PARIS _ Illan Haddad, 31, has for years worn a baseball hat over his yarmulke in fear of being attacked because he’s a Jew. It’s been that way since he was 15 and a Muslim neighbor shouted “Long live Palestine!” before spitting and assaulting him in his hometown of Gennevilliers, a northwestern suburb of Paris.
As he waits in a metro station in the center of Paris on his way home from work, he sighs with relief, anxious to escape what he says is a daily “atmosphere of tension.”
Hate speech, both online and in real life, has been percolating in French society for years. Human rights advocates say the toxic French brands of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and racism have resurged in the week leading up to Sunday’s presidential elections, as candidates launch their final efforts to mobilize the party and draw new voters. A Thursday night shootout, in which a gunman claimed by ISIS killed a police officer on the iconic Champs Elysees boulevard, has caused tensions to soar.
After Brexit in the United Kingdom and the election of Donald Trump in the U.S., this year’s presidential campaigns have morphed into an insidious and unprecedented competition of identity politics. Marine Le Pen, the surprising far-right frontrunner who heads the once-fringe National Front party, has brought xenophobia and the “clash” of Islamic and Western civilizations into mainstream discourse. On Wednesday, the anti-European Union and anti-immigration Le Pen wrapped up her last rally in Marseille — where a day earlier police arrested two men on suspicion of plotting an election attack — with a promise to stamp out the “poison” of radical Islam. She’s also promised to ban the head scarf for Muslim women and the yarmulke for Jewish men.
Even Francois Fillon, the once-favored conservative candidate now polling in third place after a corruption scandal, has tapped into his conservative Catholic voting bloc who argue that the country’s Christian traditions serve as its bulwark. “Let’s stop kidding ourselves,” Fillon wrote in his recently released bestselling book, Vanquishing Islamic Totalitarianism. “France doesn’t have a problem with religion. The problem is linked to Islam.”
In a fake interview published last week on the satirical website NordPresse, the prominent French-Jewish philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy was quoted as saying, “If Melenchon is elected, I’m leaving France,” referring to Communist-backed candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon who has recently risen in the polls. The hashtag #BHL — standing for Bernard-Henri Levy — has since exploded on Twitter, and hundreds of Melenchon supporters circulated the fake interview on Twitter along with anti-Semitic comments. “Shove off to Israel or the States, you son of a bitch,” one Twitter user wrote.
France’s unusual political foray into the realm of religion, “is bad for all of us,” says Haddad.
“Jews and Muslims are being talked about as ‘others,’ but we are French above anything else,” he says. He adds that Jews and Muslims are being increasingly co-opted by the candidates, but none are addressing the real problems affecting the Muslim minority: lower access to education and housing and their over-representation in prisons where they’re exposed to radicalization. He says the Jewish community has an interest in seeing those resolved, “since we, Jews and Muslims, we share the same struggle,” and because French Muslims today carry out the greatest number of attacks against French Jews.
The French election will take place in two rounds, on April 23 and May 7. Many polls show that Le Pen will win the first round and lose to centrist candidate Emannuel Macron in the second.
Macron, Le Pen, Fillon and Mélenchon make it a four-horse race. The “Le Pen effect” now has all four campaigning on law and order and “national identity.” But they’ve been virtually silent on a rising torrent of hate speech that has “become commonplace” in France, according to a report last year by the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance.
Hundreds of attacks are carried out every year against Jews, Muslims, and black French citizens. The organizations that track the trends — operating independently of the government, which forbids official consensus based on religious affiliation, and has shown little political will to get involved in the problem — say that there is severe under-reporting.
That is because French security forces provide little incentive for those coming forward with incidents not directly linked with terrorism. When Illan Haddad filed a complaint with the police more than fifteen years ago, they only responded a year later with a letter of apology but no promise of action.
In recent years, the focus on Islamic terrorism has only increased. The Charlie Hebdo massacre and a spate of brutal coordinated killings in 2015 in and around Paris, carried out by French and Belgian Muslim citizens who pledged allegiance to ISIS, shook the French consciousness and spurred new questions about the place of Muslims in French society. France declared a state of emergency that gave the state greater powers of surveillance, originally meant to be temporary but which remains in place today. The state has carried out more than 4,100 house raids overwhelmingly targeting Muslim communities, resulting in only six terror-related investigations, according to the most recent European Islamophobia Report.
“In the wake of a series of appalling attacks, from Paris to Berlin, governments have rushed through a raft of disproportionate and discriminatory laws,” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Director for Europe. “Taken alone these individual counter-terrorism measures are worrying enough, but when seen together, a disturbing picture emerges in which unchecked powers are trampling freedoms that have long been taken for granted.”
Critics say that national security tunnel vision meant that too few politicians have challenged the country’s claims of being colorblind and or its exclusivist state program of secularism (laïcité). Anti-hate speech organizations say the government’s muscular stance has heightened minorities’ sense of isolation, especially in France’s blighted suburbs where Muslims, Jews, and other groups live in bleak housing projects and face economic discrimination.
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