French President Emmanuel Macron won a second term on Sunday, easily defeating his opponent Marine Le Pen with more than 58% of the vote. Macron’s victory comes after a campaign that featured robust debate over the candidates’ counter-Islamist policies.
Other subjects such as inflation and the Russian invasion of Ukraine achieved prominence in the last weeks of campaigning before Sunday’s vote, but Islamism remained a central topic of the election. Consequently, Emmanuel Macron will now be in a position to determine the nation’s counter-Islamist policy for the next five years: a task that is as challenging as it is essential given that the risk of terrorist attacks remains high, and that Islamists have been vigorously opposing the policies he enacted during his first term.
The emphasis on Islamist extremism in the election was inevitable in a country that has been the scene of numerous gruesome acts of jihadi violence over the past few years. In January, 2015, jihadis killed a total of 16 people in two successive attacks at the offices of the Charlie Hebdo magazine and at a deli in Paris. In November of that year, jihadis killed 130 people at the Bataclan theater. In the years since, there have been numerous stabbings and car-ramming attacks perpetrated by Muslims declaring their allegiance to Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.
France has also been buffeted by reports of mosques preaching jihad, with a mosque in Beauvais being forced to close for six months after its imam was found to be preaching hatred against Christians, Jews and homosexuals.
For Islamists and their sympathizers, the campaign’s emphasis on Islamism was as unwelcome as it was inevitable. In the runup to Sunday’s vote numerous commentators insisted that the far-right, despite its loss in the last round of the election, remained victorious as it supposedly managed to impose its anti-Islam ideas on the French electorate. It is true that several candidates in the first round were firmly on the right: Le Pen from the National Rally; Eric Zemmour from Reconquête; and Valérie Pécresse who represents the center-right party Les Républicans.
Although Macron won, many consider that his victory doesn’t reflect an endorsement of his program, but a “default” choice as a majority of the French electorate wanted to avoid Le Pen. Despite her promised economic policies that gave her votes that traditionally went to far-left parties, Le Pen is still seen as a far-right candidate who hasn’t entirely distanced herself from her party’s history and its sympathy for Nazi Germany. The main French outlets minimized Macron’s reelection: Le Monde described it as a “victory without triumph” given Le Pen’s impressive showing over previous elections. Le Figaro warned that Macron now had to satisfy those who voted for him out of “resignation.”
Macron will also have to satisfy those who are counting on him to defeat Islamists. During his first term, Macron enunciated a counter-Islamist program that distinguished Islamism from Islam and targeted lawful Islamism as a source of radicalization. Under his leadership a law was adopted to counter Islamism as well as any other form of “separatism.” Among other measures, the legislation made it possible to close places of worship and dissolve organizations for promoting extremist views. Macron’s political rivals had different agendas.
Zemmour, for example, wanted to ban the construction of minarets. He insisted that Islam and Islamism were “the same thing” and regularly stated his view of Islam as being “incompatible with France and the Republic.” For Zemmour, Islam is a “legal and political code,” not a religion.
Pécresse’s proposed measures included criminalizing visiting terrorist websites; facilitating the firing of radicalized Muslims from their jobs; and declaring terrorism as a “form of intelligence with the enemy.” She also insisted that French school cafeterias should not offer alternative meals for students who don’t eat pork.
Both Zemmour and Pécresse were eliminated in the first round of voting on April 10.
Le Pen, for her part, tacked away from some of the more hardline comments she had made in previous campaigns in the past about Islam. She publicly claimed that she had no intention to attack Islam which she described as a “religion like any other” and that she wanted to maintain its “total freedom of organization and worship” but then denounced the hijab as a “totalitarian uniform” and “[intended] to ban it in all spaces open to the public.” When trying to defend this proposed policy, she claimed that “Mr. Bourguiba banned the hijab in Algeria.” But as Macron’s government and the French media clarified, Bourguiba was the leader of Tunisia, not Algeria, and had banned the hijab in schools, not all public spaces.
Mélenchon the Choice of Islamists
Some Muslim leaders called on their followers to vote for Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round of voting. Mélenchon, a far-left candidate who promised to end Macron’s counter-Islamist policies, did better than expected, receiving 21.95% of votes in the first round, coming in third place behind Le Pen and Macron. According to a French poll, 70% of French Muslims voted for Mélenchon following the advice offered by Muslim leaders who described him as the “least bad” candidate.
This tactic was rejected by well-known French Salafis such as Idriss Sihamedi, who pointed out that Mélenchon had previously contested the term ‘Islamophobia’ and that in 2020, the left-wing presidential candidate had called for a “precise response” to “Islamist terrorism.”
Sihamedi encouraged French Muslims to ignore the elections, declaring that Macron “wouldn’t save them” and Le Pen “wouldn’t make them happy.” His followers did not seem to agree, judging by the numerous comments under Sihamedi’s tweet denouncing his view and insisting that Muslims had political choices to make.
Marwan Muhammad, a well-known Islamist who is seen as ideologically close to the Muslim Brotherhood, acknowledged that Muslims had reasons to boycott the elections but described Mélenchon as a “genuine alternative.”
Some Islamists declared there was no difference between Macron and Le Pen’s “Islamophobic” policies. This position was espoused by Rayan Freschi, a lawyer who works as a researcher for the UK-based charity with jihadi ties, CAGE who recently wrote a report decrying the alleged “persecution” of Muslims by the French state. Freschi argued that “both candidates would bring aggressively Islamophobic governance, with little nuance” and that “no matter the outcome at the ballot box, anti-Muslim persecution has already won.”
Other commentators offered a similar message. Writing in the Guardian, Safya Khan-Ruf, a French Muslim whose beat includes Islamophobia, lamented that for many Muslims, the choice between Macron and Le Pen wasn’t really much of a choice, but ultimately, a Le Pen victory would present a threat to the welfare of Muslims in France that Macron’s would not. In the Independent, Assia Belgacem wrote that as a French Muslim hijabi, neither candidate appealed to her. The New York Times published a piece with the same “lesser of two evils” message.
The notion that there was no difference between Macron and Le Pen was proven false by the last debate between the two candidates that took place on April 20th, during which Le Pen admitted she would ban the hijab in all public places, not as a religious symbol but as an Islamist uniform. In response, Macron said that adopting such a policy would “create a civil war.”
Le Pen announced that if she were elected, she would deport the Muslims who had refused to sign a charter pledging to respect Republican values. Macron retorted that Muslims in question are for the most part French citizens and thus cannot be deported. Clearly, the two candidates embraced different approaches to Islamism in the French republic.
Macron now has five more years to demonstrate that his counter-Islamist policies will curtail Islamist influence and prevent radicalization. Islamists, both in France and abroad, can be expected to redouble their efforts to discredit the French government’s endeavors. That Islamists fear Macron as much if not more than they did Le Pen, despite her program, suggests that even his targeted policies represent a real threat to their power and influence.