By Imane Kurdi
On the face of it, France’s presidential election is a no-brainer. For months now, pollsters and commentators have predicted a run-off between the incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy and the candidate of the Socialist Party, François Hollande — which the first round of voting on April 22nd duly delivered — followed by a win for Hollande. The latest polls continue to put Hollande ahead, giving him 54 percent to Sarkozy’s 47 percent.
And yet this presidential election is more complex than it seems. For a start, the country may elect its first socialist president in 17 years but cannot be described as having lurched to the left. What the first round showed was that the center has all but disappeared and the extremes — both left and right — have soared, the far right in particular. And if Sarkozy does lose on Sunday it will be partly due to Marine LePen, the leader of the National Front.
A whopping 6.3 million voters voted for LePen. She came third with 18.3 percent of the vote, and in certain regions, such as the great tourist spots of the south, more than 25 percent voted for her! She has been at pains to paint herself as a mainstream contender. She is, she tells us, not racist, not xenophobic, not anti-Semitic, but patriotic. And yet, so much of her campaign, so much of her notoriety, has come from her attack on what she terms the Islamization of France.
I walked around Paris last week looking for this Islamization. I walked into supermarkets and found that none stocked halal meat. I looked for mosques and minarets at every corner yet only found Paris’s very beautiful but very discreet Mosque in the 5eme arrondissement where I drank tea in the tiled portico surrounded by an eclectic mix of French people drawn to the place as a sanctum of beauty in a busy city. I looked for hoards of women wearing veils, be they standard hijabs or full-on face veils, and only found them among the tourists on the Champs Elysees.
Now admittedly, I am being a little facetious. Had I walked around the impoverished suburbs or certain areas of towns like Marseilles, I would have seen more evidence not so much of the Islamization but of French Muslims. Of all the countries I have visited in Europe, France has consistently struck me as the least marked by Islam despite having the European Union’s largest Muslim population. And yet, when you speak to people, and not just sympathizers of the Far Right, the “Islamization of France” is a recurring theme. And my recurrent reaction is a sincere “why is that a problem?”
For instance, LePen kicked off her campaign with a revelation that most meat sold in supermarkets is halal despite not being labelled as such. Apparently, French people were eating halal meat without their knowledge! Shock! Horror! Now I could see why if you eat halal or kosher, you would be upset at eating meat that was neither, but why would someone who has no religious eating edicts be upset at eating halal meat? For some it is due to a (misguided) belief that slaughter is more traumatic for animals than stun killings, but the real reason for the outcry had nothing to do with animal rights and all to do with a perceived erosion of national traditions.
Ditto for the outcry regarding women-only sessions in public swimming pools mentioned by both candidates during the televised debate. Yet again my reaction was: “Why is that a problem?” What I saw as a perfectly legitimate request was described as “caving in to Muslim demands." Once again, what was at stake was not the opportunity for any woman, Muslim or not, to swim for an hour without being pestered by leering men, but a perceived erosion of the French way of life. And that brings us back to LePen.
To my mind, LePen has struck a chord with French voters because they see a need to protect France as a nation, not just from so-called Islamization, but from globalization, the banks, credit-rating agencies, Eurocrats and any other outside influence that can be rightly or wrongly blamed for the economic crisis, unemployment, increased prices, lower living standards and all the other ills that plague daily life.
Her voters represent the extreme, but this trend exists within the full spectrum of French society.
If LePen’s voters vote for Sarkozy on Sunday, he could spring a surprise, but she has asked her voters to abstain, she is thinking longer term. A Sarkozy loss could see an implosion of his party, the UMP, and a rebranded National Front could ally itself with the right flank of the UMP and create a new political entity in France, that could, come 2017, be a viable opposition to President Hollande. Now that is a seriously frightening prospect.Imane Kurdi is a Saudi writer on European affairs. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.