Ahead of an upcoming presidential election in France, policymakers are riding a wave of Islam-dominated issues that have unwittingly taken center stage in the country’s public domain.
Concerns over Islamic fundamentalism reached a peak in recent weeks when French police launched the latest of a series of raids on suspected Islamic militants, detaining 10 people across the country in predawn arrests.
This also came hand-in-hand with news that imams (clerics) were being deported, moderate Muslim preachers were being denied access to the country, and mosques were increasingly being monitored by French authorities.
The measures come under the pretext that French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is battling for re-election ahead of the first round of votes on April 22, is brazenly intent on clamping down on dangerous radicals threatening France.
In the spotlight was last month’s Toulouse episode, an al-Qaeda-inspired gunman, Mohammed Merah, who murdered seven people in a nine-day terrorist rampage through the French city.
“France will not tolerate ideological indoctrination on its soil,” Sarkozy said in March, as he vowed to jail anyone who viewed jihadist videos online or visited international training camps.
But some described Merah’s shooting rampage as “an unexpected gift for Sarkozy” which he “exploited” to increase his chances in the upcoming elections, says Dr. Marwan Kabalan, International Relations and Diplomacy expert at the University of Kalamoon in Syria.
And yes indeed, Sarkozy won several percentage points following the range of measures against the Muslim community in France, having previously lagged behind in opinion polls prior to the Toulouse incident, Kabalan adds.
Sarkozy’s opponents have pointed out that amplifying the fear of Islamic fundamentalism has been a very convenient way of appearing as a strong, active president. But in reality, many will argue that French premier practically made his name within the government for drilling the topic of Islamist extremism to the public.
Sarkozy became interior minister by taking on the angry young men in the mainly Muslim suburbs of Paris during the 2005 riots, Harriet Alexander of the Telegraph notes, planting his own, individual seed of anti-Islam sentiment into the government.
Last September, the president took to banning Muslims from praying in the streets, after photos of Friday prayers spilling out onto the pavements were deemed by far-Right candidate Marine Le Pen as evidence of a supposed Muslim takeover.
And in congruent timing, this week marks the first anniversary of a French law banning the wearing of full-face veils in public; a decision by Sarkozy made under the ruse of upholding secular values.
In par with this reasoning, a promise by the president was made early on this year to introduce a law in France to ensure the labeling of all meat killed in accordance with halal Islamic traditions.
“It’s frightening at the moment,” Mounia Bassnaoui, a Muslim woman born in France told The Telegraph.
“France is the worst place in Europe to be a Muslim, because the government is so against us. And if Nicolas Sarkozy is re-elected, it can only get worse.”
Bassnaoui is one of France’s estimated six million Muslims, making the country home to the largest Muslim population in Europe.
Alexander notes that the three elements of immigration, security and Islamic fundamentalism have frequently spoken of in the same breath by Sarkozy, implying a chain of interlinked threats stemming from the Muslim community.
“French politicians across the spectrum link Islam and immigration, and the French people end up believing this,” Professor Olivier Roy, a French authority on the link between Islam and politics and an adviser to the French foreign ministry told the newspaper.
“But it’s not the case; the wave of North African immigration has slowed to a trickle, and most immigrants now come from China or Eastern Europe,” Roy explained.
Still, for many who support Sarkozy’s efforts to rid the country of the danger from Merah-like figures lingering in the psyche of the average French citizen, the president will continue to be seen as a protector.
Last month, before the Toulouse shootings, Sarkozy voiced his intent on keeping moderate voters from defecting to the far-right; encouraging his UMP party to hold a public debate to discuss the compatibility between Islam and France’s secular values.
But weeks before the debate has begun, dissent within the UMP over the wisdom of the idea hurt Sarkozy’s credibility, hinting that his leadership of the party is less than ironclad. “If this debate were to be focused only on Islam, if it were to lead to a stigmatization of Muslims, then I would oppose it,” Prime Minister Francois Fillon had said on RTL radio.
Indeed, Muslim groups boycotted the event, accusing the UMP of targeting their faith.
“This debate has only one purpose and that is to keep the UMP in the media in the year before the election,” Hassan Ben M’Barek of “Banlieues Respect” group, told Reuters last week.
“Clearly, this will feed into Islamophobia,” he added.
Despite Islam being France’s second largest religion after Roman Catholicism with some 5-6 million followers, according to government figures, the spotlight on the Muslim community in the country is intensifying and for many Muslims, it is bordering on offensive.
“French policymakers must try to acquire better understanding of Islam, religion and culture, in order to win, rather than alienate, their Muslim citizens,” wrote Dr. Kabalan.
“More important, perhaps, they must respect the beliefs of the local Muslim community, which is French first and foremost. They may need to check through the constitution of the French Republic, which — among many things — guarantees all citizens the right to choose their religion and practice their faith,” he added.
Whether Sarkozy will win a second term on the back of his anti-Islam drive is tough to tell. Despite his many supporters who have pushed his popularity skywards in the aftermath of the Toulouse shootings, the French premier should be concerned over his electoral losses at the hands of a bulky population of Muslim voters that may be encouraged to vote this year more so than ever.