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France: 'Islamo-leftism' debate shows just how low Macron's regime can go

Frederique Vidal, the minister of higher education, faces backlash after claiming that 'Islamo-leftism' has become a scourge on society
French Minister of Higher Education Frederique Vidal speaks in Mulhouse on 1 October 2020 (AFP)

When French Minister of Higher Education Frederique Vidal appeared on CNews last Sunday to warn of the dangers of “Islamo-leftism”, one may wonder whether she had planned to deliberately reignite one of the most destructive debates in the country, or - for structural reasons related to her privilege - she simply felt confident enough to allow herself to be candid?  

In either case, we are now back to the cycle of Islamophobic trash. This past week was dedicated to how Trappes, a popular banlieue in the western suburbs of Paris, was supposedly “a territory lost to Islamists”, as its recently elected Mayor Ali Rabeh was, according to the far right, “not doing enough” (to prevent racist fake news, most probably). 

Macron's regime has been shown for what it really is, and no French cultural exceptionalism can justify that

The title for the worst, most ignorant, most racist and polarising statement related to Islam and Muslims in France has become, over the years, one of the most sought-after credentials.

At the same time, our political elites fail to tackle more mundane issues, such as addressing a major health crisis, fighting unemployment, curbing mass poverty, or addressing structural discrimination. They have failed even to be struck by a transient form of decency and simply remain silent, when incapable of offering any useful contribution.

So when Vidal was invited on the CNews show, her PR adviser, surely aware of how politically bland the minister had been thus far, likely told her to make the most of it. 

And she did. When host Jean-Pierre Elkabbach asked her to comment on whether “Islamo-leftism is infecting universities”, she doubled down and explained that “Islamo-leftism is in fact infecting the whole society”. The host went on to ask whether Vidal included those who “link race, gender and social status” in her criticism. “Absolutely,” she confirmed. 

And when Elkabbach claimed there was “an alliance between Mao Zedong and Ayatollah Khomeini”, Vidal couldn’t agree more: “You’re right!”

She eventually asked for a national inquiry on “Islamo-leftism” in French academia, immediately triggering a mass reaction from student unions, social scientists and universities’ senior management. The basic idea is that by breaking the instrument through which science identifies and problematises structural forms of racism, political leaders will no longer have to be seen for what they are, as they continue to take advantage of racial, social and economic struggles for their own benefit.

Crisis-management mode  

By Monday morning, the whole cabinet was in crisis-management mode. What was supposed to be just another opportunity to join in the ongoing anti-Muslim dialogue had gone a bit too far, as commentators began to wake up to the fact that constructing Islam as a problem, criminalising intellectual and political opinions, and infringing on fundamental and academic freedoms could eventually be harmful to everyone.  

On Wednesday, France’s National Centre for Scientific Research published a media release explaining how the term “Islamo-leftism” has “no scientific basis whatsoever”. Jean Chambaz, the head of Sorbonne University, commented that “it is easy to blame an undefined ideological movement for social issues in the country”, noting that the government was “trying to appeal to quite nauseating segments of public opinion”.

A demonstration against Islamophobia in Paris on 10 November 2019 (AFP)
A demonstration against Islamophobia in Paris on 10 November 2019 (AFP)

Prominent academics and political figures have called for Vidal to resign, and, as if that wasn’t enough, the far right National Rally congratulated her for her stance on “Islamo-leftism”.

This debacle would never have been possible if it weren’t for two factors. Firstly, there is the role of the media. For several years now, CNews has devoted itself to providing an audience for the most racist ideologies, with a constant flow of far-right commentators and Muslim-conspiracy-theory pundits, several of whom have been convicted of inciting hatred. CNews has proudly become the French Fox News. 

Other media outlets often follow their lead, organising debates on all things Islam, such as whether to ban headscarves in universities, “how to control” Muslim organisations, or whether to prohibit religious schools. Under the pretext of expressing “diverse opinions”, these news outlets validate the framing of these issues as defined by the far right. There can be no knowledge built on a flawed premise.  

Normalising Islamophobia

The second factor is the normalisation of Islamophobia. Many of the commentators who have rightly and aptly criticised Vidal’s claims were not as vocal when the same destructive processes targeted Muslim intellectuals, Islamic organisations and community leaders - labelled “Islamists” for exactly the same reason that social scientists who do not validate the far right’s agenda are now labelled “Islamo-leftists”. This should remind us all that we have to stand in solidarity when any minority or group is stigmatised even if we are not directly and personally affected. 

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The government’s plan to control Muslims, the law on “separatism” and the way Muslim and anti-Islamophobia organisations have been criminalised - without a massive reaction from all progressive voices - poses a threat to fundamental freedoms. 

In an attempt to defuse the situation, timely “leaks” have emerged, claiming that President Emmanuel Macron disagreed with Vidal - even though he himself identified academia as a political target in June 2020. 

So, how can we understand a government that fails to address mass poverty, but is quick to come up with a new racist controversy every week? How do we define a government that has been elected to “defeat the National Rally”, but claims the far-right party is not tough enough against Muslims

How can we make sense of Macron’s strategy, which doesn’t seem to be a strategy at all, unless the aim is to shatter what remains of French ideals and pave the way for National Rally leader Marine Le Pen’s victory, as she becomes the main contender for the next presidential election? 

One thing is certain: Macron’s regime has been shown for what it really is, and no French cultural exceptionalism can justify that. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition. 

Marwan Muhammad
Marwan Muhammad is a French-Egyptian author and statistician. After a career in finance, he dedicated the last 12 years to the fight against Islamophobia. He was the spokesman and then the director of the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF), the most prominent human rights NGO in France supporting Muslims, before becoming a diplomat for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), where he supported Muslim communities all accross Europe, Central Asia and North America. In 2018, he conducted the first survey of Muslims in France (in which 27 000 took part), before founding the Muslims’ Platform, an umbrella organization gathering hundreds of Mosques and Islamic organizations across France, with more than 75 000 supporters. He now works as a Human Rights consultant for International Organizations.