Is there a “Muslim vote” in France?

Members of the Muslim community pray in the Paris Grand Mosque during an open day weekend for mosques in France, January 10, 2016. REUTERS/Charles Platiau - RTX21QR1

It is in a context of great political tension that France prepares to vote for its next president. While the final round typically pits the traditional right- and left-wing parties against each other, neither will be represented on the ballot on May 7.

Throughout the campaign—but particularly now, given the very different visions of France that final candidates Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron represent—the “Muslim vote” question has received attention. On April 14, the right-wing daily newspaper Le Figaro published an editorial questioning the influence of the Muslim vote. This issue alarms both political commentators and policymakers, in particular those affiliated to Le Pen’s Front National.

Is there a “Muslim vote” in France? Such a question can only lead to a multifaceted response. Indeed, the situation is paradoxical: While there is no organized Muslim community in France, Muslims tend to mostly cast a left-wing vote. To me, such a vote cannot be qualified as a religious vote, but should rather be understood as a social vote.

Is there a Muslim community in France?

For there to be a “Muslim vote,” it seems that there should be a “Muslim community.” The survey conducted by Institut Montaigne and Ifop in May 2016, as well as qualitative analyses, all indicate that there is no such thing as a “Muslim community” in France, nor is there a unique and organized form of “Muslim communautarism.” There are French citizens who share both a Muslim culture and faith, and whose sense of belonging to and engagement in the Muslim community tends to be mostly private. Indeed, the survey observed very little commitment to community-based initiatives (only 5 percent of the interviewees belong to a Muslim organization) and very few denominational schools (France has around 10 such schools, for 1.3 million of Muslims younger than 15). Political choices regarding elections appear to be very weakly influenced by the candidate’s actual or supposed connection to Islam (only 19 percent of the interviewees would vote for a Muslim candidate regardless of his or her political affiliation).

These Muslims entertain very distant relations with Islamic organizations and religious leaders. Indeed, more than two-thirds claim to never have heard of the French Council for the Muslim Cult (CFCM), which is deemed representative of the “Muslim community” by only 9 percent of Muslims in France. The same is true of the UOIF (Union for Islamic Organizations in France)—which annually organizes one of the main Muslim events in Europe in the Bourget— to which only 12 percent of the interviewees feel close.

Furthermore, the day-to-day preoccupations of Muslims in France significantly resemble those of the rest of the population. They aspire first and foremost to have a stable job (93 percent), to get a decent degree (88 percent), and to be able to afford accommodation (65 percent). When asked about their priorities, their answers are unequivocal: the will to reach a better social status prevails over religious and identity matters. Their concerns are quite standard and include the excessive weight of taxes and social inequalities. Despite that more than one-third of them (38 percent) claim to suffer from discrimination—a number that has increased since September 2001 (32 percent, according to a survey conducted after 9/11)—this issue is allegedly not part of their top priorities.

What about the “Muslim  vote”?

If there is no organized Muslim community in France, could there nonetheless be a “Muslim vote”?  Muslims over 18 years old represent around 6 percent of the French population. This does not, however, mean that they represent 6 percent of the voters in France. Indeed, French Muslims are not necessarily French citizens. In the survey’s sample, only 69 percent of Muslims and people with Muslim origins were French. The number of potential voters thus drops to 4.5 percent of the eligible population.

Moreover, given the significant number of foreigners and the number of non-registered voters, Muslims in France are less likely to be registered to vote than the rest of the population—only 50 percent of them are. Eighty-seven percent of the eligible population living in France is registered to vote. Therefore, around 3 percent of the eligible voting population living in France is Muslim, older than 18, and registered to vote. However, only two-thirds of this population voted during the 2012 presidential election, which represents 2 percent of the total French population. Twenty-four percent abstained from voting and 8 percent casted a blank vote. We can thus consider that out of a total number of 36 million votes cast in 2012, 1.3 million were cast by Muslims, which represents 3.6 percent of the electorate, or almost half their portion of the French population.

Decisions, desicions

Who do they vote for now? Jérôme Fourquet, deputy director of the opinion department of Ifop, and his team scrutinized seven cities’ voters lists (Marseille, Roubaix, Toulouse, Perpignan, Aulnay-sous-Bois, Mulhouse, and Creil). They based their research on the voters’ first names—as well as last names and dates and places of birth when necessary. Eighty-six percent of this electorate voted for the Socialist candidate François Hollande during the second round of the 2012 presidential elections (he was elected with 51.56 percent of the vote). We can thus speculate that François Hollande’s victory is at least partly due to the “Muslim vote.” Eighty-six percent of 3.6 percent amounts to 3.1 percent of the total voters…the exact margin of difference which led François Hollande to win over Nicolas Sarkozy (51.56 percent against 48.5 percent). And although more data would be needed to prove it, it’s likely that many of these voters cast their ballot for far-left candidate Jean Luc Mélenchon in the first round last weekend.

Yet everything seems to have changed during the 2014 municipal elections. Indeed, Muslim voters—who were disappointed by the absence of results in terms of jobs and security—massively abstained, leading to the victory of the right-wing party in various cities. The Socialist candidates lost the most votes in the neighborhoods inhabited by the most Muslim voters in both Toulouse and Marseille. The study reveals that in Perpignan, these left-wing voters ended up voting for a right-wing candidate in the first round of the election—aiming, in so doing, to prevent the extreme right-wing party Front National from winning!

What can we conclude from all this data? Probably that there is no such thing as a “Muslim vote” in the sense in which religion could explain the vote casted by Muslims in France. For a long time, Muslims have nonetheless tended to identify with left-wing candidates for two reasons. Firstly, they tend to a have a lower income than the rest of the population and therefore traditionally vote for those who propose a substantial social program. Secondly, as they are regularly targeted by the right-wing candidates (Nicolas Sarkozy in 2012) and Marine Le Pen (since the beginning of the current race), they understandably do not vote for those who denigrate them. Which explains why they abstain when they are disappointed by the Left. The “Muslim vote” is therefore nothing more than the class vote of a stigmatized minority.