By Michel Gurfinkiel
The old political guard is collapsing in France. A matter of neglected issues: Muslim immigration, the drift towards a two-tier society, and a weird electoral system.
No political observer in his right mind would have expected at the beginning of 2016 a Brexit vote in Britain in June, the resignation of David Cameron, a dogfight between the two main Brexit supporters and propagandists within the Tory party, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, and eventually the rise of Theresa May. Nor would he have foreseen, for that matter, the election of Donald Trump in the United States on November 8.
Something similar is happening in France now — on a much larger and trickier scale. A few months ago, it was taken for granted that François Hollande's ineffectual socialist administration would be succeeded after the 2017 election — on April 23 and May 7 — by a conservative government led either by former president Nicolas Sarkozy or former prime minister Alain Juppé: a simple matter of the swing of the pendulum, as is the rule among democracies.
What the French are facing now, however, is an unprecedented upsurge of the National Front, the elimination of a generation of political leaders on almost all sides, and the collapse or near collapse of classic Left and Right parties.
Why did the old political guard collapse? Why did the rebels win? It was, first and foremost, a matter of neglected issues: Muslim immigration and the drift towards a two-tier society. At the same time, the old guard did not realise that confidence in the electoral system, and thus in the political system as a whole, was rapidly eroding.
The French Muslim community is the largest and fastest-growing in Europe. In 50 years, from 1967 to 2017, the population of the Republic of France (including the overseas territories, which are as French as Hawaii and Alaska are American) grew from 50 million to 67 million, a 34 per cent increase. Meanwhile, the Muslim population has grown, either naturally or as a result of migrational trends, from one million or so to five or six million at least: that is to say a 500-600 per cent increase. As for the ratio of Muslims to the global population, it grew from 2 per cent to 7-9 per cent.
No other European nation experienced such a dramatic change in its ethnic and religious fabric, even if some of them — Germany and Austria, Belgium and the Netherlands, Switzerland and the Scandinavian countries — are not far behind.
The real impact of Muslim immigration is even bigger in generational terms: the younger the population, the higher the proportion of Muslims. While less than one tenth of French citizens were Muslims in the early 2010s, the proportion was one-fifth for French citizens or residents under 24 nationwide and even higher in some places. A 2015 Ipsos investigation in the Greater Marseilles area found that 25.5 per cent of local youths in their mid-teens identified as Muslim. Similar figures were to be found in all other big cities, where most of the population lives. Unless trends are reversed, by 2050 — some 30 years from now — France may thus look like India or Israel (non-Muslim countries with large Muslim communities), if not indeed like Lebanon (a Muslim country with a large Christian minority).
But what really matters is not religion as such, or even ethnicity. It is the future of France as a way of life and a culture. France used to be a very open and inclusive society, where most immigrants, whatever their background, tended to assimilate quickly and thoroughly into the mainstream culture and way of life. This is no longer the case with Muslims. According to a Fondapol 2014 survey, the proportion of "strictly religious" French Muslims rose from 27 per cent in 1994 to 42 per cent 20 years later. To quote again the Ipsos survey on Marseilles, 83 per cent of young Muslims described religion as "something important or very important," against 40 per cent of non-Muslims (and 22 per cent of Catholics). Another Ifop survey last September suggests that 29 per cent of French Muslims see Sharia as more important than the law of the land, and that 65 per cent condone the Islamic rules of female "modesty" in the public sphere, including the Hijab or Burqa and the Burkini, the Edwardian-style all-body bathing suit.
What if such views and attitudes foster "no-go zones" or de facto enclaves in many parts of the country, or terrorism? Over the past four years, more than 2,000 French Muslims have joined Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Conversely, about 200 people were killed and 300 were wounded or maimed in France by French-born jihadist attackers: from the murder of soldiers and Jewish teachers and kids in southern France in March 2012 to the massacre of cartoonists and Jewish shoppers in Paris in January 2015, and from the killing sprees in Paris in November 2015 and Nice in July 2016 to the murder of an elderly Catholic priest during Mass a few days later.
President Hollande warned in his book of a looming "partition" of the country. The right-wing columnist Eric Zemmour, whose essay Le Suicide Français (The Suicide of France) sold more than 200,000 copies in 2014, prophesied a "coming civil war." France's most notable writer, Michel Houellebecq, sold 350,000 copies of Soumission (Submission), a 2015 novel about the election of a "moderate Islamist" as president of France in the 2020s, and an ensuing accelerated, albeit peaceful, Islamisation of French government and society.
While everybody agrees that immigration and Islam are major challenges, the mainstream parties have, on the whole, been unable to devise coherent answers. They contend that partition, civil war, or the replacement of the nation state by ethnic-religious communities (referred to as communautarisme) are absolute evils, and must be countered by a "restored" or "reconstructed" secular democracy. Many advise French Muslims to emulate the many compromises made by French Jews after 1789 — not realising that Jews were content to be "emancipated" and never entertained the slightest fantasies about converting the whole of Europe to their faith, whereas most Muslims understand full citizenship as the promise to be fully Muslim, and the right to propagate their own Muslim faith.
However, a growing minority thinks that secular democracy is not a practical answer any more and that the only way to resist an Islamic conquest is to restore a sense of community among the non-Muslim French, based either on the Christian tradition or the Enlightenment, or both. While [Marine] Le Pen insists she is staunchly secular, she refers to France as an organic community. Among those Catholics who supported [François] Fillon, many belong to a younger generation closer to conservative popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI — or even to the schismatic Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre — than to the Second Vatican Council fathers or their present heir, Pope Francis, and envisage the abolition or the revision of the 1905 Law of Separation of Church and State.
Alternatively, another minority, on the Left, is prepared to acquiesce in many Muslim demands for the sake of civil peace — the path subtly derided by Houellebecq in Soumission. As for [Emmanuel] Macron, he seems to support immigration and more religious freedom for Islam as long as immigrants and Muslims behave as loyal and hard-working citizens. He is apparently convinced that a more open economy would help them to go mainstream more quickly.
Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, who served as editor at Atlantico, a major conservative online magazine, recently remarked that Jews function in many countries as an advance warning system. When Jews get anxious about their condition, it means that something wrong and ominous may be lurking for the nation at large. Can this Jewish standard be applied to the present situation of France? Maybe. Muslim anti-Semitism (with or without the excuse of anti-Zionism) has been a harbinger of more general Muslim antagonism against mainstream French culture. Repeated acts of anti-Jewish terrorism preceded the anti-French terrorism wave of 2015 and 2016.
By this token, the 2017 presidential campaign is not entirely reassuring. Globalisation, the original sin according to both the far Left and far Right, is frequently associated with the United States, the West — and the Jews. Even with Trump in the White House. Trump may be an America Firster, but he is also a friend of Israel, the father of an Orthodox Jewish daughter and the "proud grandfather," to quote him, "of Jewish grandchildren." In a different order of things, French Muslims may support indiscriminately IS or Palestinian groups or Iran or Assad's Syria as expressions of Muslim power, while many non-Muslim French may support Iran or Hezbollah or Assad's Syria as allies against IS.
As for the rise of Macron, it fits only too well many stereotypes about elites, bankers, cosmopolitism, conspiracies, or what the Americans call "Manchurian candidates." Again, these stereotypes tend to include Jews as well. A conservative website recently ran a caricature of Macron as a former Rothschild banker that exaggerated some of his facial features, clearly to suggest, against all the evidence, that he was Jewish. It was swiftly withdrawn, but the damage was done.
Michel Gurfinkiel, a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum, is the founder and president of the Jean-Jacques Rousseau Institute, a conservative think tank in France.