The recent victory of socialist François Hollande in France’s 2012 presidential election was certainly a turning point for the social and economic politics of France. Unfortunately, this is less true when it comes to immigration, race, and culture, evidenced by Hollande saying he would firmly support France’s ban on niqabs, or face-covering Islamic veils, and his stance against Turkish accession to the EU.
François Hollande has made clear that he will address the material conditions and worries of French citizens. But he has been quite silent on questions pertaining to cultural diversity and social cohesion, for the simple reason that he shares with Sarkozy the same conception of French national identity, defined as an abstract community of citizens bound together by principles of equality and liberty. In these conditions, the cultural and religious background of citizens is not part and should not interfere with civic solidarity and public life.
However, such an ideal has been increasingly difficult to uphold when Muslims, among other cultural and regional groups, are claiming their right to express their specificity in public space, which has in turn raised the anxiety and fears of a lot of French citizens. These fears have been the main reason for the long-standing political success of the National Front, from its founder Jean-Marie Le Pen to his daughter Marine, the current leader of the party . At the same time, Muslims of all colors and stripes keep asserting that there is no contradiction between being French and being a Muslim.
Nations or groups need to exist in opposition to an ‘Other,’ and in today’s national imagination, Islam plays that role. It may be impossible for societies to completely rid themselves of this polarizing rhetoric.
That said, societies differ in how much their political imaginations are subjected to open critical discussion. Accordingly, it is necessary for French politicians across the political spectrum to explicitly reject economic and social issues being linked to cultural issues or the ‘Islamization’ of Europe. It is also imperative for policymakers to change the dominant narrative of French national identity by including Islamic culture and history.
Such a change would involve a new education project where, from history to arts and culture, Muslims are not described as the Other. It means acknowledging the cross pollination of philosophical and scientific ideas as well as the multiple encounters of artists, merchants, clerics, and migrants from medieval times to the immigration waves after WWII. Most Muslims already acknowledge France as their home and have made numerous artistic and cultural contributions to the French ‘patrimoine.’ The challenge is to reshape French imagination so Muslims can be seen as legitimate fellow citizens.
Jocelyne Cesari, Research Fellow in Political Science and Director, Islam in the West Program, Harvard University