For political parties in France, it’s traditional to hold an université d’été — what English speakers might call a summer school. These are public activist meetups, devoted to lectures, debates, and rallying members together after the return from the holidays. For La France Insoumise (LFI) — the main organization of the anti-austerity left in France, whose leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, scored 19.6 percent at the 2017 presidential election — the 2019 université d’été thus ought to have represented an opportunity to regroup after the bad result in May’s European contest, where its 6.3 percent result fell far beneath expectations.
With Mélenchon himself away, touring Latin America, this was also an opportunity for LFI to show that it can get on with things even without the presence of its presidential candidate. Yet things didn’t play out as planned. And at fault was a recurring problem of the French left — Islamophobia.
The controversy came thanks to a talk by Henri Peña-Ruiz on laïcité — France’s brand of state secularism. The philosophy professor’s statement that “one has the right to be Islamophobic” had a truly explosive effect, sparking sharp criticisms against Peña-Ruiz and the fact that he had been allowed to speak at the France Insoumise event without there being anyone to debate — and challenge — him.
Peña-Ruiz is, after all, hardly an unknown quantity. He comes from the Left Party, of which Mélenchon is himself a member, and which is the largest party within LFI, though he called for a vote for the Communist Party (PCF) in the European election. Among Left Party circles, which occupy a central role in LFI’s organization, he is considered a “specialist” on laïcité.
These latter replied to the controversy by claiming that Peña-Ruiz’s words had been taken out of context and insisting that he had been targeted by a malicious campaign of invective against LFI. Yet at the same time, they rejected the very word “Islamophobia,” as if such a thing could not exist. Once again, the French left is displaying its inability to take sides on this issue — and to clearly stand up for the victims of racism.
A Deep-Rooted Ill
Faced with this controversy, it’s worth being clear about two points, the better to understand how it fits into the broader French context.
The first is that this isn’t only a problem with LFI, but something that cuts across the whole French left and radical left. One clear turning point was the adoption of the 2004 law on religious symbols in schools, which explicitly targeted young women wearing a hijab. At that time, the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (one of the main historic branches of French Trotskyism, and the predecessor of today’s Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste, NPA) did not frontally oppose this measure, but instead raised the slogan “Neither the veil nor the bill.” This meant putting a discriminatory law on an equal footing with the confessional practices (i.e., the decision to wear the veil) of the users of public services. Such was the rather shaky point of agreement between those LCR members who defended this bill (introduced by a right-wing government), those who rejected it, and a more undecided middle position. In short, it meant neither supporting nor opposing the anti-headscarf law.
Another radical-left force — the other main organization of the Trotskyist tradition at that time, Lutte Ouvrière (LO) — in fact supported this bill, and still today maintains an unfailing hostility to women being allowed to wear this garment. While the communist PCF voted against the bill in 2004, it has never drawn out a clear position on this question, indeed preferring to dodge it, not least since its own ranks include elements just as resolutely hostile to the hijab. So the problem is far more general than a matter of LFI leaders’ position.
The second important qualification worth making is that it wouldn’t be right to brand all these organizations as “racist,” thus equating them, Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche, the ever more radically racist conservative right, and the far right (and there are differences between these latter forces, too). Given its overall shrinkage and the increased weight of younger activists, the NPA has evolved toward stronger pro-equality positions; as we shall see, LFI is riven with multiple contradictions (as is the PCF) and, despite its great timidity on these questions, LO does regularly come to the defense of sans-papiers (undocumented migrants); the Greens (EE-LV) also display a more open position on these issues.
Yet even with these caveats, the question remains: Why is the French left tearing itself apart over the pertinence of the term “Islamophobia,” even when this is one of the most visible forms of racism in France?
It could be said that this owes in large part to a kind of negative effect of the French left’s historical vanguard role. It is, after all, heir to a powerful political project that emerged from the revolution of 1789, which was not only anti-monarchist but very largely anti-clerical, given that royalist forces based themselves on the institutions of the Catholic Church. This heritage intersected with the emergence of the labor movement and of class analysis. The living incarnation of this combination was the historical leader of French socialism before World War I, Jean Jaurès, a secular (laïc) republican and anti-monarchist who became an internationalist socialist, only to be assassinated by a nationalist because of his opposition to the looming war.
Through the particular dialectic of French history, it is through the channel of this republican-secular heritage that bourgeois ideology has worked to intellectually disarm the French left. More precisely, it has taken the form of an overly simplistic rationale that considers the role of the Left to be that of fighting for the rights of the proletariat (in more or less radical degrees) and, on the other hand, of bringing about the age of reason, as against the obscurantist religious superstitions maintained by — and for the benefit of — the bourgeoisie.
Yet such reasoning does not take us very far. It has no understanding of how these two questions may or may not go together, depending on the political context. It speaks of fighting “reaction.” Yet it treats the powerful homophobic bishop who covers up scandals within the Catholic Church on the same footing as the — often poor — Muslim family whose daughter wears a hijab.
This blind spot has become more visible as the subaltern proletariat of immigrant background – and more particularly that from former African (and especially North African) colonies and protectorates – has gained numerical weight in France. Concretely, this debate has focused on women wearing the hijab. For many activists and political representatives, this practice has become a spearhead of a global religious reaction — and regardless of the context, it has to be banished at whatever cost.
This reasoning invokes two types of reference points. The first consists of brief, decontextualized quotes from Karl Marx. His reference to religion as the “opium of the people” is doubtless the most fervently commented upon among left-wing activist circles, even though they are generally ignorant of the passage as a whole. The same goes for his line that the “premise of all criticism is the criticism of religion.” Written by a very young (twenty-five-year-old) Marx, this of course had to do with metaphysics rather than a position to adopt with regard to sectors of the proletariat subject to a specific oppression.
The second reference point consists of an inversion of the logic of the 1905 French law on the separation of church and state. This law — fundamental to French political culture — at first sought to guarantee the neutrality of the French state with regard to religious beliefs, in order to protect citizens from state interference at a time when the Catholic Church enjoyed great power both in the state and in wider society. The inversion took place when the obligation of neutrality was transferred from the state to public-service users themselves (as in the case of the 2004 law on the veil). Henri Peña-Ruiz was one of the main left-wing artisans of this inversion.
This obligation of neutrality — which almost exclusively concerns hijab-wearing Muslim women — does not only concern high-schoolers. For instance, in another measure supported by Peña-Ruiz, the same policy has spread to women accompanying their children on school outings (even when they are not themselves state employees). It has also come to effect in private establishments providing services outsourced from the public sector, and even in some public spaces, for instance when certain mayors issued bans against the wearing of bathing costumes covering the whole body and hair.
This reasoning leads to passivity toward — or even active support for — a law like the explicitly discriminatory measures of 2004, one of whose effects has been to block young women from access to public education. It translates into the saturation-level invocation of the “freedom to criticize religion” and the “right to blaspheme.” Such are the phrases put up in opposition to the term “Islamophobia” by those who denounce it as a ban on all criticism of the Muslim religion. And, as those who defend this reasoning always immediately add, “just as we’d criticize any other religion, and also while condemning racist acts targeting Muslims.” Such arguments are very widespread on the French left: Peña-Ruiz is but one prominent figure who defends them.
Head in the Clouds
This line of argument poses two problems. The first is, quite simply, its systematic refusal to recognize that the various definitions of “Islamophobia” do not refer to or invoke the “infallibility” of the Muslim religion in any way, but rather point to racism that targets Muslims on account of their (actual or supposed) faith.
The second problem concerns the drastic ambiguity of the formulas “freedom to criticize religion” and “right to blaspheme.” They settle for hammering away at the need for such a freedom — not that anyone in the left-wing debate actually questions it — without taking any account of what political uses are made of it, who is formulating this critique to what end, the typical social positions of the believers of this or that creed, or the political operations being deployed by the ruling class.
A flagrant example of this came in Peña-Ruiz’s talk when he compared the “right to be Islamophobic” to the right to be “Cathophobic,” in order to emphasize that his motives are “universalist” and not racist. But here, we get back to the same problem: Catholics do not suffer any structural oppression in France, but rather make up a large share of the economic elite. The term “Cathophobic” only exists in the language of the far right. So, the problem is not that one line in Peña-Ruiz’s talk was taken out of context, but rather the context itself — the wholly depoliticized line of argument underlying his claims.
This was, moreover, the argument of one of the main critiques that emerged from within France Insoumise’s own ranks — the statement by the LFI representatives on the Saint-Denis local council. As that statement put it, only in the ethereal heavens of the intellect do we just “come across a religion in the street” and calmly start attacking it:
Up [in those heavens], Peña-Ruiz and his friends can dream and theorize at leisure, at one remove from the sordid reality where the real-life Islamophobes (whom they deny their solidarity) are practicing. Point taken. But from our point of view it doesn’t matter what Islamophobia could be “in theory,” because we suffer it “in practice.”
Beyond its content — putting the debate back on its feet again — this statement was also important because Saint-Denis, a working-class town to the north of Paris with a large immigrant population, is one of France Insoumise’s top targets in the March 2020 local elections.
Since the Left’s capitulation to the anti-hijab law in 2004, Islamophobia has assumed such proportions in French mainstream discourse that few activists hostile to the use of the term “Islamophobia” can be unaware that people seen to be Muslim face discrimination. This unresolved contradiction was, however, apparent in the convoluted statement by France Insoumise. It indicated that
Given the contested meaning of the term “Islamophobia,” we do not use this word to designate and combat the racism against Muslim people. No do we say, or defend the idea, that we have the right to be Islamophobes. We have no doubt that Henri Peña-Ruiz had no intention of justifying the unacceptable attacks on people of Muslim faith in our country.
A further public statement by figures involved in LFI’s anti-racism commission (including the present author) highlighted the great danger of this polemic, noting that “Today, one doesn’t even have to openly admit one’s hate of Muslims — it’s enough to posture as a defender of laïcité and the Republic. Even Marine Le Pen can say as much — what a godsend for Islamophobes!”
Almost as if echoing this warning, Jordan Bardella — a prominent MEP for Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National — leapt on the issue and sought to legitimize his racist project by suggesting that there are overlaps in his party’s analyses and those of LFI. Even before that, Macron’s education minister — faced with widespread discontent among teachers and parents at the start of the school year — himself decided to use Islamophobia as a distraction, claiming that the lower numbers of girls attending primary school owed to the influence of radical Islam in France . . . though all demographic data makes a nonsense of his claim.
This last episode points to the pressing need for the anti-austerity left in France, beyond France Insoumise alone, to get to grips with the question of Islamophobia — not only to debate it, but to oppose it without nitpicking. The unanimous support that the UK Labour Party gave to the stirring speech its MP Tan Singh Dhesi (of Sikh faith) made in the House of Commons, just like the support Ilhan Omar has enjoyed in the US socialist left, ought to provide cause for reflection in France. Otherwise, any project of uniting the working classes in France against the fascist threat and the capitalist offensive accelerating under Macron will remain a dead letter. But unless we do — urgently — get to grips with Islamophobia, the bourgeois ideologues will have an easy time pressing this button.