ‘French way’. This has resulted in instances of outright hostility, as evidenced by the role played by teachers belonging to radical left groups in excluding two hijab-wearing pupils from a school in Aubervilliers in 2003. The attempt by the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA) to field a hijab-wearing Muslim candidate back in 2010 encountered such fury, from the left as much as the political mainstream, that it had to be abandoned. That forms of dress adopted by some Muslim women continue to be framed by sections of the left in terms of ‘self-humiliation’, degradation and the repudiation of autonomy, underlines a more general failure to acknowledge Islamophobia as a form of racism. Across much of the French left, the term ‘Islamophobie’ is still seen to blur the distinction between racism and legitimate criticism of religion.

There are signs of change. Cities across France are witnessing the emergence of new grass-roots anti-racist organisations, a development that would have been impossible to imagine ten years ago. In March 2015, a Paris rally against Islamophobia drew the support of dozens of organisations, helped by an earlier initiative: the coming together in 2013 of several radical-left groups to form Ensemble!, an anti-capitalist party with an anti-racist, feminist and eco-socialist agenda. While support for such actions from more established left groups remains inconsistent and variable, mainstream figures such as Benoït Hamon, the Socialist Party candidate in last year’s presidential election, have openly identified with France’s beleaguered Muslims, attracting the pejorative label ‘Islamo-gauchiste’ for their readiness to call out and combat Islamophobia. The very strong support Jean-Luc Mélenchon received from Muslim voters during his presidential run last year also points to promising new possibilities for La France Insoumise, given a willingness to break with the past. But as Wolfreys’ salutary new study reminds us, there is a dauntingly long road ahead.

Note:

For readers short on time but interested to get a flavour of Wolfreys’ writing on this issue, I recommend his article of 2015, which bears the same title as his new study: ‘Republic of Islamophobia,’ by Jim Wolfreys, Critical Muslim 13: Race, 12 January 2015.

Susan Ram

Susan Ram

Susan Ram is a writer, editor and journalist based in south-west France. She's currently at work on a book about the French Left, for publication in India, where she lived for many years.

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