April 27, 2014

In an interview, French political scientist Gilles Kepel discusses his research on the evolving trends of the ‘Muslim vote’ in France. In his book, ‘Passion Francaise’, he looks into the case of candidates of North African origin who presented themselves to the 2012 legislative elections in France, especially in the cities of Roubaix and Marseilles. Kepel undertook to understand why and how these citizens portrayed themselves as representatives of the French people.

Kepel discovered the candidates belonged to a wide variety of political affiliations. Not all were left-wing; in fact some were on the right and even part of the far-right group, the Front National. The majority were ‘anti-establishment’, which rendered them more vulnerable to criticisms from the FN and the UMPS (Union pour un Movement Populaire – Parti Socialiste). Above all, a common point shared between all candidates’ was that they considered themselves fully French.

The majority of Muslims in France have typically been known to siding with the left. In the 2012 presidential elections, between 72% and 89% of voters defining themselves as Muslim voted for Francois Hollande. In his work, Kepel however intentionally sought out a wide spectrum of political identities since showing this variety proves that there is not one Muslim vote.

Kepel discusses why the Socialist Party lost the Muslim electoral body in the 2014 municipal elections. According to Kepel, Muslims have mobilized themselves as full-fledged citizens in their own right, even through voter absenteeism, which is indeed an electoral choice in some form. Kepel sees the loss of historical bastions of the left and the Socialist Party like Aulnay-sous-Bois, Bobigny, Le Blanc-Mesnil, Argenteuil, Asnières to the right as the result of increased job insecurity in the younger generation. The Socialist Party’s support for gay marriage also led to the deterioration of their image. The Manif pour Tous (‘Protest for All’) movement created a window of opportunity for identifying with the anti-gay Catholic community of the right, and thus through the medium of a value system, to affirm oneself as French. The majority of Muslim voters abstain, but the taboo on the Front National has been lifted. Kepel stresses that this a real significant transformation.

Kepel points out the good news in his book is that the Muslim candidates are not as sectarian as feared. Even when they lay claim to their Muslim identity, as soon as they enter the political arena, these candidates define themselves first and foremost as French. The only sectarian lobby is the Union des Associations Musulmanes de Seine Saint Denis (UAM 93). But according to Kepel, such a lobby doesn’t really work, because Muslim voters are not going to vote for a candidate just because they’ve agreed to open a mosque somewhere, but they vote like all other citizens in accordance with their social and political preferences. That being said, an ongoing exclusion does put them at risk, in the long run, of developing into a large community of ‘excluded’ pitted against the ‘elites’ and ‘Zionists.’

In the 2012 legislative elections, Kepel noted that there were 400 Arab names, a half-dozen of which made it to the list of 577 winners. This is the first time something like this has happened since the era of French Algeria, which provided 49 Muslim deputies to the Assembly. Up until today, Kepel esteems that France and Algeria haven’t taken responsibility for the significance of their 132 year relationship, which is a root cause of the ongoing French ‘identity blockage.’ This relationship has been obscured by both the French and Algerian nationalists. The children of immigration had still been excluded from real political participation, until the situation was finally challenged by the protests of 2005. The widespread violence served as a trigger for voter registration. From then on, the descendants from North African and Sub-Saharan African immigration have been making an entry into civic rights and political realms – and that has never before done, opines Kepel.

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