French Républicains primaries: Sarkozy may be out, but the FN spectre will continue to haunt the campaign

(This is a longer version of the piece published in CNN).

The French presidential election campaign is taking shape and mainstream centre-right supporters have decided yesterday that their candidate would be chosen between Alain Juppé and François Fillon on the 24th of November. The big upset was Nicolas Sarkozy’s defeat and this could mean a reshuffling of priorities on the centre right.

It will be left to the two former prime ministers to navigate the coming week, and to one of them to lead the mainstream right in what is set to be a decisive moment for French politics next year. Fillon’s decisive and surprising victory in the first round could demonstrate that Juppé’s more conciliatory tone has failed. With over 44% of the vote. Fillon may appear to many as a moderate compared to the hyperactive Sarkozy under whom he served as prime minister, but his neoliberal views coupled with a very conservative approach to societal matters, particularly with regard to identity, immigration and Islam, should allow him to tap into the electorate of his defeated opponents. It was a strong sign that Sarkozy announced he would vote for Fillon as he conceded last night.

As France continues to struggle to escape decidedly from the woes of the global economic crisis, with growth failing to reach predictions and unemployment remaining high, much of the coverage of the campaign so far has given prominence to the Front National, fuelling further the sense of identity crisis away form more economic and social issues. It was telling that the BBC chose Marine Le Pen as their main guest on Remembrance Day.

With the shock victories of Brexit and Donald Trump, Le Pen seems emboldened and the media’s willingness to follow her lead will without a doubt make immigration and Islam central to next year’s campaign. This will be compounded by the governing Socialist Party’s failure to reject the politics of identity, instead legitimising them further in the past five years.

This shift towards fantasies of a pure French (even Gaulish) identity being threatened has been made more prominent by the recent string of attacks, with terrorists successfully fuelling a deep sense of insecurity and distrust within the French population.

This toxic atmosphere has been compounded and normalised by politicians reacting disproportionately to the attacks, calling for war against enemies from without and within, and playing further into the hands of the terrorists. The burkini bans this summer exemplified the lack of alternative beyond stigmatisation and exclusion that politicians are willing to put forward in France.

After being implemented in 31 communes, the bans were eventually suspended by the State Council, who claimed that such laws “constituted a serious and manifestly illegal infringement of fundamental liberties” and reminded mayors that the law “may only restrict freedoms if there are confirmed risks”, something which clearly was not the case.

Despite such strong advice and a similar condemnation by the UN Human Rights high commissioner, politicians on both the left and right have jockeyed for position to show who was toughest when it came to legislating over the rights of women’s bodies, particularly those from already discriminated and stigmatised minorities. Sarkozy had gone furthest, demanding that the constitution be changed to allow for such a legislation, but Fillon offered his support to the mayors who had passed the law, while Prime Minister Manuel Valls continued to criticise the burkini, stating that wilfully vilifying that piece of clothing was in no way attacking personal freedom. Juppé took a more moderate approach, criticising the law and the polemics surrounding it – his efforts to appease tensions may have reassured left-wing voters, but failed to win over his own camp.

Following or (mis)leading public opinion?

Apart from Juppé, such extreme reactions have not been targeting only the Muslim communities in France, but also migrants as the recent Calais debate demonstrated. In all cases, politicians would defend their tough stance on the basis that that they are merely following public opinion. However, most surveys suggest that the picture is not that clear. A recent Cevipof poll showed that immigration is a concern for ‘only’ 11% of respondents, a concerning but small number given the disproportionate negative coverage of the issue. Unsurprisingly it is unemployment which remains the biggest issue (30%), a problem French politicians have failed to address for decades. Security is also high on the list of preoccupations (24%), which is to be expected following the recent attacks.

This more nuanced picture is confirmed by Eurobarometer results, which consistently point to a discrepancy between what respondents think is an issue for their country and for themselves. When asked in 2016 ‘What do you think are the two most important issues facing France at the moment?’, respondents ranked as most important unemployment (51.79%), followed by terrorism (30.01%, up from 13% in 2015), while immigration is fourth with 13.67%. When the same respondents are asked ‘And personally, what are the two most important issues you are facing at the moment?’, rising prices/inflation is first (32.46%), followed by pensions (15.06%), taxation (14.38%) and unemployment (13.92%), while terrorism (7.22%) and immigration (3.75%) are respectively 13th and 15th out of 15.

This discrepancy between personal and national issues suggests that the image respondents have of their society is mediated through various means, as understanding such complicated matters ranging from taxation to national security is not within the reach of most, if any. Such a mediation takes place in part through the agenda-setting capacity of the media and politicians: while they will not tell you what to think, they can be extremely successful, through their control of much of the public discourse, to tell you what to think about, and thus distract you from what matters to you on a day to day basis.

Paying the price for the gradual legitimisation of racist discourse

However, the hype created around hot topics by the media and politicians does not only distract the electorate from their concerns, but also legitimises a type of discourse which had long been marginalised. In France, this race to the bottom within the mainstream has allowed Marine Le Pen and her party, the Front National, to take the back seat. At the FN summer conference, Le Pen has posited herself as the “normal” candidate, more moderate than many of her mainstream counterparts.

The FN’s ideological positioning has not greatly evolved, but the process of normalisation has borne fruit, both helped by the polishing of her own image and, perhaps more importantly, the pervasion of the FN’s ideas within mainstream politics.

However, it would be wrong to assume that this normalisation of Islamophobia in France is simply the result of a panicked reaction from politicians following deeply traumatic events. The recent explosion of unbridled Islamophobia in mainstream political discourse and media is the result of decades of stigmatisation towards the Muslims communities in France, starting with the hijab affair in the late 1980s.

The rise of simplistic and generalising exclusionary discourse towards a diverse part of the population in the media and political discourse has been in part facilitated by the conscious misuses of the term laïcité. Its once republican and inclusionary connotations have been twisted to turn what was once planned to protect freedom of religion while preventing interference with and from the state into a tool for general stigmatisation and exclusion targeted at Islam and anyone loosely associated with it.

This shift of focus which started as part of a conscious effort on the far right to move away from traditional forms of racism widely considered as unacceptable has since made its way into the mainstream discourse. Islam has provided the perfect scapegoat, as Muslim’s incompatibility with “Our” ways – no matter how unclear these are – became no longer a question of race, but of culture and religion. The end point was similar, and what has been called “new racism”, is in fact very much still racism.

In this updated framework, Muslims (no matter how loosely defined) remain innately unable to abide by our rules; their apparent obedience to a religion assigns to them automatic values and modes of behaviours.

As explained at more length elsewhere, “Muslimness” in this “new racism” is defined by the onlooker in a position of power, not the bearer of the identity, and is imposed onto people through various types of generalisation, misperception and stigmatisation made ubiquitous by public discourse and repetition.

Sexism, violence and other generalisations become problems essentially located within the so-called “Muslim community”, which in turn justifies not only subjugating a minority to special and often violent treatment, but also prevents us from looking at the more systemic shortcomings of our societies in terms of gender violence and other forms of inequality and injustice.

Dystopia as the new norm?

Such a diversion has proven a blessing for mainstream politicians as they have failed to offer their ‘People’ (including the minorities they wilfully stigmatise) more hopeful avenues for politics. Dystopia has become the new norm.

With less than six months to go before the first round of the presidential election, it seems that none of the mainstream candidates is willing to denounce Islamophobia in all its forms, with a will to shift the debate towards the issues most pressing for the French people. While Juppé has taken a more conciliatory approach, his ordinary performance in the first round of the Républicains’ primaries could be judged as a warning and a tougher approach could arise in the coming week and debate. The Socialist primaries remain unclear as Hollande is yet to announce whether he will stand for another term, thus leaving his party in a state of uncertainty.

While the situation is particularly worrying for minorities in France, polls pointing to incredible levels of political dissatisfaction could point to a different future (up to 9 out of 10 respondents to the Eurobarometer survey declare that they do not trust political parties). However, much of that discontent has been ignored in recent elections such as Brexit or the US presidency as populist right candidates managed to steal attention away from much deeper concerns. While Brexit and Trump’s victory were indeed the result of the liberation of far-right sentiments such as racism, xenophobia and sexism, they are but a minoritarian symptom of the crisis facing our democracies today (even though their impact on real lives will be dramatic).

While the far right has so far managed to tap into this resentment most successfully at least in appearance, a progressive and inclusive alternative to the current offer could very much turn the tide around as mainstream parties have proven their inability to retain or woe back voters, even when faced with a less than palatable alternative.

The question for the French people who believe in a different future than that offered by the FN is thus both simple and impossibly complicated: can they still wait for traditional parties to provide such an alternative, or should they take matter into their own hands? While the nuit debout movement recently hinted at rejuvenated forms of politics, it has so far failed to impact on the mainstream durably. Yet its popularity and longevity, despite clear shortcomings, may hint at the possibility of or at least demand for a real mass movement based on more progressive politics in France.

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