The news that an air force sergeant with alleged links to the extreme far right could have been responsible for attempting to carry out a terrorist attack against a mosque near Lyon, has shocked many people, within France. Although in the UK, we have seen a number of mosques attacked since Woolwich, the steady rise in anti-Muslim hate perpetuated across Europe, has led to an increase in anti-Muslim prejudice and discrimination. According to the rector of Lyon's main mosque, France is witnessing a new "climate of Islamophobia." This includes women being physically attacked for wearing the headscarf to attacks against mosques. The rector, Kamel Kabtane is a person who has direct experience of seeing anti-Muslim hate. In 2012, he received death threats in a letter with the words: "A bomb will go 'boom' and it is not a pig's head that you will find outside your mosque but your own.... Sod off quickly to Dubai and die there if you don't want to die here." According to statistics, 40 mosques were attacked and 469 Islamophobic attacks were reported in 2012.
So why does France have such a problem with Islamophobia? It's not an exaggeration to say that countries across Europe have been facing a number of terrorist attacks and therefore the threat level has been heightened. But these are not just Al-Qaeda based threats and include those from the extreme right. Despite this, the French government has enacted a number of controversial counter-terrorism policies and legislation that risk alienating the vast majority of law abiding French Muslim communities and thus exacerbating Islamophobia.
Opinion polls also seem to indicate that many communities in France are less concerned with the threat posed by far right extremists and are more worried about the hype surrounding 'Islamist' extremism. For example, according to a survey conducted on behalf of LeMonde.fr in 2010 it found that almost 68% of French people believe that Muslims have not integrated into society and over 42% of those surveyed argued that Muslim communities were seen as a 'threat' to French identity.
The current French President, François Hollande and former President Nicolas Sarkozy who brought in the ban on the niqab and burqa have used this ideological policy to argue that French Muslims need to be better integrated into society. Following confrontations and riots with the French police earlier this year after a police check on a Muslim woman, the interior minister, Manuel Valls stated that "The law banning full-face veils is a law in the interests of women and against those values having nothing to do with our traditions and values. It must be enforced everywhere."
So to improve Muslim integration, the French government, ban on wearing of the full face veil, in public will be according to leaked reports this week, extended to universities because it recommends that "the open wearing of religious symbols and dress in lecture theatres and places of teaching and research" should not be tolerated. Such an act is likely to only stoke up further anti-Muslim hate.
Clearly, counter-terrorism efforts in France have caused controversy especially where tactics such as 'over-policing', surveillance, stop and search and wiretapping of Muslim suspects as a means to prevent a terrorist attack, have been used. Indeed, it appears the fabric of French society is being driven by an Islamophobic agenda that is playing upon issues of mass immigration, and high unemployment rates as a precursor for heavy handed policies. This is why French Muslims remain an under-represented group within French society. The French policy makers should think less about ways of banning the burqa and find out ways of meaningful engagement with Muslim communities and address the 'real' extremist threat posed by the extreme far right.