Wednesday night's presidential debate saw Socialist hopeful Francois Hollande pitted against incumbent President, Nicolas Sarkozy on key points of the political agenda including nuclear energy, the relationship with Europe and the economy. Hollande has marketed himself as the candidate of 'change', the central concept in his slogan and the leitmotif of his speeches, banking on Sarkozy's unpopularity and on the feeling that France needs a new, alternative vision.
And yet, when the candidates got on to discussing the hot topics of Islam and multiculturalism, the visions seemed to narrowly converge. Despite some heated repartee, both affirmed their credentials in dealing with France's "problem" of communalism and the role Islam has to play in exacerbating it.
Muslims have been a regular political fodder throughout the election. In the first round President Sarkozy adopted Far Right rhetoric by suggesting halal meat was a "central concern" for the French, while Marine Le Pen spoke of the "rise of green facism" in the wake of the attacks by Mohamed Merah, whom she described as "the tip of the iceberg".
The socialist candidate, Francois Hollande has raised the hopes of many, drawn in by his rejection of the Far-right and his objection to fear based rhetoric. In a France where a young generation of North African origin are seeking to make their mark, he appointed Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, a Moroccan born French politician as his co-spokesperson. And in Wednesday's debate, he argued that foreigners who've lived in France for over five years should have the right to vote in local elections, a proposition Sarkozy opposes.
However, it was here that the limits of French political discourse on Islam became apparent. As the subject of Islam was raised, Sarkozy asserted that it is the Muslim identity of immigrants which fuels his opposition to their right to vote in local elections where they would have power to influence policy and would fuel the "rise of radical Islam": "...the majority of those concerned are not Norwegians or Americans" Sarkozy exclaimed "the communalist tensions I'm talking about, who do they come from? Or where do they come from? From the absolute necessity to have an Islam of France, not an Islam in France." The president was pulled up by Hollande, who pointed out that to reduce immigrants to their religious identity was to ignore their diversity, "some might not even identify as Muslim" he corrected. But Hollande's indignation at the reification of Muslim identity stopped there. And so does much of the hope, he might offer change in this contentious realm.
In France, the essentialisation of Muslims identity and attribution of their difference to a single inassimilable culture which allegedly threatens the French way of life, is common currency across the political spectrum. Even the Far-Left is not immune from this perception: "You can't say you're a feminist and wear a sign of patriarchal submission" exclaimed Jean-Luc Mélenchon in 2010 in response to a veiled Muslim political candidate.
As Sarkozy went on to link the right to vote for foreigners to "the rise in communalism and tensions", Hollande's discourse veered right. Reassuring the public he would make no concessions to the Republic's golden calf of 'laicite', he agreed with his opponent that the sort of 'extravagant' demands Muslims might make on municipalities - the option of halal meat in school canteens, occasional women-only swimming sessions and access to female doctors -would not be tolerated.
The Presidential debate highlighted the extent to which Islam has been singled out as problematic across the political spectrum. By linking such basic issues as dietary provisions, to the bogeyman of communalism, Sarkozy was suggesting they are fundamentally incompatible with his cryptic and yet emblematic notion of "an Islam of France." And yet, efforts to foster a balanced French Muslim identity have been met with the President's ire. Oxford Professor Tariq Ramadan who contends that French Muslims don't need to negate their religious identity in order to become fully French, but must rather live out both aspects of their identity fully, was recently described as 'unwelcome' by the President and specialist Catherine Wihtol de Wenden states that French Muslims don't share the state's complex about their contested identity: "Most Muslims in France feel very French -- but they feel that the French don't see them that way, because they may look Arab or black." Rather, the stigmatisation of Islam in public discourse has fostered a climate which ensures hostility towards its practitioners, despite their own desire to fully identify with the nation.
Rather than tackling this climate, Hollande sought to shore up his 'secular' credentials during the debate by boasting that his party was behind the 2004 law banning veils in schools. Since then, legislation targeting Muslim female dress has continued to increase, supported and instigated at times by the Left. In 2011, Sarkozy instated the ban on the wearing of face veils in public in France with near unanimous support, and in January 2012, the Senate approved a law, proposed by a Socialist, to ban nursery assistants from wearing headscarves on the basis of "protecting children from women unworthy of their trust." The Ecologist party denounced the law as intrusive and discriminatory and Muslim groups have expressed fears the law will increase suspicion and hostility towards women who wear the headscarf.
During the debate, Sarkozy went unchallenged as he argued that Islam has been the cause of "an extravagant rise in communalist tensions" despite the fact the most frequent cause mentioned for the 2005 riots was joblessness and the reality that Muslims are over represented in disadvantaged neighbourhoods with high unemployment, poor educational facilities and few career options. This omission of the social and geographical marginalisation of Muslims is compounded by the oft-denied omnipresence of hostility towards Islam.
Nearly four-in-ten Muslims French Muslims report that they have had a bad experience attributable to their race, ethnicity or religion. Legislation prohibiting discrimination in employment is rarely implemented in France and employers have been allowed to discriminate on the grounds of religious or cultural symbols, in direct conflict with European Union anti-discrimination legislation. Linda, a thirty year old administrative assistant of Algerian origin tells me her employers declined her request to pray in an empty office during her lunch break on the grounds the office is a "secular space." A young white convert explained to me that she was refused entry to a bowling alley on the grounds her headscarf was unwelcome there. Shaima, a journalism graduate from one of France's top universities, explains she has been unable to find employment due to her headscarf and is seeking to emigrate. Amnesty international's expert on discrimination, Marco Perolini has denounced the pandering to prejudices by political parties in quest of votes, which he linked directly to human rights violations: "Muslim women are being denied jobs and girls prevented from attending regular classes just because they wear traditional forms of dress, such as the headscarf. Men can be dismissed for wearing beards associated with Islam.(...) There is a groundswell of opinion in many European countries that Islam is alright and Muslims are ok so long as they are not too visible. This attitude is generating human rights violations and needs to be challenged."
Despite an increasing number of studies suggesting French Muslims are getting a raw deal, politicians don't appear to be listening and the rise of the Far-Right has made initiating such discussions political suicide. American academic Joan Scott argues that France has failed to integrate its former colonial subjects as full citizens and believes that the suppression of diversity is not a feasible path for social harmony in the contemporary era. The candidate for 'change' who calls for national unity has so far offered an alternative vision for France on many fronts, but the issue of social harmony has yet to be tackled from a different angle. The question remains whether on the issue of Muslim visibility and acceptance, a Socialist President will make any difference at all. It seems unlikely.