Gavin Mortimer

The French left is tearing itself apart over Islam

The French left is tearing itself apart over Islam
Text settings

Six months into his presidency, Emmanuel Macron looks untouchable. He has conquered the unions, and his political opponents are a shambles – none more so than the Socialists. Just how divided they are was demonstrated earlier this month when a vicious war of words erupted within the French left. The cause was Islam, an issue that has been agitating Socialists for decades. When the first Socialist president of the Fifth Republic, François Mitterrand, was elected in 1981, his government was initially a friend of Islam. As the eighties wore on though, some on the left became alarmed at the demands being made of the Republic: prayer rooms in factories and the right to pray five times a day were particular sticking points. Pierre Mauroy, who served as prime minister during this period, denounced the growing influence of Islam in the workplace, prompting the left-wing newspaper Liberation to warn that such statements were 'the slippery slope to racism'. 

This fault line has remained in the Socialist party ever since, causing occasional tremors of disunity, such as the 1989 headscarf row, and the 2004 ban on religious symbols in schools. The attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in 2015 caused the ideological plates to shift again. On one side stands the satirical magazine's supporters, like the former Socialist prime minister, Manuel Valls, and the philosopher Alain Finkielkraut; on the other, the 'Islamo-gauchistes', led by Edwy Plenel, the former editor of Le Monde, who believes that French Muslims are institutionally victimised and that those who criticise their religion – such as the author Michel Houellebecq – are guilty of Islamophobia. 

Oxford professor Tariq Ramadan is the reason for this latest, and most virulent, row within the French left. Days after allegations of sexual assault were levelled at Ramadan, Charlie Hebdo depicted Ramadan on its front cover in a state of impressive arousal under the headline 'The Sixth Pillar of Islam'. Plenel wasn't amused and accused the magazine of waging 'a war against Muslims'. Charlie Hebdo, which has received several death threats since the Ramadan cartoon, responded with a furious editorial, accusing Plenel of 'condemning Charlie Hebdo to death a second time'. The next issue of the magazine featured Plenel on the front cover in a variation of the 'see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil' monkey. Valls then waded into the dispute, saying that Plenel and his Islamo-gauchistes cohorts share an 'intellectual complicity' with Islamic extremism. The former PM is a long-standing adversary of Plenel, stretching back to 2013 when, as minister of the interior, he explained that he refused to use the word 'Islamophobia' because it was 'a Salafist Trojan Horse', a term invented to shut down any criticism of the religion.

Caught in the crossfire is Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of the far-left France Insoumise, who described the furore as 'absurd' and called on both parties to curb their excessive language. Mélenchon is a political survivor, the most senior Socialist still standing, and he will be aware that Islam is in danger of becoming to the French left what Europe has to the Tories: a divisive issue that causes fissures and creates factions and plays into the hands of their opponents. Two polls this week, for example, show an increase in the approval rating of Macron and his Prime Minister, Édouard Philippe, and a drop in the popularity of Mélenchon.

Macron, of course, benefits from leading a party that is only 18 months old and has no such ideological baggage. What he says goes with La République En Marche!, and consequently he has constructed a party that he controls with an iron rod. Macron lunches with Obama this Saturday, and on the same day Benoît Hamon will address a rally in Le Mans as he attempts to consign his disastrous presidential campaign to the past. The Socialist Party candidate has copied the president in launching a new party – M1717 [Le mouvement du 1er Juillet] – but five months on and what sounds more like a flight number than a political party is short on funds and supporters. Hamon has stated that his desire is 'to bring together the orphans of the left', but that's a lofty ambition for a man without charisma and an ideology without a raison d'être.