Does Emmanuel Macron’s France Have a Muslim Problem? Oui.
When two outsiders, Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, faced off in the final round of voting in France’s recent election, observers around the world were unsettled, if not shocked. How dare the loathed Le Pen get so close to the presidency? But as fear about Muslims has grown over the last two decades, the vitriol spewing, Muslim hating Le Pen has only become more powerful.
As her numbers slipped, Marine tried hard. She said she was no longer leader of the National Front, that she was ready to be “crucified” for the stance of her father’s party absolving France for the wartime deportation of Jews. And, of course, she was the only one who would protect the country from the Muslim fundamentalists. But then, she lost.
Many in France are mildly euphoric at the election of this new president. Is Macron, with so much to carry on his young shoulders, the French Obama? Or does he have more in common with a certain super rich businessman — an outsider, like him, who was propelled to unimaginable power last year? If so, those similarities are just cosmetic, and Macron does not share Trump’s dogma of hate. (Anyway, don’t the Trumpsters say there are too many Muslims in Europe? And they never lie, so it must be true, right?)
But America’s deep, dark spiral into the Trump circus aside, to understand part of Macron’s ascension to President of the Fifth Republic, the youngest to head it since Napoleon, we need to look at the relatively recent past.
In the winter of 2006, my Algerian-French BFF Shahinaz and I lingered on the terrace of La Bonne Bière, a Parisian café in its 10th Arrondissement. She was relishing her joint as I frantically puffed on a cigarette in an attempt to conceal the smell of marijuana with that of tobacco. “No DEA,” she laughed.
We had spent the afternoon discussing our mutual hatred for both a man called Nikolas Sarkozy and a frequent TV commentator called Marine Le Pen, and how the religion we shared would soon mean Sarkozy’s appointment to the Palais de l’Élysée as president. “Un problème lié à l’islam” — a problem linked to Islam — Shahinaz mused ruefully.
We stopped at a flower shop next door where she knew the owner, also a Muslim, called Mohamed Mokhtari. “Ahlan Wa sahalan,” he welcomed us in Arabic. Shahinaz hugged him and bought me a pink rose.
We ambled leisurely along the Rue du Faubourg du Temple, not realizing what innocents we were: in 2006, Osama was the disempowered man of the moment, Daesh was a blip on the horizon, and we had no idea that the street we were walking down, along with the café we’d just been sitting in, would be part of the unprecedented massacre that savage “group” would engineer in 2015.
Even so, we knew that Sarkozy’s rise reflected roiling tension. As we walked, Shahinaz and I spoke of how the France she grew up in — once a violently colonial power — had suffered, like much of the rest of Europe, from what I have always called a “reverse colonialism.”
In Britain, the country that had colonized that of my ancestors, this meant an influx of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent. In France, the immigrant flood came instead from the colonized soul of Africa. In both countries, as in much of the rest of Europe, these shifts were already giving rise to unease, suspicion, and racism.
Historical memory is short. But surely it would be impossible for Europe to forget the lessons learned from the horror that followed Weimar Germany?
Perhaps not. Sadly, many Europeans seemed not to take into account that the immigrants arriving in their countries were fleeing poverty, ignorance, and illiteracy — all byproducts of a particular kind of Islam that resurged only after the colonizers abandoned their nations to many uncertain freedoms.
Xenophobia is hardly a novelty to Europeans. Less than a century ago, the expansionist and seemingly unstoppable Ottomans — intent on creating Islam’s greatest caliphate — had been turned away at Europe’s doors. By the end of the second-world war, it was this same Europe that had the blood of millions of innocents on its hands. By 2006, panicked pundits opined on TV, that same door seemed ready to bust open. The carefully built edifice of Caucasian Christianity, they worried, could forever be destroyed by a new wave of dark-skinned immigrants from Turkey and North Africa.
This has led to a seismic shift in European politics. There are almost 5 million Muslims in France, and even more in Germany. And don’t forget — Europe’s largest Muslim population lives in Russia. Muslims in the continent are getting younger and growing. Most are now into generation two — it was their parents who emigrated.
For Osama, and later Daesh, fear of the impending “Eurabia” (the word the media had coined to discuss anxieties about these shifting demographics) was a godsend. It was a strange reaffirmation of the perverted logic and stated desire to reclaim Islam’s lost glory.
In 2005, France was shaken by riots following the accidental electrocution of two unemployed French Muslim teenagers at a Paris electrical substation. The teenagers had died while escaping a prejudiced police force that loved chasing Muslim youths through the streets.
In the aftermath of the riots, Nicolas Sarkozy — who was then the interior minister, and was already seen as a likely successor to President Jacques Chirac — toured the burnt remains of the troubled suburb of Argenteuil, a once-rural retreat for well-heeled Parisians that had been immortalized on canvas by Claude Monet.
The great painter would not have recognized the contemporary Argenteuil, which had become a slum for the nation’s Muslim population. Mile after mile of what in New York would be called “the projects” was now an overflowing cauldron of immigrant discontent and, many French suspected, of sinister dissent. Monet’s Argenteuil existed now only as a nostalgic symbol.
As Sarkozy surveyed the city, an onlooker heckled him with an ominous question from a precarious perch on on overlooking balcony: “Quand nous débarrasserez-vous de cette racaille?” (“When will you get rid of this scum?”)
Sarkozy didn’t skip a beat. “Vous en avez assez de cette bande de racailles?” he replied. “Eh bien, on va vous en débarrasser.” (“You’ve had enough of this group of scum? Well, we’ll get rid of them for you.”)
In his use of the word racaille, the soon-to-be president was channeling the revered French author and philosopher Albert Camus, who was raised in colonized Algeria. In 1947, in what is perhaps his most influential and enduring work, La Peste (“The Plague”), Camus wrote: “Si l’on mettait toute cette racaille en prison… les honnêtes gens pourraient respire,” meaning, “If we put all this lowlife in prison, honest people could breathe.”
Racaille, is defined by the authoritative Le Petit Robert using phrases like “contemptible populace,” “rejects of society,” and other undesirable labels. Now, Sarkozy was taking the charged epithet up as his own, and, in the process, creating his brand-new avatar. He would be the president who would save this nation from religion (code for Islam) and the impurity of foreign dogma that was oozing like a coming plague from the once-infallible pillars of an increasingly shaken Fifth Republic.
“Wow, this will explode,” I said once to a friend driving me around pre-9/11 Marseilles. It was a bizarre premonition, but I needed to explain my perspective about the sheer numbers of unemployed, disgruntled, primarily North African men who were a constant sight in the city.
Most of these men were not immigrants, but had been born in France. Unlike their parents or grandparents, these were no “refugees” who would have to fight to win their passports through complicated asylum officialdom. “Protection Sociale,” though mired in socialist bureaucracy, was a good-enough monthly check.
In many ways, their lives seemed purposeless. They had never quite risen from the poverty line and lived in shabby tenements in well-hidden, graffiti-filled suburbia, but the nanny state put food on the table and a roof over their heads. The mosques their mothers hoped they would attend had been moved to basement levels.
Clearly Europe was always ripe for “recruitment.”
I’d first met Shahinaz in 2004, while hunting for gay Muslims for my film, A Jihad for Love. We had been emailing for months so I could convince her to press that red button on my camera. It was on a chilly morning in late December, when I disembarked at the Barbès-Rochechouart metro stop, and took the short walk to le marché Dejean, an open-air market rich with the smells and flavors of the Maghreb. That day, as always, it was buzzing with the calls and whistles of merchants trying to attract customers
The French call this this neighborhood Little Africa, or sometimes La goutte d’or, which translates to “drop of gold.” In travel guides, it’s celebrated for its vibrant and colorful open-air market. What most of them don’t mention is its flourishing crack-cocaine trade and high crime rate.
That day, Shahinaz introduced herself to me to me with a wry question: “Parvez, am I the first of the racaille you have ever met?”
Like many of her fellow disenfranchised young French friends, she had appropriated the derogatory term.
I did not tell her that no one had ever introduced herself to me in quite that way before. Shahinaz, who was born in Somalia and raised in this Paris version of the projects, had a strikingly frizzy, Afro-like mop of wild hair, and a life force that was infectious. Soon, she became my guide to all of the racaille hangouts in her troubled and ever expanding city.
Like most immigrants anywhere in the world, her family in France had arrived in waves, with already-settled family members helping the newer ones. Some of her younger male cousins had been able to develop significant running skills sharpened by the French cops intent on chasing them.
Shahinaz was enterprising, though, and many of the elite were disarmed by the fact that a woman from her background would display such intellect. In that way, her racaille-ness became a strength. In addition, the fact that she was an articulate non-hijabi Muslim in a country that had just banned the Islamic headscarf made her the perfect Muslim to be molded into a crusader. She did not speak or dress like the racaille or, and it was therefore deemed safe to allow her into conference rooms and human rights cocktail events.
These faux-human rights dimwits, with no knowledge of the immensity of damage 21st Islam has done to itself, still invite her. They invite me too: over the years I have lost track of the scores of “panels” at which I’ve sat on display as the “good Muslim” (thankfully neither of us claims our religion, simplistically, as one of “peace”).
Shahinaz is an important part of the demographics of twenty-first century Europe. About seven percent of the continent is Muslim. Post(alleged) Daesh barbarism, Europe is in “siege” mode, against Islam.
In some ways, I understand the rise of European or even American “Islamophobia” in Europe. More than half a million “Muslim refugees” have washed up on Europe’s beleaguered shores. Recently, I did an interview for a French newspaper. “Why should Europe bear the burden?” I was asked. “What about super-rich Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia?”
I avoided a direct answer by saying that being Muslim did not mean condoning fanaticism, extremism and terrorism — or even being religious at all. But this I can bet: if I show up in a European refugee camp to speak about my work, and present myself as who I am — a gay, Muslim filmmaker — love is not what I am going to get.
I bring this up as a reminder that the fear of the other goes both ways and is not a historic novelty. The populism that has served our shiny new president well has also been around for centuries. In Europe, the slow and steady rise of Le Pen is proof. Her dad had bequeathed the holocaust denying far-right National Front to her. And her sweat equity made the unimaginable true. Populism in hand, she climbed to unimaginable heights.
But what “populist” really means to people like me is “white supremacist.” We despair of this predictable, Islam-induced turn of the West towards extremism. In truth, Le Pen, who is more a Bannon fan than a Trumpian, has with singular focus gone about normalizing the far right for years.
Stephen Bannon’s hallucinations are for history to tell. To me what’s important is that this sickly looking creature is adored by Le Pen. She wasted no time. On November 12 last year she tweeted, “I answer yes to the invitation of Stephen Bannon, CEO of @realDonaldTrump presidential campaign, to work together.” But when the falling numbers and blunders-filled Trump tried to insert his tweetology into the French election, Le Pen ran as far as she could, away from POTUS and his daily, scandal-filled and very leaky White House.
This election, Le Pen, like Trump, seems to also have been a beneficiary of Russian largesse. It might even be fun to watch her trying to execute the Bannonist “destruction of the administrative state” in a socialist nation where generations have survived because of it. She too wanted the racaille out, and there were enough French voters who shared that with her.
In today’s Europe, Sarkozy-style racism thrives, but so does a hope that the E.U., built with such apprehension and anxiety will survive. It’s like the hope that Germany’s Mutti (mother) will also survive later this year.
Macron has much on his hands. As does Germany’s Merkel, should she win this year. The fear of Muslims is the new normal, and nothing unites an electorate more than fear. This time, in racaille-infested France, the fear of the dark forces behind Le Pen anointed this 39-year-old who married his 24 years older high school teacher, to a Presidency that is sure to be tested many times, by both Daesh and Donald Trump.
I have prayed and rested in the elegant French La Grande Mosquée de Paris, in the city’s fifth arrondissement. But over many years, I have also heard Friday sermons demonizing women, not succumbing to the temptations of the “West” and more at that mosque. For now, they seem content issuing this right after Macron’s ascension, “It is a clear sign of hope to French Muslims that they can live in harmony and respect of French values.”
Oui, La Grande Mosquée. But what are you going to do with the young men devouring Daesh propaganda on their online magazines, like Dabiq? On a MacBook Air, Dabiq and its new, shorter incarnation called Rumiyah, look rather sleek and sexy to a twenty-something psychopathic (presumably) male, hiding behind his laptop and eager to find a purpose in his life.