It was the 34th annual convention of France's Muslims at the weekend in le Bourget, just north of Paris, and the main topic of conversation was the upcoming presidential election. Five years ago, when François Hollande beat Nicolas Sarkozy to become president, the Socialist candidate benefited from 86 per cent of the Muslim vote. That won't happen in 2017. Jérôme Fourquet, director of IFOP, the international polling organisation, said recently that in the wake of the 2012 election 'the left committed the error of believing that they had acquired this [Muslim] electorate permanently'. And yet in Benoît Hamon, who hopes to succeed Hollande as the next president from the Socialist Party, Islam has a friend.
Derided by his critics as an 'Islamo-Gauchiste', Hamon is the MP for Trappes, a heartland of conservative Islam described last year by a high-ranking policeman as France's answer to Molenbeek, the Brussels' suburb known for its extremism. In December, Hamon defended an Islamic cafe in northern Paris that refused to serve women, by saying that 'historically, in workers' cafes, there haven't been women'.
Hamon can cosset Islam as much as he likes; it's his party that is the problem. In 2013, the Socialist Party passed the same-sex marriage bill and the following year they trialled in schools the 'ABCD of Equality', lessons on sexual equality that were scrapped six months later after a wave of protests from parents of several faiths. The ailing economy has been another reason for disenchantment among France's Muslims, while others feel victimised by the government's response to the string of Islamist terrorist attacks. Manuel Valls, the former Prime Minister, who was beaten by Hamon in January's Socialist primary, grew noticeably more strident in his criticism of Islam last year, advocating a ban on the headscarf and burkini. One delegate told Le Monde at the weekend convention that as a result Muslims felt 'betrayed' by the Socialist Party.
But not Socialists per se. The man who stands to gain most from the disenchanted Muslim electorate is Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the veteran far-left candidate, who, in the first round of the 2012 election garnered 20 per cent of the Muslim vote, second only to Hollande's 57 per cent.
Many of the 150,000 delegates at the convention declared their intention to vote for Mélenchon, which is not surprising given his reaction to last summer's notorious burkini row. Although in the past, the far-left candidate has spoken out against the wearing of religious clothing, he was firmly on the side of those young women forbidden by court orders to wear what they wanted to wear on the beach. 'In our country', he tweeted in August, 'we have persecuted the Jews, then the Protestants and today the Muslims'.
The tweet caused uproar in a country where Islamists had murdered nearly 250 people in the preceding 18 months, including 86 just a few weeks earlier in Nice. The conservative newspaper, Le Figaro, was quick to ridicule the former communist with an article headlined 'Comrade Mélenchon converts to Islamo-gauchism'. Expressing its disgust at Melenchon's attempt to liken the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre and the Vel' d'Hiv Round-up [the mass arrest of Jews by French police in 1942], to a woman in a burkini receiving a caution from a policeman, the paper said that 'Muslims are not the victims as indicated, and the executioners are recruited from within their ranks'.
But many Muslims in France do consider themselves victims and in Mélenchon they see the incarnation of the Useful Idiot. 'We are the party of kindness, we are the party of pacifists, we are the party of humanists', he said last August. His party is called France Insoumise, Unsubmissive France, but when it comes to Islamic Extremism, Mélenchon has been a study in submissiveness. Following Mohammed Merah's rampage across France in March 2012 in which he singled out Muslim soldiers and Jewish schoolchildren for cold-blooded execution, Mélenchon dismissed any link to Islam. Ignoring the fact Merah had been in trained in a Taliban camp, Mélenchon chose to describe him as a 'cretin', and he warned against 'politicising' his act. Two years later, when violent pro-Palestine demonstrations broke out across Paris, Mélenchon insisted anti-Semitism was not a factor and blamed the burned-out Jewish shops and businesses on 'a handful of nutters'. Then, in November 2015, days after an Islamist terror cell had butchered 130 people in Paris, Mélenchon declared to the European Parliament that 'Islam is not implicated in this affair just as no other belief is'. Rather, he said, 'the cause of terrorism is money...[and] religious fundamentalism is the mask of a war for money'.
One might find it baffling that a politician with such views is polling so well just days before the first round of voting in the presidential election, but Mélenchon, this pied piper of a politician, has been using his charisma to great effect to lure the disillusioned and gullible to his party. Many of his supporters were at Le Bourget last weekend, including a middle-aged man called Lamine. 'When they touch the precepts of our religion, it's like they've insulted us', he told a French broadcaster. 'They talk about us, but our voice is not heard'. That's why he and many other Muslims are voting for Mélenchon, in the hope their voice will be heard.