(MENAFN- Syndication Bureau) By Oussama Romdhani
Electoral debates in France have always been drawn to the issue of immigration. But never has an electoral campaign so disproportionately dealt with migration and identity-related concerns as the current one.
With less than three months to go before the country votes for its next president, populist candidates are trying to connect two fears: Immigration and the fate of “French identity” amid what French journalists George Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot bemoan as an erosion in France’s global standing. Seeking dividends by hyping alarm about the impact of immigration on jobs and crime rates, the far right has taken its phobic spasms on the campaign trail.
Polemicist Eric Zemmour has borrowed a page from the Spanish Reconquista as the theme of his campaign by trying to upstage far right National Rally leader Marine Le Pen as the flag-bearer of the anti-migrant movement. In September, Zemmour, himself the son of Algerian Jewish migrants, described crime as a form of “Jihad” by Muslim communities, whom he sees as challenging the control of the state. (He has since been found guilty of hate speech for similar comments.)
Even the more traditional right-wing candidate, Valerie Pecresse, has joined the fray, asserting, “There is a link between delinquency and immigration.” This, despite the fact that one-fifth of her constituents in the Ile-de-France region are immigrants.
These themes are not the domain of aspiring populists alone. In the poor neighborhoods of French cities, where many Muslims live, President Emmanuel Macron saw an abhorrent form of “communitarianism” (later rebranded “Islamist separatism”) posing an existential challenge to France’s secularist value-system. Vehement denunciation overshadowed any attempts to explore the socioeconomic roots of urban marginalization.
But outside the punditry, the link between immigration and identity remains tenuous. Opinion polls show that immigration ranks lower than concerns about the erosion of purchasing power and the rise in crime. According to a recent IFOP poll, the electorate’s top-ranking concerns were the troubled economy, de-industrialization, unemployment, and debt. The poll also showed the French language to be the top determinant of French identity, with other icons being its history and such figures as Charles de Gaulle, Voltaire, and the Algerian French soccer player Zinedine Zidane.
If populist campaigners have managed to turn immigration into a synonym for France’s major problems, it is in great part the result of endless political and media spin, which gives the impression that immigrants are overwhelming France – even if the data paints a much more measured picture.
But it is not all smoke and mirrors. The overwhelmingly modern and secular majority of French Muslims have been intimidated by two extremes. They resent, on the one hand, the ambient climate of anti-Muslim mongering, where Islam and Islamic extremism are lumped together. But on the other hand, there have also been egregious manifestations of extremism associated with their own communities. These included bloody terrorist attacks perpetrated by radicalized Muslims, whose crimes provided ammunition to the far right and put the French government on the defensive.
There was also the provocative attitude of Muslim individuals who flaunted their intolerant discourse on social media or prayed in the middle of city streets amid conflicts with local authorities about places of worship.
These events reflected true problems of integration and trans-border radicalization. But once again, the propensity for denunciation exerted a stronger pull on politicians and commentators than the desire to deal with the underlying factors at play.
Decision-makers could not resist playing tough with North African governments on repatriation of illegal migrants and extremists of Maghrebi origin. The drastic reduction of visas to Moroccans, Algerians, and Tunisians seemed to prioritize politicking at home over diplomatic considerations, while Maghreb governments felt repatriations were being shoved down their throats at the risk of ratcheting up pressures at home.
The French government’s moves were intended to show the electorate how serious it was about fighting illegal immigration and radicalization, but to many in the Maghreb it made them wonder if they mattered to Paris.
Much of the posturing does not take into consideration the fact that French Muslims and French nationals of Maghrebi origin are themselves registered voters – even if poor political organization has deprived the latter of any clout.
Nor does the anti-migrant rhetoric account for the thousands of medical doctors and engineers from North Africa and the rest of the region who help France function. Somehow, these people are expected to remain invisible as the electoral campaign runs its course, even if Maghrebi medics have been particularly conspicuous in France’s hospitals during the pandemic.
The anti-migrant populist discourse is rebranding France far away from Voltaire’s “Legacy of Lights.” It also carries unsuspected political implications for the Maghreb, where it can only fuel anti-French demagoguery and temptations to revive unresolved disputes from the history books.
For now, anti-French narratives in the Maghreb ring hollow, especially among the youth who see in France their destination of choice.
Once the election is over, the French will go about their business of promoting “La Francophonie” in the Maghreb and competing with the Americans, the Turks, and the Chinese for North African markets. The generally-francophone Maghreb audiences will continue watching French TV channels.
Politicians’ short-term calculations will not build resilient bonds between France and the Maghreb; and populism should not be the cornerstone of democracy across the sea, as it can only subvert politics on both shores.
Oussama Romdhani is editor of The Arab Weekly. He previously served in the Tunisian government and as a diplomat in Washington.
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