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Wednesday, May 18, 2022

For France’s muslims, a choice between lesser evils in presidential vote

Macron and Le Pen are now fighting over the 7.7 million voters who backed Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leftist leader who earned a strong third-place finish in the first round of the election.

By: New York Times | France |
Updated: April 23, 2022 2:32:33 pm
A square in front of the railway station in Bondy, in the Seine-Saint-Denis region outside of Paris, on April 18, 2022. Muslim anger toward President Emmanuel Macron and challenger Marine Le Pen runs strong in the region. (James Hill/The New York Times)

Written by Norimitsu Onishi and Aida Alami

Abdelkrim Bouadla voted enthusiastically for Emmanuel Macron five years ago, drawn by his youth and his message of transforming France. But after a presidency that he believes harmed French Muslims like himself, Bouadla, a community leader who has long worked with troubled young people, was torn.

He likened the choice confronting him in France’s presidential runoff Sunday — featuring Macron and Marine Le Pen, whose far-right party has a long history of anti-Muslim positions, racism and xenophobia — as “breaking your ribs or breaking your legs.”

Macron and Le Pen are now fighting over the 7.7 million voters who backed Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leftist leader who earned a strong third-place finish in the first round of the election. Were they to break strongly for one of the candidates, it could prove decisive.

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Nearly 70% of Muslims voted for Mélenchon, the only major candidate to have consistently condemned discrimination against Muslims, according to the polling firm, Ifop.

By contrast, Macron garnered only 14% of Muslim voters’ support this year, compared to 24% in 2017. Le Pen got 7% in the first round this year. Nationwide, according to Ifop, the turnout of Muslim voters was a couple of percentage points higher than the average.

The Rev. Patrice Gaudin, 50, the priest of the Roman Catholic parish in Bondy, France, inside his church on April 18, 2022. ÒYou canÕt humiliate people,ÕÕ Gaudin says of FranceÕs 2021 anti-separatism law, which proceeded the closing of more than 700 Muslim institutions that the authorities say encouraged radicalization. (James Hill/The New York Times)

As the two candidates battle it out in the closing days of a tight race, Macron’s prospects may rest partly on whether he can persuade Muslim voters like Bouadla that he is their best option — and that staying home risks installing a chilling new anti-Muslim leadership.

In Bouadla’s telling, however, that will take some doing.

“If I vote for Macron, I’d be participating in all the bad things he’s done against Muslims,” Bouadla, 50, said over the course of a long walk in Bondy, a city just northeast of Paris. He vacillated between abstaining for the first time in his life or reluctantly casting a ballot for Macron simply to fend off someone he considered “worse and more dangerous.”

Most polls show that Macron’s lead, about 10 percentage points, provides a comfortable path to reelection, but it is far narrower than his 32 percentage-point margin of victory over Le Pen in 2017.

But as Éric Coquerel, a national lawmaker and a close ally of Mélenchon, said, the turnout by Muslim voters could tip the balance if the race “becomes extremely tight.”

Much of Muslim voters’ anger toward Macron centers on his pushing a widely condemned 2021 law and the subsequent closing of more than 700 Muslim institutions that authorities say encouraged radicalization, a charge that many Muslims and some human rights groups dispute. But it remains unclear how this resentment might be transformed into a political force.

France’s estimated 6 million Muslims account for 10% of the population, but their political influence has long been undermined by high abstention rates and divisions based on class and ancestry. Given that history, Mélenchon’s strong Muslim backing may have signaled a shift, analysts say.

A woman walks near the Goncourt metro station in Paris on Jan. 25, 2022. Both President Emmanuel Macron and challenger Marine Le Pen have softened their positions in the debate over headscarves in an effort to woo the Muslim vote. (Dmitry Kostyukov/The New York Times)

Julien Talpin, a sociologist at the National Center for Scientific Research, said that the mobilization by Muslims behind a single candidate was “something entirely new.”

“In the past, there were only vague calls to vote for candidates favorable to Islam,” he said.

Mélenchon scored his biggest victories nationwide in Bondy and in the rest of Seine-Saint-Denis, the department just north of Paris that has strong concentrations of the capital region’s poor, immigrant and Muslim populations.

The source of much of the service workforce of the capital, the department also inspires fear and anxiety, especially among older French people, whose feelings about immigration and crime are fanned by the right-wing news media and politicians. Éric Zemmour — the far-right TV pundit who came in fourth in the first round, following a campaign focused on attacking Islam — described the department as a “foreign enclave” suffering from “religious colonization.”

In Bondy, a strong turnout was reported in the first round in neighborhoods with historically low voting levels.

“The number of young people, families and especially the people waiting in line — something was happening,” said Mehmet Ozguner, 22, a local organizer for Mélenchon’s party.

Many imams, social media influencers and other community leaders called on Muslim voters to unite their ballots in favor of Mélenchon.

“There was no formal organization but many ad hoc alliances, mobilization by union activists and anti-racism activists,” said Taha Bouhafs, 24, a journalist with a large online following and a member of Mélenchon’s party, who is planning to run in the election for Parliament in June.

In 2017, Macron had reassured many Muslims that he would be more open on issues of French secularism, known as “laïcité, diversity and multiculturalism,” said Vincent Tiberj, a sociologist at Sciences Po Bordeaux university who has studied the voting patterns of French Muslims. Macron even called colonization a “crime against humanity” during a visit to Algeria.

Campaign posters for one-time presidential candidate Jean-Luc MŽlenchon, the strong preference of Muslim voters, in Bondy in the Seine-Saint-Denis region outside of Paris on April 18, 2022. How that vote splits could influence SundayÕs presidential runoff election. (James Hill/The New York Times)

In a major speech on what Macron described as an Islamist-driven separatist movement in French society, Macron acknowledged that successive governments had encouraged the trend by settling immigrants in areas of “abject poverty and difficulties,” like Seine-Saint-Denis.

But Tiberj said that there was a gap “between what he said as president and what his government did in his name.”

Macron hardened his positions after the beheading of a middle school teacher, Samuel Paty, by an Islamist fanatic angry that the teacher had shown caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in a class on blasphemy.

In response, Macron pushed forward his anti-separatism law despite widespread criticism from international and national human rights organizations, including the government’s National Human Rights Commission. The law gave the government greater power over religious establishments, schools and other associations.

Following the law’s adoption in August 2021, authorities carried out 24,877 investigations through last January, according to the government. They closed 718 mosques, Muslim schools and associations for encouraging separatism, seizing assets worth 46 million euros.

But many establishments have been closed for vague, unwarranted reasons, according to an investigation of 20 cases by an umbrella group of academics and rights groups, the Observatory of Associative Liberties.

Talpin, the sociologist and a co-author of the report, said that the law “and the debate surrounding it contributed to stigmatizing Muslims.”

In a TV debate over the law, the interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, tried to outflank Le Pen on the right, accusing Le Pen of being “soft” against Islamism. The minister overseeing public schools further alienated Muslims by saying that the hijab, or headscarf, was “not desirable in society.” And the minister of higher education ordered an investigation into what she called “Islamo-leftism” in academic research.

Feeling betrayed, some Muslims have even voted for Le Pen as a way to punish Macron.

“I vote against Macron,” said Ahmed Leyou, 63, a taxi driver in Trappes, a city southwest of Paris, who voted for Le Pen in the first round and planned to do it again Sunday. “I’m Muslim, an Arab, but French. Marine Le Pen can’t tell me to go back home. She can’t do anything against me.”

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