Though the impact of faith must be taken with a grain of salt, it is not entirely irrelevant in the context of elections. Qualitative research conducted in 2012 and 2013 found that the vote of French Muslim citizens interviewed was indeed influenced by their religious identity.
Being a Muslim did not predetermine their answer to the question, Who should I vote for? But it did lead people to ask, Who shouldn’t I vote for? The impact was negative, helping them eliminate candidates deemed Islamophobic, rather than positive ([I] choose a candidate who defends my values, including religious values).
French Muslims took into account laws banning the headscarf or niqab, a veil that covers the face, as well as public comments against Islam, for instance, when weighing different candidates and their platforms. Candidates’ positions on foreign policy were also considered, with military interventions in Muslim-majority countries particularly frowned upon.
This is similar to how French citizens who identify as Jewish tend to be especially sensitive to antisemitism and to the position of candidates regarding Israel.
According to my study, being a Muslim can have three different effects on a person’s vote: it can consolidate a choice previously made, based on factors unrelated to religion; it can help select among a few candidates on the basis of the Islamophobia criterion; and when a candidate’s attitude towards Muslims is negatively perceived, it can destabilise and change a person’s political orientation.
Take, for example, Youssouf, a self-made man who in 2007 voted for Nicolas Sarkozy, the Republican party candidate. But in 2012, after what he called “the unashamed Islamophobic discourses and public policies targeting Islam made by him and his governement”, Youssouf decided to vote for the left-wing François Hollande. Even though Youssouf didn’t at all like Hollande’s stance on economic and social issues.
Because of their lower socioeconomic status and the marginalisation they face, many French Muslims, especially those living in France’s banlieues (suburbs), might simply choose not to vote.
Some of them justify their abstention with religious explanations, claiming that “voting is not halal”, since France is not a Muslim country
Calls for abstention in 2017
Generally, this position is only held by a minority of highly orthodox Tabligh or Salafist Muslims. But today, several public Muslim intellectuals, including leaders who are not necessarily from those sects are calling for an “active abstention” by Muslims of the 2017 presidential election. The intent is to escape the constant trap of voting for the “lesser of two evils”.
Nizarr Bourchada, leader of the Français et Musulmans (French and Muslim) party, advocates a similar approach. His is one of the first French political parties to claim a strong attachment to both Islamic and French Republican values.
This echoes French author Michel Houellebecq’s prescient 2015 novel Soumission (Submission). Set in 2022, the book imagines the rise to power in France of a Muslim political party that imposes polygamy and prohibits women from wearing clothes that make them “desirable”.
‘Soumission’ imagines a dystopic French Islamic future that tapped into many French citizens’ fears. Jacky Naegelen/Reuters
Within a few weeks of publication, Soumission had become a bestseller in France, Italy and Germany. It bolsters the idea that a collective vote of French Muslims, or at least their federation into a political party, would be a threat for French society.
The reality is quite different. But whatever the outcome of this election season, it seems that the fantasy of a “Muslim vote” will continue to haunt Europe’s imagination for years to come.