Muslims and the secular city: How right-wing populists shape the French debate over Islam

Marine Le Pen - Presidente du Rassemblement National
Editor's note:

This working paper is part of a multi-year Brookings project—”The One Percent Problem: Muslims in the West and the Rise of the New Populists.” Other papers in the series are available here.


  1. Decolonization, immigration, and discrimination
  2. War and anti-Semitism
  3. An evolving and adaptive ideology: from far-right to populism
  4. Les Arabes, les “Beurs” and the immigrants
  5. Muslims and Islam
  6. Conclusion

Understanding the place of Islam in France, where attitudes toward religion are shaped by the Republic’s foundational creed — laicité, France’s activist state-secularism — is challenging. Since all public religiosity is problematic, it is not always easy to differentiate between far-right mobilization and a much broader set of political dynamics. For instance, there have been huge controversies around “the veil,” complete with Burkini polemics, but these are not issues confined to right-wing populist parties such as National Rally (previously National Front). Of course, such parties make the most of opportunities to rally against Islam, but these controversies around public religion feature in French political culture across the spectrum and are not merely the province of far-right ideology or populism.

Thus, to understand the relationship between right-wing populists and Islam in France requires keeping in mind three key historical pillars: the Republic’s attitude toward religion of any kind, colonialism and decolonization, and France’s history of anti-Semitism, including its role in the Second World War.

The French Revolution was as much a revolt against the Church and organized religion as it was a revolt against the monarchy. The late 18th and 19th centuries, as well as the beginning of the 20th century, is the story of the expropriation and marginalization of the Catholic Church and of all religions, first from government, then from education and then more broadly from public life. The Republic was constructed in direct opposition to organized religion but also in opposition to faith. This is the axis around which all relationships between politics and religion are organized.

As a result, the Republic’s ideological credentials are inseparable from an assertive, and often militant, secularism. Progressive politics specifically, but mainstream politics in general, of any kind in France, remain defined by a deep suspicion of religion. A tradition of French Catholic socialism exists, but it is no longer a powerful ideological tradition. As such, French progressives can often sound incredibly intolerant of religion — and therefore intolerant of religious minorities. Thus, attitudes toward Islam can look and sound remarkably similar across the political spectrum: the French left can be as intolerant of hijabs, as are French Conservatives, populists, or members of the far-right. The former oppose the headscarf from the standpoint of a neutral, universalist space protected from religion of any kind. By contrast, more traditional, conservative Catholics object by claiming France’s culture is Catholic. Most French citizens favor a view of religion as private faith, rather than public display. In an October 2019 survey (following a speech by President Emmanuel Macron stressing the need for what he called, “a society of vigilance” in matters of religion), Institut français d’opinion publique (Ifop) reported that 75 percent of the French public favors banning the display of all religious symbols by public employees (the figure dips slightly to 72 percent for employees of private firms), and that 82 percent favor banning all religious displays from the public space. These figures go well beyond the electorate of the National Rally and well beyond the left-right divide.

A recent book by the scholar Olivier Roy — Is Europe Christian? — outlines the political space occupied by French Catholics. As Roy puts it, no political party can afford to put Catholicism at the heart of its political program — or in fact go anywhere near it, because this speaks to only roughly five percent of the electorate.

Nota bene: ultimately, the Republic’s disapprobation of all forms of religion allows RN to piggy-back on broad-based secular values and position itself as a populist rather than a far-right party — one that engages, as all parties do in France, in the defense of the Republic against religious obscurantism.

The expulsion of religion from public life is also rooted in a longstanding suspicion of any intermediary body purporting to represent a sub-section of the population. The French are forever citing dangers of what they imagine as American “communitarianism,” a nightmare shared across the political spectrum. So, the possibility of religious representation of any kind is therefore doubly difficult, and even more so for Islamic organizations appearing to defy laicité, Catholicism, and the myth of direct links to the state.

Decolonization, immigration, and discrimination

France’s colonial presence in North Africa, particularly its rule over Algeria (1830-1962) and the violent Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962), is another relevant dimension. The Algerian war was France’s only violent decolonization, and due to Algeria’s special status as a French “Département,” the conflict was understood as a “civil war.” Many experienced Charles De Gaulle’s return to politics in 1958, with an explicit mandate to bring the war to an end, and his relinquishing of Algeria as a betrayal of the Republic, as a betrayal of French citizens living in Algeria, and a betrayal of France’s moral and territorial integrity. For someone like Jean Marie Le Pen who — before founding Front National in 1972 — was an army officer fighting against Algerian independence, this was further proof that the Republic did not provide France with the strength and international clout necessary for remaining a world power. For him, the Republic’s concern for human rights, egalitarianism and, now, self-determination would lead to the decline of French greatness.

Given the sizable wave of migration from Algeria into France from the start of the conflict in 1958 and onward, Algeria’s eight-year war for independence was set to play a major role in the perception of Islam in France, as well as in the expectations of integration or assimilation of France’s Muslims. Algerian migration to France began long before, but it was this final migratory wave and the privileges granted to Algerians in France in the war’s aftermath that would fuel far-right hatred and racism (through the 1962 Evian Treaty, any Algerian residing in France or choosing to reside in France was automatically granted the same protections and rights as a French citizen). As Jean Marie Le Pen once said to me, “they fought very hard to no longer be French, I fought them in hand-to-hand combat: I’ll be damned if they get anything from us when they come here.” While Moroccans and Tunisians did not share the same complex status (and neither did Muslim immigrants from Senegal and Ivory Coast), the 1960s and 1970s in France were marked by the combination of adjustment to middle power status (of which the loss of colonies was held as the obvious marker) and the struggle to manage a long wave of migration from largely Muslim countries. At this early stage, the focus was on ethnicity and race rather than on religiosity or the explicitly Muslim identification of Algerians. The far-right made the most of this opportunity in racist and revanchist terms.

War and anti-Semitism

France, like Germany, has a strong intellectual far-right tradition with deep anti-Semitic roots. There is a tradition from which the far-right and right-wing populists can draw from to develop a discriminatory discourse. Given the strength of this tradition, the far-right was initially, in large part, narrowly fixated on France’s Jewish population. Jean Marie Le Pen’s most controversial statements were anti-Semitic not Islamophobic — for instance, his quasi-revisionism on the existence of gas chambers. It took longer for the National Front to aim the brunt of its racism toward Muslims, despite Le Pen’s views on Algeria and decolonization. Second, France’s role in the Second World War, Vichy France’s collaboration with the Nazis, is a trauma that is only now beginning to heal, somewhat. As a result, for many French citizens, an anti-Semitic discourse was, for a long time, possibly more troubling than an anti-Islam or an anti-Arab one. While the French public was immediately attuned to RN’s anti-Semitism, it was relatively deaf to its anti-Arab and later anti-Islam positions.

These deep historical patterns shape the relationship of the far-right and right-wing populist politics with Islam in France today.

Far-right, new right, populism and Islam

The roots of the French far-right can be traced directly back to the French Revolution — and more specifically to the counter-revolution. The immediate aftermath of 1789 saw the first stirrings of a deeply conservative counter-movement drawing on reactionary Catholicism, nationalism, and demands for strong centralized order in the face of the chaos brought about by the revolution’s egalitarian ideals.

Jean-Marie Le Pen and his daughter, Marine Le Pen, are heirs to these traditions. Jean-Marie Le Pen reappeared on the political scene in 1972 in order to bring together the disparate strands of the far-right: traditional counter-revolutionaries, anti-Semites, anti-communists, ultra-conservative Catholics, revisionists, colonialists, anti-Gaullists, violent nationalists, and straggling neo-Nazis and neo-Fascists.

Strategically, the point was to move away from the violent tactics of the 1960s far-right, and to instead create an actual party rather than remain a movement forever in danger of self-combustion.

An evolving and adaptive ideology: from far-right to populism

A new attitude toward Europe

Jean-Marie Le Pen soon realized that there were diminishing returns in the overt quasi-biological racism of the traditional far-right. And so he decided to move his party toward a racism (sometimes referred to as “differential racism”) rooted in cultural, rather than biological difference. This evolution was in part facilitated by the work in France of a more intellectual far-right current — the New Right, which gained prominence in the 1970s and 1980s through the work of Groupement de Recherche et d’Etude pour une Civilisation Européenne (Group for the Study and Research of a European Civilisation), known as GRECE. GRECE presented the more powerful FN with the possibility of a civilizational “European story,” from which it has since continually drawn, as it began its reinvention into a party ostensibly defending Europe’s Enlightenment values.

In 2012, Nouvel Observateur cited a young RN activist, Louis Alliot (who eventually became both Marine Le Pen’s husband and one of RN’s chief ideologues), perfectly illustrating the turn away from religion and toward French republican secularism for the purposes of stigmatizing Muslims:

“If they [young Muslims] don’t have a model, then what are they? Are they French? Are they children of the Republic? They don’t give a damn about the Republic, in fact they don’t even know what it is. That’s certainly the case when it comes to the imams who come over, who come to coach them politically, religiously… I’m one of those people who think that the principle of ‘laïcité’ is just fundamental; it’s inseparable from the Republic; unfortunately, communitarianism works against the Republic.”

Challenging the bastions of the left

The most important turn taken by the far-right in France was its choice to move away from ultra-conservative and racist positions, and toward a stance increasingly defined by the defense of French Republican and universalist values, against what is depicted as the obscurantist ideology of Islam. Such a move is rhetorically more compatible with French Republican discourse and, therefore, more likely to challenge left-wing parties.

Two of my interviewees, Sébastien and Emmanuel, admitted that although they were obviously ill at ease about voting for RN, they previously would “vote for the left.”

According to Sébastien, “[the Socialist Party] became dependent on the Islamist vote and basically forgot about everyone else.” “Well, for example they spend more time thinking about how to deal with them [Muslims] and their demands, rather than on how to improve our lives,” Emmanuel explained. “And I can’t stand the kowtowing to all that religious stuff from all these ‘multicultural types’: I’m Catholic, I don’t go around swinging my rosary beads. I’m not against religion per se, but it has to be modern religion that fits with our society.”

The framing of Islam in France needs to be understood in the context outlined above: one in which there is little place for religion in public life; and above all for the purposes here, one in which the far-right moves away from “biological racism,” toward discrimination based on a notion of cultural incompatibility.

Crucially, what this has meant for the strategy of a party like RN is an evolution from a focus on the Arab migrant to a focus on the settled Muslim, to Islam as a threatening cultural other, and finally to an ideological category: Islamism (incompatible with the ideology of French Republic, and more broadly European civilization).

Les Arabes, les “Beurs” and the immigrants

In the aftermath of the Algerian war and well into the 1980s, the rejection of North African Muslim immigrants was framed by RN as a rejection of “The Arab” — a combination of an ethnic category and an imagined “legal other,” (defined by the historical connection to Algeria).

The 1983 movement against rising discrimination and racist violence particularly perpetrated against immigrants from North Africa, first took form as the Marche des Beurs (Beur — widely used across all population groups — is Verlan, or backwards slang, for Arabe). In other words, in 1983, young Franco-Algerians still thought of themselves, predominantly as Arabs rather than Muslims. This had a cultural as much as an ethnic connotation. But the reference was not, then, to Islam. The Marche des Beurs (officially called the “March for Equality and Against Racism”) took place roughly 20 years after Algerian independence as a reaction to clashes between the police and young Arabs around Marseille. The Marche then spread through Lyon, Roubaix and finally Paris on December 3, 1983, demanding action from then President François Mitterrand.

The Marche marked a significant turning point in race relations, but also specifically in the relations between French authorities, the public, and France’s Muslim minority. Whereas the Marche was almost completely composed of young, second-generation Arabs (predominantly of Algerian descent), President Mitterrand, in an effort to instrumentalize the march against the rising FN, chose to use it in order to grow a broad anti-racism movement called SOS Racisme. What identified itself as an Arab revolt against political and social exclusion was transformed by mainstream politicians into something far more nebulous and far less capable of addressing the grievances expressed by the Marche such as poverty, exclusion, and the Palestinian cause. As a result, the Marche marked an important shift in that it missed an opportunity to begin addressing the lingering malaise of colonialism and sociopolitical exclusion of young Arabs. By reducing the movement to the issue of race (which paradoxically broadened the target population), instead of taking the demands for cultural recognition and economic integration by Arabs seriously, the French authorities compounded their frustration and inadvertently encouraged them to look for a more specific identity — Islam. In this respect, the Marche heralds the slow beginnings of the politicization of Islam in contemporary France — on the part of some of the excluded youth and then mirrored and exploited by RN.

It’s important to highlight the symmetry between the rise of a young Muslim consciousness and RN’s strategic shift from the mid-1980s onward. It marks the point at which the Arab migrant becomes the Muslim citizen in the collective French imagination.

Muslims and Islam

At this point, FN was still a mix of old far-right and a new more inchoate “populist” sensibility. The fate of the banlieues — the marginalized and multi-ethnic suburbs— was becoming increasingly contentious as race-based riots erupted in Vaulx-en-Velin in 1979 and in Venissieux in 1983. In Algeria itself, the country’s main Islamist party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), was rapidly gaining popularity, culminating in the Algerian civil war of 1992. These factors led to a growing focus on the lack of integration of Algerian youth, and fears that violence would spread from the banlieues to the heart of the cities, and from Algeria to France — indeed it did in 1995 with the Paris metro bombing by Algeria’s Armed Islamic Group (GIA). RN admits to, and sometimes boasts of, having coldly debated these issues, opting to move away from its initial dual strategy of focusing on law and order and anti-Semitism, to one focused on law and order and immigration. From there, the leap from fear of the banlieues, to fear of Muslims in the banlieues was an easy one.

Riots also tapped into the growing disquiet of traditionally left-wing voters who felt that the Socialist party was substituting working-class interests for the protection of minorities. The first explicitly anti-Muslim FN poster appeared in 1987 courtesy of Jean Pierre Stirbois, the main architect of FN’s 1984 electoral breakthrough. The poster was a simple minaret against a green background, with the word “Inshallah” scrawled across, followed by a Hezbollah quote that “in 20 years, France will be an Islamic Republic.”

From the 1990s onward — especially in light of the 1995 attacks on public transport in Paris and Lyon, as well as a school in Villeurbanne, by the Armed Islamic Group — Islam and Muslims began to be depicted as a security threat, a trend which intensified after terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Lack of integration and incompatibility of values on the one hand, and security on the other, began to play a fundamental role in RN’s rhetoric regarding Islam. This became even more pronounced once Marine Le Pen took over the party’s leadership in 2011. Culture and insecurity are treated as two sides of the same coin, and as an assault on the universalist values of the Republic. The lack of integration — and lack of a desire to integrate on the part of young Muslims — was portrayed as a security threat. FN became quite effective at seamlessly shifting from one to the other as evidenced by Marine Le Pen’s 2017 presidential election manifesto.

The backbone of Le Pen’s electoral platform includes:

  • Reducing legal migration to no more than 10,000 immigrants per year.
  • Ending the automatic right to family reunification and the acquisition of French citizenship through marriage.
  • Eliminating pull factors of immigration.

These positions were juxtaposed with the 2015 terrorist attacks that shook France: the January attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, followed by the Hypercacher Jewish supermarket siege, and the November attacks on Stade de France, culminating in the mass shootings in the Bataclan theater which left 137 dead.

FN’s 2017 manifesto  elaborates on the link between terrorism, Islamism, and immigration. The following proposals lie under the heading “to eradicate terrorism and destroy Islamic fundamentalist networks”:

  • “Outlaw and dismantle all organizations linked to Islamic fundamentalism. Expel all foreigners linked to Islamic fundamentalism (most specifically those already known to the authorities). Close all extremist mosques that are already known to the Home Office and outlaw all foreign funding of places of worship or their personnel. Outlaw state funding of any place of worship or any religious organization. Fight against Jihadist networks through the withdrawal of French citizenship and expulsion and territorial exclusion of any dual national linked to a Jihadist network.”
  • “Defend French national identity as well as the values and traditions of French civilization. Include in the Constitution the defense and promotion of our historical and cultural heritage. Make French citizenship a privilege of French nationals by inscribing into the constitution a principle of national primacy.”
  • “Promote laïcité and fight against communitarianism. Enshrine in the constitution the fact that ‘The Republic recognizes no communities.’ Re-establish laïcité everywhere, to extend it to the entirety of public space, and enshrine it in the Labor Code.”
  • “Reinforce the unity and cohesion of the nation by promoting the story of the nation and refuse divisive state apologies [for past conduct].”
  • “Promote Republican assimilation — a more exacting principle than ‘integration.’”

However twinned terrorism and Islam are in FN’s electoral program, one could argue that the issue of cultural integration plays a greater role in motivating FN support.

It is worth noting the role, or lack thereof, of 9/11 in the party’s evolution. It is tempting to see Jean Marie Le Pen’s presence in the second round of the 2002 presidential elections as a consequence of the attacks, but this hardly seems to be the case: from 1995 to 2002 FN’s vote grew from 15.1 percent to 16.8 percent, a meager 1.7 percent increase. Indeed, Le Pen made it to the run-off due to a split within the mainstream left. If anything, it is astonishing how little FN seems to have benefited from 9/11. Even the terrorism afflicting Paris in 2015 seemed to have only limited effect. What we instead see is a slow and steady climb from 14 percent in 1988, to 15.1 percent in 1995, to 16.8 percent in 2002, to 21.3 percent by 2017, rather than any significant impact from terrorist attacks. Perhaps this is due to the fact that in France, 9/11 was not the turning point. Rather a turning point came in 1995 with the attacks on the Paris metro and then what was perceived as the creeping lawlessness of the banlieues.

Similarly, the 2015 European “migration crisis” during which over two million migrants and refugees arrived in Europe had at least as much to do with Le Pen’s improved performance in the presidential elections. In the run up to the 2017 election, voter polls did not cite terrorism and security as top priorities. The main motivation to vote Le Pen was protest and rejection of all other parties. Indeed, it was the top motivation of 43 percent of those intending to vote RN (particularly true of younger voters). Coming a close second was support for the party’s anti-immigration positions (34 percent). The reasons given for opposing immigration were: “we no longer feel at home” (86 percent of RN voters agreed with this statement versus 50 percent of the general population); 73 percent argued that “Islam was incompatible with the Republic” (compared to 43 percent in the general population). This does not mean terrorism did not matter; clearly, terrorism also represents an attack on one’s values. It is nevertheless striking that in an election held less than two years after the Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan attacks, RN voters did not focus on terrorism, but on immigration and integration and on the more symbolic politics of values, culture, and the role of religion in public life.

Veiled criticism

The debate surrounding the most contentious of issues — the headscarf (of any kind, and referred in France referred to as “veils”) — illustrates how the party’s rhetoric has evolved to make the most of opportunities afforded by a general French context where the headscarf is viewed with suspicion, or worse. The increasingly paranoid cultural context is crucial: it was in 1989 — at the height of the Rushdie affair — that the polemics and legal challenges around the wearing of hijab in schools, universities, and finally by public service employees, emerged. This long and tortuous story plays a fundamental role in both encouraging and developing the basic tenets of RN’s stance around Islam as culturally incompatible with western progressive and Enlightenment values, and Islamism as a direct political challenge to the Republic. It would sometimes justify these positions on the grounds that public opinion was on the party’s side. RN also presented itself as the only party that had the courage to be outspoken about such issues (which was patently untrue since most mainstream parties rushed to offer their own criticisms of the hijab). These claims created a spiral — both rhetorical and in policy terms — that engulfed all other political parties in a race “against the veil.”

The roots of the headscarf debate go as far back as the early 20th century — a time when church and state were still settling their revolutionary scores and when, for example, crosses and other religious insignia were removed from state schools across France. In the 1980s, the debate resurfaced around young girls wearing hijab in state schools. In 1989, articles began surfacing in the media about young girls in secondary schools wearing a “tchador” (a Persian vocabulary import from the virulent debate in France around the Iranian revolution that still has some currency today). These stories proliferated and gave rise to various crises — parents called in, schoolgirls expelled, and a number of laws passed. A landmark 2004 law allows for the wearing of religious signs in public spaces, but not in state schools where all “ostentatious” religious symbols (hijabs, kippas, Christian crosses etc.) are prohibited.

According to the 2019 Ifop poll cited earlier, 70 percent of the French public is in favor of banning all religious insignia, including the hijab, from schools and public spaces — as well as forbidding any parent from wearing these near, or on, school grounds. This in a context in which 75 percent feel that the principle of laicité is under threat — and where 80 percent of people agree that Islam represents a particular threat to the principle. In 2012, 84 percent opposed hijabs wearing even in private businesses.

Islam is clearly the focus of this debate. Laicité has become a convenient excuse to target Islam. On the other hand, it’s worth keeping in mind that this is not first time France has been in the throes of such discourse. In the 1920s and 1930s, Polish and Italian immigrants were called into question for being “too ostentatiously Catholic” by wearing crosses around their neck and taking part in traditional processions, for example — in other words, simply practicing their religion publicly. Then, too, the argument was that their form of religious practice was incompatible with the Republic. I had long conversations with my interviewees about the tensions around the headscarf. RN supporters and officials were of one mind — and of one vocabulary (if not necessarily coherent). As Delphine, a local RN voter, said:

“We didn’t fight the obscurantism of the Church for centuries in this country to find ourselves kowtowing to Islamic superstitions about what to wear and what to eat. Schools, public services, and even public spaces are secular. There is no negotiating on this. Under the guise of being ‘sensitive,’ they call into question our own culture. Last year my town hall wasn’t allowed to put on a nativity scene — they actually had to take it down in order to be ‘sensitive.’”

If this is about secularism, I asked, then why should the town hall (a public service if ever there was one) put up a nativity scene?

She replied: “You know, and I know, that’s not religion, but culture. Neither me nor Pierre [husband standing silently next to her] are practicing Catholics. I’m not even sure I believe in anything. But this is French culture, and this is France. But with Islam, there is a real faith agenda. And that makes me really uncomfortable. The praying in the street stuff, all these shenanigans. It’s a throwback to the past. I don’t care about the rest: half of my employees are Muslims, we get along fine — I am godmother to two of their children. But they don’t go around doing this stuff.”

Asked if she thinks RN is best placed to push on secularism, she answered: “all I know is they’re the only ones who really stand up against Islamism.” Delphine says her Muslim employees know she’s considering voting RN and that they are “as fed up with the Islamists as I am.”

Delphine’s husband Pierre added: “I think this is all about being ‘politically correct.’ If there had been no Muslims in our neighborhood, they would have left the nativity scene. Maybe someone complained. [Pierre pauses] I think they want to really change France. I think they want to take everything that we fought for over centuries. And if you give them this [gestures at his little finger], they will take this [gestures at his whole arm].”

This debate has offered RN endless opportunities. It affords RN the possibility of dog-whistle politics: the party can appear as part of the mainstream, since its rhetoric echoes that or large segments of the population, whilst sending very clear signals to its supporters.

In every single one of my interviews with RN supporters, the veil spontaneously arose. As one put it, the veil is “a kick in the teeth.” In the Lille suburb of Bully-les-Mines, middle-class and middle-aged Déborah and her partner Emmanuel, proceeded to explain that the slow decline of their little town was intrinsically correlated with the veil’s emergence on the street. “The more ‘bougnouls’ (towel-heads) you saw, the more shops closed,” Deborah said. “They want to keep to themselves— they live here and then drain the life from the place.”

Latching on to the veil debate allowed RN to fundamentally change its electoral positioning. RN abandoned its exclusive focus on an older and primarily conservative electorate in favor of a more working class electorate demanding that the Republic protect against joblessness, dislocated banlieues (real or imagined), and the harsher aspects of globalization. At this point in the late 1990s, RN — not without major internal struggles, one of which led to a major split — became a party intent on developing an electoral strategy appealing to a broader swath of voters.

This strategy focuses almost exclusively on immigration and integration. Included in this cluster of issues is the perceived incompatibility between Islam and the values of the Republic as well as on the unfair advantages the French welfare state bestows on individuals and communities who are seen as profiting from a system to which they have no allegiance — and whose values they oppose. By 2014, the party was singing the praises of Europe — if not necessarily the EU (though even the EU was sometimes put forth as a possible fortress against immigration). After decades of RN portraying it as an insult to patriots everywhere, the EU began to be touted as a bastion of progressive values when convenient (feminism against Islam through the protection of women’s rights and the European Court of Justice), of Christian values when needed, and as the possible custodian of an entire civilization relentlessly threatened by its enemies, including Islam, and all those who accommodate it.

RN claims the EU is being let down by the current leadership in Brussels which is too cosmopolitan, liberal and accommodating to migrants. Much like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán or Italy’s League, for RN it became a question of the “wrong people” running the wrong kind of Europe, rather than a problem with Europe and the EU itself. The EU could act as a rampart against globalization — and be the protector of Europe’s identity, and the various national identities within it. In other words, if only the union were less “liberal.” While RN is still not pro EU — in a country that has become attached to the Euro and in which only 24 percent of people have a negative opinion of the EU, it can argue when it wants that it simply advocates for a different kind of union, an EU with a different ideology. This is important as a key moment in the conversion to populism: one in which the culprits are not individuals themselves but the ideologies of which they are a product — Islamism for the Muslims, and liberal cosmopolitanism for the establishment and the elite.


The emphasis on Islamism (Islam as an enemy ideology rather than Islam as a religion) began to figure prominently under Marine Le Pen. Her accession to the party’s top rank brought with it a generational updating across the board, but more specifically a decided turn toward issues that preoccupy a set of voters that RN is desperate to attract. Only by becoming the party of the working class would RN finally have a chance to gain power in a system rigged against challenger parties. To succeed, they needed to replace the socialists. And to do that, RN needed to offer protection: protection from the forces of globalization that had “imported Islamism” into France (this is a powerful trope that one hears constantly among RN supporters).

The first electoral references to Islamism appeared in 2010. During the campaign for the regional elections in southern France, RN used a poster depicting a woman in full burka standing before a map of France covered in the colors of the Algerian flag and dotted with missile-shaped minarets. The words “No to Islamism” were scrawled across the poster. Similar posters began to appear more regularly. A few months later, Marine Le Pen made her famous remark comparing praying in the street to a form of occupation. “First we had the veil,” she said, “then we got the burqa, more and more burqas. And then came prayers in the street. Now, there are 10 or 15 places where people regularly come to monopolize a parcel of territory. It is an occupation of territory…Okay, there are no tanks or soldiers, but it is still an occupation.” She was subsequently sued unsuccessfully by a number of organizations fighting Islamophobia. Targeted anti-Islam measures began to appear in RN’s manifestos: the halting of any mosque construction pending a full financial investigation of funding; measures concerning the care of animals prior to slaughter (and specifically halal slaughter); and halal food in school cafeterias. Across the board, Marine Le Pen justifies these on the grounds of secularism, the protection of women’s rights, and care for the environment. Her message is clear: we have nothing against Muslims, as long as they renounce “Islamism” — as defined by RN.

The 2017 presidential campaign

The 2017 campaign offers an interesting case study. Through the online portal #Idéo2017, users can examine the use of certain terms by candidate or party. In one study, socio-linguist Julien Longhi looked at the uses of the word “Islam” and other related terms by Marine Le Pen in the run-up to the elections. One chart is particularly revealing: Having ascertained that Marine Le Pen used neither “Islam” nor “Muslim” very often, the author then checked for “Islamism” and found that the term indeed dominated her rhetoric. The chart below illustrates this: “Islamist” is actually the nodal point of Le Pen’s rhetoric and is closely connected to terms like “fundamentalism” (“Fundamentalism” gives rise to a whole other connected node) but also “attack,” “fight,” and “terrorism.” “Muslim” and “Islam” are in a separate, smaller node, which suggests the success with which RN has made “Islamist” rather than “Muslim” the key axis of their rhetoric.

image 4

Meanwhile, a quick glance at the scatter plot below illustrates the centrality of “Islamism” but also, quite interestingly, that it is often used in conjunction with references to the European Union.

#Idéo2017 Graph 2

Asked about the use of the term Islamism, a senior official in RN’s political bureau responded: “We don’t have anything against specific people, or even specific groups — we have a problem with an ideology that is fundamentally at odds with our values, the values of French people and the values of the West.” Another RN official responsible for digital strategy added: “We don’t just make up these terms: they’re out there on ‘friendly sites,’ we hear them from our supporters.” They forcefully denied feeding these ideas to supporters.

I pressed further on the fact that the term was necessarily attached to one community — the vast majority of whom had nothing to do with Islamism. One of them shrugged: “It’s up to them to make that clear to the rest of us. Unless those Muslims who are peaceful and keen on upholding the values of the Republic including, and above all, secularism speak up against the Islamists and in defense of the Republic, why shouldn’t we assume that their silence is tacit agreement?”

I replied: “Isn’t the fact that they are French citizens, speak French, pay taxes, vote, contribute to the life of the nation as any other citizen, enough to show that they belong — that they have more in common with other French citizens than they do with ‘Islamists?’” “All of that is encouraging,” said the first official, “but it is not enough. As long as Islam is a dominant force in their life — their allegiance might be with the ummah, rather than to their fellow French citizens.”

This view is echoed by FN supporters. When I asked Emmanuel in Bully-les-Mines if Muslims in France spoke French, he swiftly replied: “We don’t know, they never talk to us. But in any case, speaking French is only the absolute minimum — and there’s no point speaking French if you then use it against our society.”


The May 2019 European Parliament elections illustrated the fact that RN is now slightly stuck. Although the party came ahead of Macron’s party by 0.9 percent of the vote, the result was a disappointment for RN: they did not beat Macron when he should have been at his most vulnerable after the the widespread Gilets Jaunes, or “Yellow Vest,” protests of 2018-19. One reason is that, while RN supporters and voters are preoccupied with immigration and its links to Islamism, and while French society is far from acquiescing to public religiosity, attitudes are becoming more tolerant of various forms of belonging and more approving of crisscrossing allegiances. The figure below illustrates this — tolerance vis-à-vis every minority group is on the rise, although for Muslims, there is clearly a long way to go.

Évolution des indices de tolérance par minorités de 1990 à 2018

The migration crisis and the terrorist attacks did not fuel long-term hostility vis-à-vis Islam and France’s Muslim population. This explains, in part, why despite their best efforts — and what would seemingly be a conducive environment — RN has not been able to break past its existing ceiling of support. It may well continue mutating into a party more focused on economic justice and redistribution in an attempt to capitalize on the country’s deep economic fractures–but it may have to reconsider some of its preoccupations with Islam if it wants to do so.

I pressed another RN official on this, more directly in charge of the party’s communication strategy, on this. Does he think that the party needs to switch tactics? Are “Islamism” and “immigration” still really the party’s ticket? He hesitantly answered: “Our voters still really care about immigration. But I agree that if we want to expand our voter-base we need to move beyond that. And frankly, we’re a party that aspires to the leadership of the French right, we can’t cater to just this core vote; it may be finite. We need to broaden out while not losing this natural constituency that is profoundly anti-immigration and whose votes depend on our sticking to our tough line on this.” In fact, in an effort to catch the rising wave of environmental awareness, RN has begun highlighting environmental issues in their program. In the 2019 European elections, the party even incorporated a few candidates with “ecologically friendly” credentials.

With this in mind, one key factor that needs to be tracked is religious observance. RN claims to have nothing against Muslims as long as they are integrated. However, the party’s rhetoric certainly does not encourage supporters to make a distinction between recent Muslim immigrants and those who are already in France or French citizens. While RN, now, says the party is willing to accept Muslims if they adopt French Republican values, there is no roadmap nor policy recommendations for how to get there; rather, RN has only presented policies which appear to marginalize Muslims.

Meanwhile, survey data on religious observance tend to show that the general French public is increasingly militant against displays of religion and increasingly less observant. French Muslim communities on the other hand, are both more observant and increasingly so, particularly from 2000 onward. According to a large scale survey by Ifop, there has been a slight increase in the number of women who wear the hijab from 24 percent in 2003 to 35 percent in 2016 and an increase in male mosque attendance from 16 percent in 1989 to 55 percent in 2016. These developments in contrast with other factors and issues that divide French society is what draws the author to his title, a reference to the increasingly fragmented nature of French society. Interestingly, this increase in religious practice is evident among younger Muslims much more so than older generations—the exact opposite of what is happening to Catholic practice. This suggests a growing potential disconnect between the Muslim and non-Muslim population in France. A key question, then, is whether this growing gap between Muslim and non-Muslims will continue to grow — and if it does, whether RN will be able to exploit it for a future electoral breakthrough.


  • Footnotes
    1. Front National (FN) changed its name to Rassemblement National or National Rally (RN) in January 2018. For the purposes of this paper, given the historical sweep and crisscrossing of references, including by supporters who use both names, I will refer to the party as RN, unless I am referring to an event under Jean Marie Le Pen or a specific pre-2018 occurrence.
    2. Macron used the expression in an October 8, 2019 speech delivered as part of a remembrance ceremony for four civil servants killed in an Islamist terrorist attack on French police headquarters on October 3, 2019.
    3. Hervé Gattegno, “SONDAGE. Face à l’islam, les Français s’inquiètent,” Le Journal du Dimanche, October 27, 2019,
    4. From the post-war until roughly 2010, a clear majority of practicing Catholics supported the mainstream right. Beginning in 2010, a very small group of Catholic traditionalists attempted to push Sarkozy to place Christian culture at the heart of his campaign and continued to lobby for this. Their mobilization included loud minoritarian opposition to same-sex marriage, such as organizing anti-gay-marriage rallies through the La Manif pour Tous (The Protest for Everyone) movement and Sens Commun (Common sense), La Manif’s political arm which grew out of the rallies. What was left of this movement found its expression in the European Parliament candidate put forward by the mainstream right (Francois-Xavier Bellamy), an ardent Catholic defender, whose score of eight percent was the nail in the coffin for the political fortune of traditionalist, activist Catholicism in France.
    5. Olivier Roy, Is Europe Christian? (Paris : Seuil, 2019) ; See also Olivier Roy, “En France, le vote Catholique est dans une impasse,” Le Monde, August 14, 2019,
    6. Civil society organizations, such as think tanks, NGOs, and particularly religious organizations are poorly represented.
    7. As in a theory of politics and government based upon culturally defined communities within the body politic. These communities have rights and duties qua communities rather than just on the basis of national citizenship.
    8. In practice, it also means a refusal to incorporate any kind of ethnic or religious questions into the census, making relevant policymaking more difficult. It also means that right-wing populist parties can resort to inventing all sorts of statistics and numbers with little possibility of the record being “set straight”—since there is no actual record.
    9. The same Ifop poll suggests that 61 percent of the French public feel that Islam is incompatible with the Republic. It is worth noting the variance between left and right: For National Rally and The Republicans (the mainstream right) the figures are respectively 85 percent and 83 percent; For the Socialist Party and the far-left, they are respectively 45 percent and 57 percent. For progressives, while the issue may not be Islam, it certainly still is religion. See Hervé Gattegno, “SONDAGE. Face à l’islam, les Français s’inquiètent,” Le Journal du Dimanche, October 27, 2019.
    10. A département is one of the three levels of French government below the national level. It is the intermediary level—between the regions and communes. The fact that Algeria was a département means that it was considered to be a part of French territory.
    11. Of course, there are many parallels here with the kind of resentment and nostalgia found in the UK and the road to Brexit. See for example Danny Dorling and Sally Tomlinson, Rule Britannia: Brexit and the End of Empire, (London: Biteback Publishing, 2019); See also Anthony Barnett, The Lure of Greatness: England’s Brexit and America’s Trump, (London: Random House UK, 2017).
    12. It is worth briefly highlighting the complex citizenship status of Algerians who—when in Algeria—were considered French Muslims of Algeria and thus considered French subjects. Alternatively, if they did not identify as Muslims, they were considered French “nationals.” The latter conferred “European status,” while the former did not (none were considered French citizens until after the Second World War). Once on the French mainland however, all Algerians were considered full French citizens with the label of “regional migrants” (like Corsicans, Bretons or Basques).
    13. A first wave came between 1905 and 1918, largely to work in heavy industry. Then, during the First World War, France drafted roughly 200,000 soldiers and workers. Between 1920 and 1939, the influx continued for purposes of reconstruction—and much the same needs and patterns operated after the Second World War.
    14. Though Catholics were important, they were not numerically significant, and so FN mainly paid them lip-service.
    15. To do this, Le Pen surrounded himself with various figures who could keep the different factions in check and give them just enough attention to keep them in line, but no so much as to embolden them.
    16. Spearheaded by an intellectual by the name of Alain de Benoist, GRECE positioned itself as the defender of a European intellectual tradition. It moved away from traditional pro-Catholicism (in fact, it adopted a bizarrely early-European pagan stance) and posited both the superiority of Europe as a civilization as well as a desire to keep each ethnic group to its own. Any form of integration, plurality, or multiculturalism was seen as a dilution of the European ideal.
    17. Nicolas Lebourg, “Marine Le Pen, l’extrême-droite et l’islamophobie Nouvel Observateur,” May 2, 2012,  Also author’s interview with Magali Boumaza, April 27, 2012; See also Magali Boumaza and Aurélie Campana, “Enquêter en « Milieu Difficile »,” Revue Française de Science Politique 57 no.1 (2007): 15-25. 
    18. This accounts for the success of RN in the past 20 years: a willingness to finally incorporate the Republic, its secular outlook, and Europe in its ideology, all of which would open vast reservoirs of working class and ex-socialist voters—voters who felt politically orphaned and socially and economically abandoned in areas of high immigration and low economic development. 
    19. Similarly, the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders, in a different context, highlights the “incompatibility” of Islam with Dutch tolerance and progressivism.
    20. While roughly nine percent of French Muslims are of African origin, discrimination against them takes the form of traditional racism rather than religious discrimination. Figures on ethnic groups are always difficult to come by in France as the census does not collect this information. Polling and surveys try to get around this problem as best they can, but the figures fluctuate and methods are contested. However, this not so recent figure from demographer Michele Tribalat is still widely cited. A key article that attempted to establish more accurate figures is Claude Dargent’s “La population Musulmane en France, de l’ombre à la lumière?” in Revue française de sociologie, 51, no. 2 (2010): 219-246.
    21. See Gilles Kepel, Terreur dans l’Héxagone: Genèse du Djihad Français, “Prologue” (Paris : Gallimard, 2015).
    22. In September 1987, Jean Marie Le Pen made one of his most infamous remarks on one of France’s most popular radio shows. Regarding Nazi gas chambers he claimed, “I’m not saying they didn’t exist. I’m only saying, that I, myself, was never able to see one…I have never studied the matter specifically, but it seems to me that gas chambers are a detail in the history of the Second World War.” 
    23. Pascal Perrineau, Cette France de Gauche qui vote FN (Paris :Seuil, 2017). See also “Le gaucho-lepénisme: Des fractures dans la transmission des valeurs et des orientations politiques ? ” in Temps et politique: les recomposition de l’identité, Anne Muxel, Ed, (Paris : Presses de Sciences Po, 2016), 181-202. For a slightly different take on social class and RN support see Nonna Mayer, “Gaucho-lepénisme ou ouvriéro-lepénisme?” Dictionnaire de l’extrême droite, (Paris: Larousse, 2007), 160-62. Finally, for a brilliant account of the working class turn to RN, see Didier Eribon, Returning to Rheims (London: Allen Lane, 2018).
    24. Stirbois, who died in 1988, was one of FN’s key ideologues and the architect of RN’s electoral breakthrough both at the municipal level in 1983—a significant election in the very diverse suburb of Dreux—and at the European level in 1984.
    25. The quote is from by Hussein Moussawi who founded the now-dissolved pro-Iranian militia Islamic Amal in 1982 and was a prominent member of Hezbollah. The poster marks the beginning of a transition for RN and the decisive turn toward Islam as the enemy. This is the halfway point for RN: the references still harken back to the threat to Christianity (old far-right), but gesture toward the figure of the Muslim and Islam, rather than the Arab. This coincides with FN’s momentary presence in the French National Assembly (in 1986 France held parliamentary elections under proportional representation. These elections saw the first cohort of FN MPs sit in the Assembly). Though FN only received 9.9 percent of the vote (and 35 MPs), this was a significant turn in the fortunes of RN: from then on it never again slipped below 10 percent of the vote. 
    26. National Rally, “144 presidential pledges, Marine 2017,”
    27. Direct quotes translated by the author.
    28. Terrorists affiliated with an Al Qaeda branch attacked the paper’s offices and killed 12 journalists. As they were attempting to flee, they continued their rampage, besieging a Jewish supermarket in Porte de Vincennes in Paris, and murdering five Jewish hostages.
    29. National Rally, “144 presidential pledges, Marine 2017.”
    30.  See Christèle Marchand-Lagier, Le vote FN : pour une sociologie localisée des électorats frontistes, (Louvain-la-Neuve: Université de Boeck, 2017), 33-37.
    31. “Que pensent les électeurs FN? Les 10 enseignements de notre sondage,” Le Journal du Dimanche, April 16, 2017. Ifop polled 2,300 people between March 31 and April 5, 2017.
    32. Ibid.
    33. The Rushdie Affair was the controversy surrounding the publication of Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel The Satanic Verses. Inspired by the life of Muhammad, the novel gave rise to accusations of blasphemy. Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa ordering Muslims to kill Rushdie. The affair marks a significant turning point in public perceptions of the cultural and political relationship between Islam and the West.
    34. For a comprehensive account of the debate see Cécile Laborde, Critical Republicanism. The Hijab Controversy and Political Philosophy, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).
    35. In 2018 the debate was re-ignited when Maryam Pougetoux, a hijab wearer, was elected president of the French Students’ Union. Pougetoux appeared wearing her hijab in a television interview about a student strike and drew criticism from across the political spectrum—including from France’s left-wing gender-equality minister, Marlène Schiappa, who accused the young woman of “promoting political Islam.” Of French public opinion, 77 percent thought that criticism was justified according to Institut français d’opinion publique, “LE PORT DU VOILE – BALISE D’OPINION #29,” May 24, 2018,
    36. Ifop pour Le Figaro, “L’image de l’Islam en France,” Octobre 2012,
    37. Poles in particular were accused of “refusing to assimilate,” suspected of fomenting a revolt against the French state, stigmatized for wanting to speak Polish at home—and accused of possibly being pro-German. See Janine Ponty, “Une integration difficile: Les Polonais en France dand le Premier Vingtième Siècle, ” XXème Siècle 7, (1985) : 51-58. 
    38.  FN supporters were interviewed in Limoges, France on April 18-19, 2019 and in Bully-les-Mines, France on April 21, 2019; FN personnel were interviewed during Marseille campaign meetings on May 20, 2019 and in Le Havre, France on May 21, 2019.
    39. Author’s interview with Delphine M, Limoges, France, April 18, 2019.
    40. This nebula of support has been crucial in recent years: RN’s online base has done the party’s work for them and allowed RN to come across, at least in official, public instances, as much less strident than they are.
    41. The conversations reflected something that is not exclusive to France but to which France has been particularly prey, namely the fear of “the great replacement.” This conspiracy theory claims that European elites are complicit in the replacing of Europe’s white population by non-European and specifically Arab and African populations (through immigration, natural demographic growth, and high fertility rates). The thesis was given greater prominence by Renaud Camus’ book Le Grand Remplacement (The Great Replacement), (Paris: Chez l’Auteur, 2011). Marie Le Pen never cites the book directly, but RN-friendly conspiracy sites do. And more to the point the fear is one that has been stoked for decades.
    42. “Standard Eurobarometer 91,” August 2019,
    43. Marine Le Pen, public meeting, Lyon, France, December 10, 2010.
    44. “#Ideo2017, Analyses de tweets politiques en campagnes électorales,”
    45. Julien Longhi, “Le Discours du FN sur l’Islam à épreuve des Tweets, ” The Conversation, April 12, 2017,
    46. Ibid.
    47. Commission nationale consultative des droits de l’homme, “Extrait du rapport sur la Lutte contre le Racisme et l’Antisémitisme 2017,
    48. France Fraternités, “Enquête Ifop “Musulmans en France”. Pour Jérôme Fourquet : « Le “tchador” n’a pas encore dit son dernier mot »,”September 18, 2019,
    49. This survey serves as the backdrop for Ifop Director Jerome Fourquet’s The French Archipelago on the transformations of French society and particularly the transformations of religious practice. Jérôme Fourquet, L’Archipel français: naissance d’une nation multiple et divisée, (Paris : Le Seuil, 2019).