Unfortunately for the French electorate, Macron fell short of this promise to stem the rise of the far-right. In the wake of his 2017 victory, the political landscape shifted dramatically, with Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally party being the main beneficiary.
During his first term in office, Macron’s administration flirted with the same right-wing themes that have powered Le Pen’s rise — including Islam, security and immigration. Indeed, the entire political landscape in France is not immune to the appeal of policies that have profound effects on anyone who was not born White and on French soil.
Whether or not Macron retains his seat, the effects of the creeping acceptance of the premises fueling Le Pen’s rise will be profound.
But in the past 10 years, the threat has expanded from public safety to include Muslims being seen as an existential threat to the cultural identity of what is being called “traditional France.”
While Macron is seen as an alternative to the far-right, he has also attempted to play both sides — putting on a liberal face for an international audience, while quietly embracing the very policies that the far-right has championed at home.
To lead this charge, Macron appointed Gérald Darmanin to the Ministry of Interior, one of the most powerful ministries in France. Darmanin has polarized the electorate with a staunch support for the French police, gaining strong support from influential police unions while alienating much of the left.
The anti-separatism bill was part of Macron’s strategy ahead of the 2022 presidential election to take some wind out of the far-right’s sails.
Under the law, non-profit organizations are subject to signing a “contract of republican commitment” — by which they must pledge respect to liberty, equality, fraternity, human dignity and public order. As a result, public authorities can arbitrarily deny, claim reimbursement or withdraw support to associations they deem are not respecting said values.
Some associations fear that the heart of their activities (such as providing support to undocumented people, or human rights activist groups denouncing government discriminatory policies) could be deemed a violation of public order — and as a consequence, lose their funding.
Meanwhile, Le Pen has done her own version of a face-lift, de-emphasizing the harsher elements of her platform, while refusing to concede the underlying ideology that her party pioneered over the past 30 years.
But since the 1990s, the understanding of laïcité has evolved and been interpreted as limiting religious expressions, more specifically Muslim ones. This has primarily been implemented through legislation restricting the wearing of visible religious signs, especially the wearing of the headscarf by some Muslim women.
While Macron’s statement was baffling, as it’s unlikely he would have asked such a question to a Catholic nun wearing a veil, a Jew wearing a yarmulke or a Sikh wearing a turban, the President is clearly trying to backpedal from the actions of his administration and pretend measures like the Anti-Separatism Law never happened.
Once again, Muslims, and especially Muslim women, are being instrumentalized for electoral purposes. Regardless of who wins the election, the far-right has already won. They are shaping the agenda of French political debate. If Le Pen does not win this time, she or someone like her will most likely win another time.
There is a need to proactively and constructively engage with Muslims, put in place programs that fight discrimination, and stop weaponizing laïcité as a tool for political identity. Muslims are simply not the threat some politicians and pundits make them out to be. France needs to allow Muslims to be full French citizens on their own terms, to express their identities openly and honestly, in a manner that is both true to their faith yet unambiguously French.
Whether or not Macron or Le Pen wins this weekend, there is no doubt that the political landscape is shifting under the feet of French voters.