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Tory party's praise of Macron's ugly politics is shocking

Two rising stars of the Conservative Party see Macron as a model, which shows how deeply institutional Islamophobia is embedded in the party
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson (L) gestures to French President Emmanuel Macron outside 10 Downing Street in central London on 18 June (AFP)

In normal circumstances, French President Emmanuel Macron is regarded with dark suspicion in Boris Johnson's Brexiteering Conservative Party.

This has dramatically changed over the last few weeks. The French president is in danger of turning into a Tory hero. The reason? His response to the recent atrocities in France. Macron's government unveiled a plan to close down the Collective against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) - the largest organisation in France that monitors anti-Muslim hate crimes.

Even though CCIF has no connection to last month’s terror attacks.

The decision has been called "shocking" by Nils Muiznieks, Europe director at Amnesty International. "This move could have a chilling effect on all people and organisations engaged in combating racism and discrimination in France," he said.

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The Muslim charity BarakaCity, which likewise has no link to the attacks, has received the same treatment. President Macron has started to use inflammatory language of the kind usually associated with the far right. For example he referred to "breeding grounds for terrorists in France" in a letter to the Financial Times

As I revealed in Middle East Eye, that letter to the Financial Times also included unsubstantiated claims. 

The most serious referred to "districts where small girls aged three or four are wearing a full veil, separated from boys, and, from a very young age, separated from the rest of society, raised in hatred of France's values".

When approached by Middle East Eye, the Elysee Palace failed to provide evidence to support the president's wild and apparently inaccurate assertion. Crucially, it is not Conservative Party headbangers who have been praising the French president for his response. 

Tory admiration

Tom Tugendhat, chair of the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, increasingly tipped as a future Tory leader, has issued a series of tweets praising Mr Macron's reaction.

"France's multiple attacks in recent days have drawn an inspiring response from Emmanuel Macron - not criticising a faith but a hateful ideology. Islamists say Muslims can't be French citizens. Macron is defending equal rights for all. We must stand together and stand with France," he wrote in one tweet. 

This week, Neil O'Brien MP, another rising star who was recently appointed head of the new policy group in 10 Downing Street, expressed his admiration for Macron's reaction.

Responding to a tweet from Labour MP Zarah Sultana that raised concerns about Macron's decision to close CCIF, O'Brien tweeted: "A Labour MP smearing the French president as an 'Islamophobe' for reasserting basic liberal values in the wake of a series of horrific terror attacks. Grim. We should support the French as they grieve in the wake of these atrocities."

Protesters hold a placard reading "French and muslims, proud of our identities" as they march in Paris to protest against Islamophobia, on November 10, 2019.
Protesters hold a placard reading "French and Muslims, proud of our identities" as they march in Paris to protest against Islamophobia, on 10 November 2019 (AFP)

Both O'Brien and Tugendhat are talented politicians with a significant future inside the Conservative Party mainstream. But their unconditional praise for Macron is little short of extraordinary.

And O'Brien’s statement that Macron is standing up for "basic liberal values" is absurd. 

Far-right votes

Of course, France deserves all the sympathy it can get in the light of recent atrocities. But there is a wider context to Macron's recent statements and hardening of policy against Muslims. Rather than asserting liberal values, Macron appears to be trying to appeal to the far right.

Many analysts see Macron's actions as a way to court right-wing voters in a bid to fend off his most dangerous rival for the presidency

Recent polls have shown Macron is neck and neck with Marine Le Pen and her far-right National Rally party.

Many analysts see Macron's actions as a way to court right-wing voters in a bid to fend off his most dangerous rival for the presidency. This context makes it especially worrying that two mainstream Tory politicians have come out so publicly in favour of Macron. 

Remember how Theresa May responded to the terrible Manchester Arena bombing, which killed 23 people three years ago. She was low-key and measured. Certainly there were a series of arrests and an increase in security. But May did not exploit this tragic and terrible event for electoral advantage. Indeed, campaigning for the 2017 general election was suspended for two days after the attack.

She certainly didn't echo the rhetoric of the far right, as Macron has done in France. Nor did she threaten to close down law-abiding Muslim organisations. 

Language of hate

The CCIF has no exact British equivalent, but it's as if May had made the Muslim Council of Britain illegal in the wake of the Manchester Arena bombing, even though it had nothing to do with the atrocity. 

Meanwhile, Macron's interior minister, Gerald Darmanin, has made a series of deeply provocative and sectarian remarks. He's accused the CCIF and other Muslim groups of being "enemies of the republic".

This is the language of hate.

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Darmanin was widely criticised in October for expressing shock at kosher and halal food aisles while addressing the problem of separatism. Speaking to French TV, he said he had "always been shocked to walk into a supermarket and see that there was an aisle of such community food". 

There is no question that Home Secretary Priti Patel is on the right of British politics, but she's yet to feel threatened by a halal supermarket aisle - or accuse the Muslim Council of Britain of being an enemy of the British state.

As I have explained in numerous columns for MEE, there is a major problem with Islamophobia at the grassroots level and among backbench Conservative MPs. Last week, Michael Fabricant's warning to the Muslim Council of Britain that by exposing Islamophobia it was damaging "Anglo-Muslim relations" was an example of this - and echoed President Macron's talk of Muslim separatism.

When it comes to Muslims, President Macron has adopted the squalid policies of the far right. He has his own cynical reasons. He wants to win votes off Marie Le Pen. The fact that Conservatives like O'Brien and Tugendhat should praise this low and ugly politics is shocking.

It shows how deeply institutional Islamophobia has now become embedded in the governing Conservative Party. 

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

Peter Oborne
Peter Oborne won best commentary/blogging in 2017 and was named freelancer of the year in 2016 at the Online Media Awards for articles he wrote for Middle East Eye. He also was British Press Awards Columnist of the Year 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, and Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran.