The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies welcomed noted French writer Alain Gresh for a guest lecture in Doha, April 26, 2017. Gresh used the opportunity to explain the socio-political landscape in Paris ahead of the second round of the 2017 presidential election. These elections have offered voters a unique choice between candidates; a fact inseparable from France’s relations with the Arab world.

For the first time in De Gaulle’s Fifth Republic, neither of the country’s two main political parties are represented in the second round. In the wake of a prolonged economic downturn and a series of confrontations with Muslim groups, including challenges to state secularism and a string of terrorist attacks by ISIS militants, voters in France have abandoned the two traditional parties of the establishment. The fracture caused by the approach to Islam was particularly relevant to Gresh’s talk.

According to the former editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, divisions between “Right” and “Left”, and the distinctions between populist sentiment and elitism are being lost—and this is at least partly due to the conundrum presented by Islam, as well as the socio-economic pressures of globalization. Gresh explains that as a result, socially liberal leftists were today making common cause with isolationist nationalists, who now have a candidate in the final round of the vote for the ÉlyséePalace.

Facing off against the once-castigated Front National’s Marine Le Pen is Emmanuel Macron, a former banker and the founder of the new En Marche party. Although a victory for Macron, one-time Minister of Economy under the outgoing Socialist Party, now appears certain, the success of the Front National’s election campaign itself highlighted the ways in which the country is vexed by issues related to Muslim immigrant communities.  

Domestic policy: French Identity Crisis?

While Le Pen, whose party is a byword for xenophobia, was able to play on the anxieties of French voters about the integration of France’s Muslims into wider society, she was not, said Gresh, the only candidate in the first part of the presidential race to exploit “Islamophobic” sentiment. In fact, “Francois Fillon [candidate of the mainstream Republican Party] often outdid Le Pen” in stoking anti-Muslim fears, said Gresh. Pointedly, this meant that while Le Pen won a significant number of the more than 36,000 communes (wards) in which French voters live, these tended to be in sparsely populated regions where the typical voter never came across a foreigner, Muslim or otherwise. Yet the rhetoric was likely to ensure that French Muslims—the country’s largest visible minority—did not vote for establishment representative Fillon.

Foreign Policy: France and Political Islam

Attitudes towards the Muslim community in the avowedly secular country also took the form of an aversion to political Islam—but, said Gresh, this meant that politicians such as Fillon sometimes conflated mainstream, peaceful Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood with Al Qaeda and ISIL. In the case of Egypt, this meant that candidates for the democratic Republic had no problem backing a military coup to overthrow an elected leader—merely because he was an Islamist. Whatever the ideology of the Arab regimes in question, however, France is happy to prop up Middle Eastern governments, so long as they continue to buy its weapons. 

Ideological apathy was also, said Gresh, a hallmark of contemporary Russian intervention in the Greater Middle East. Even as the United States exclaimed its intention to “pivot to Asia”, France, lamented Gresh, was not about to fill any interventionist role in the Middle East and North Africa, beyond ensuring that the regimes buying French weapons remained stable.

The two candidates entering the final round are Emmanuel Macron, who has come from nowhere to be the mostly candidate for French Presidency and Eurosceptic, Marine Le Pen, who reformed the Front National to become a populist, youth focused party, capitalizing on wide-scale disenchantment with the European Union from across the political spectrum. Although an earlier candidate, former Trotskyist Jean-Luc Melenchon had both lambasted Saudi Arabia for backing terrorism and called for the scrapping of a legal ban on activities in support of the boycott of Israel, the two candidates left in the race today spelled out one thing, said Gresh: France would continue to maintain the status quo in its dealings with the Arab world. 

The run-off of the elections will be held on 7 May, 2017. The victor will subsequently face the difficult task of securing enough backing in the French legislature.