Minorities caught in the middle

Will the Macron victory in France stem the currents of xenophobic populism? Unlikely.

Sigh of relief. Supporters of French President-elect Emmanuel Macron outside the Louvre Museum in Paris, on May 7. (AP)

2017/05/14 Issue: 106 Page: 8

The Arab Weekly
Oussama Romdhani

A few moments before the victorious Emmanuel Macron went on stage in front of the Pyramid near the Louvre Palace to talk to his supporters, a particular type of music blared. The organisers played “Sidi Abdelkader,” an old Raï music hit by Algerian performers Cheb Khaled, Rachid Taha and Faudel.

It was not the type of music that would have celebrated an electoral triumph of the extreme right-wing camp of Marine Le Pen. This was as much a celebra­tion of its defeat as it was an illustration of the reconfirmed legitimacy of inclusiveness and ethnic and religious diversity in France after the May 7 vote.

After decades of strong — even if complex — cultural ties between France and its former colonies in Africa and the Maghreb, it was strange that Algerian Raï music could have ever sounded like a threat to French identity. During the last few weeks of France’s electoral campaign, Le Pen’s culturally purist narrative started to sow doubts in the minds of France watchers. That was part of the negative package offered by the National Front to French voters.

Macron, a pro-NATO and pro-EU politician and advocate of preserving France’s traditional policies in Africa and the Middle East, won on a collective reflex of rejection of the risks associated with the far right rather than on his own promises. He was elected because the French wanted a smooth reformist at the helm and to avoid the abrupt turbulence advocated by his rival’s advocacy of a French version of Brexit.

Nearly 60% of Macron’s voters, a Harris Interactive poll indi­cated, picked him just to stop Le Pen from becoming France’s president. If the ratio of polls conducted in the first election round is any indication, Muslims are likely to have voted in much higher numbers than that for Macron, again primarily out of wariness about Le Pen.

Her world, which divided French citizens “between patriots and globalists,” was custom-made to poke the fears of all things “foreign,” be they migrants, Eurocrats or even French nationals of Muslim faith.

Her anti-immigration and protectionist planks appealed to those of low-income, the unem­ployed and the disgruntled of rural France. The banner of socio-economic nationalism and protection of French identity had a definite appeal to her constitu­encies. Within the public at large, Le Pen herself became the subject of fear when she sug­gested that France leave the eurozone. That prospect seems to have been her undoing.

But Macron knows that the anguish of an important segment of the French electorate is still simmering. “I know the anger, the anxiety, the doubts that very many of you have also expressed. It’s my responsibility to hear them,” he said in his victory speech.

Will the Macron victory in France stem the currents of xeno­phobic populism in France or in Europe? Unlikely.

Despite losing, the supporters of France’s far right are likely to feel a boost by the results of this election. With 34% of the ballots cast in her favour, Le Pen achieved the National Front’s best score in 44 years.

Other figures drive the point. An M6 television poll showed that 56% of those who said they voted for Le Pen said they felt she embodied their preoccupations very well, compared to 21% among Macron’s voters who said they felt the same about their candidate. The turmoil Le Pen created within the ranks of voters and politicians is to blame for the more than 34% abstentionist and blank votes.

Suspicions of Islam and Muslims will not go away that easily. Even in the minds of moderate centrists such as Macron, there is apprehension about possible conflict between acting as a French citizen and being a Muslim. Last October, in Montpellier, the new French president had expressed his “hope” that French Muslims show themselves to be “always more proud of being French than of being Muslim.”

There is no way the poor electoral performance of popu­lists in Europe following Britain’s Brexit vote in June and Donald Trump’s upset victory in Novem­ber in the United States can be described as a definitive rejec­tion of the populist agendas by Western voters. Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party of Austria lost the presidential race last Decem­ber narrowly. The Party of Freedom of Dutch anti-Islam MP Geert Wilders came in second in the legislative elections.

Minorities of Muslim faith and Arab stock are today caught in the middle. They will remain the populists’ favourite alibi for the woes of the West at the same time that jihadists want them to serve as the foot soldiers in a doomsday scenario of clash of civilisations.

These minorities know their welfare rides on the success of mainstream European leaders in winning elections and, after they do, in spurring economic growth and thwarting terror attacks. Their only defence is to act as fully fledged citizens of their adoptive countries.

Oussama Romdhani is the chief editor of the Arab Weekly.

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