Terrorists expounding extreme Islamic beliefs murdered 12 people at the Paris office of the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo Wednesday. This violence has shocked the world and led to large public demonstrations of grief throughout France. Unfortunately, there have also been attacks on mosques in France, seemingly in retaliation for the terrorist attack. Such violence is only one symptom of widespread Islamaphobia and racism in France that pre-dated the attack.
At this moment of rupture, political leadership can be very important for influencing the response of the state and of the citizenry to the violent event. This is especially the case when fear and anger might increase anti-Muslim sentiment in France, undermining further the sense of common national identity and emphasizing the minority status of French Muslims. Some news outlets and scholars have even speculated that the violence will lead to substantially increased support for France’s far-right party, the National Front, perhaps even leading to the victory of its party in future presidential and parliamentary elections.
It is unlikely that the National Front will achieve such gains, but it will depend on the ability of centrist leaders to exert their influence and provide alternatives to the far-right response, rational and balanced media coverage, and on the willingness of the French people to take a stand against racism and Islamaphobia in their society. Research on other European states has shown that the fear of Islamic terrorism did not lead to the success of far-right parties. Instead, in Spain terrorist attacks right before a major election led to the success of the center-left candidates, and in Britain the fear of terror did not influence parliamentary elections thanks in large part to the more “rational” way the media covered the issue. Furthermore, many political scientists speculate that support for the National Front in the recent European Parliament (EUP) elections will decrease in national elections.
As Shields argues, the successes of the National Front in the European election, and its increased representation at the local level in some small municipalities in France, do not mean that most French citizens actual support the party or its beliefs. Shields cites a 2014 TNS Sofres poll noting that 78% of those polled disagreed with the National Front’s proposed policies and 54% “see the FN as a protest party with no capacity to govern.” Furthermore, the European election suffered from a low turnout rate in France, and is notoriously considered by most political scientists to be a ‘second order election’ which means that it is unclear if voters are simply punishing the party that is in power at the national level, or if they are actually pursuing their true policy preferences. Thus, although this time of crisis has opened a window of opportunity to the National Front, a shift to the far-right among the electorate would be quite surprising.
It would be surprising, but of course it would not be impossible. The National Front has been gaining in popularity according to recent polls about upcoming municipal elections and the 2017 Presidential race. In light of those gains, the response of centrist political leaders, and the media, to the Charlie Hebdo murders is even more important. One excellent first step has been the exclusion of the National Front from a national march of unity planned for this Sunday. The response to the attacks is also an important opportunity for the French public to take a stand against the extensive racism and Islamaphobia in French society as they recognize the murders as acts of terrorism committed by extremists whose actions are condemned by the French Muslim community.
As Erik Bleich has argued, Muslims in France are often targeted not only based on their espoused religion, but also on ethnic markers that suggest they may be of the Muslim faith, thus linking Islamaphobia with racism and ethnic discrimination. Most young Muslim Frenchmen have limited employment prospects because of the entrenched discrimination in French society. It is important to note that although some news stories have framed the presence of Muslims in France as an encroachment by recent immigrants, most French Muslims are French citizens who were born and raised in France. Immigration reform will not take France back to some mythic ethnically and religiously homogenous land of harmony as the National Front suggests. France is an ethnically and religiously diverse nation like most other Western European societies, and it must come to terms with that reality and find a way forward. As I have argued elsewhere, racism and Islamaphobia have been all too central to French policy in the last decade. Fighting ethnic and religious discrimination must be a part of that forward progress. The tragic murders at Charlie Hebdo provide the French people and state an opportunity to turn the violence of this attack into a call to action to further protect the liberty of journalists, satirists, and racial and religious minorities alike.
Jacqueline Gehring is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Allegheny College. Her work focuses on the law and politics of diversity in Europe, including “Roma and the Limits of Free Movement in Europe” European Journal of Migration and Law, 15 (2013) 7-28 which explores the European response to the French forced expulsions of Roma immigrants.