‘Shock’ was the one-word headline on the front of Monday’s Le Figaro. France was bracing itself for a swing to the right in Sunday’s regional elections, but few imagined it would be quite as dramatic. Marine Le Pen’s Front National (FN) polled nearly 30 per cent of the vote in the first round of voting, ahead of Nicolas Sarkozy’s centre-right Les Républicains and the ruling Socialist Party, who trailed in third with 23 per cent. As it stands, the FN are on course to take control of six regions after Sunday’s second round, although the predictions are they will triumph in no more than three due to tactical voting.
Among those who voted for the FN are a small but increasing number of Muslims who see no conflict between their religion and the party’s fierce opposition to Islamism. Marine Le Pen – a far smarter operator than her anti-Semitic father, Jean-Marie, whom she had expelled from the FN earlier this year – has been courting the Muslim vote since she became party leader in January 2011. In her victory speech on Sunday night she called for the French people ‘of all origins’ to vote for the FN in the second round and ‘turn their back on the political class that deceives them’. The message that Marine Le Pen has sought to convey is that her party isn’t opposed to Muslims but to what she has described as the ‘progressive Islamisation of our country’. It’s a message that is winning her votes in the most unlikely of places.
In September Mohamed Boudia posted on social media a selfie of himself and Le Pen, an act for which he was threatened with death, and which served to reinforce his own belief that the Islamic extremists must be rooted out. While the majority of France’s estimated 4.5 million Muslims want to lead peaceful, integrated lives (only 2.1m are said to have declared their faith), there are hundreds, possibly thousands, of extremists.
Opposing them are Muslims like Boudia, some of whom have started a Facebook page called ‘We are Muslims and Proud to vote for Marine Le Pen‘. Another person is Karim Ouchikh, an administrator for Rassemblement bleu Marine, a political organisation affiliated to the FN. His parents were Berbers from northern Algeria who arrived in France in the early 1960s and abandoned their language and their customs to immerse themselves in the new culture. The problem now, he says, ‘is that since then a huge number of foreigners have arrived and formed enclaves’. In an interview with Le Point magazine in October, Ouchikh explained that he turned to the Front National because he was dismayed at the rising number of young Muslim men adopting the dress and beards of the ultra-conservative Salafists, people he describes as ‘provocateurs’.
Socialist MP Malek Boutih, himself of Algerian extraction, has another theory for the steady trickle of Muslims supporting the FN. ‘It’s a case of the last to arrive closing the door,’ he told Le Point. ‘Some children of immigrants imagine that to be truly French, they must be a little racist and pick on foreigners.’
While this may have an element of truth to it, Boutih’s governing Socialist party has also helped drive some French Muslims into the arms of Marine Le Pen. Firstly, their legalisation of same-sex marriage in 2013 angered many Muslims, and the leader of the FN has promised she will repeal the law if she becomes president in 2017. Then there is the unemployment, crime and drug gangs that blight many of France’s more deprived suburbs, turning some into virtual no-go areas for police, and leaving many law-abiding Muslims feeling trapped and abandoned.
According to Jean-Louis Merle, a local community worker in Seine-Saint-Denis – the scene of the bloody shootout last month between the security forces and the gang of the Paris attacks mastermind Abdelhamid Abaaoud – a number of elderly residents in the Muslim community there have thrown in their lot with the FN. ‘At first I thought they were being ironic,’ said Merle in an interview with Le Parisien. ‘But no, they’re serious. They’ve had enough of the noise and the insecurity. Ten years ago these type of comments would have been unimaginable.’
Speaking before the attacks of 13 November, Malek Boutih described Seine-Saint-Denis as ‘impenetrable’ for Le Pen, and while the Socialists came first in Seine-Saint-Denis in Sunday’s first round of voting, the FN’s share of the vote (54,000 votes in total), increased from 12 percent in the 2010 regional elections to 20 percent. In the 2012 presidential election it was estimated by IFOP, an international polling firm, that 4 percent of Muslims in France voted for Marine Le Pen. In 2014, a confidential report conducted by an association of trade unions at the time of the council elections found that 8 percent of its Muslim members had voted for the FN. One of the shocks of this particular election was the FN’s victory in a tough district of Marseille with a predominantly North African population. Asked by the media why they had voted for the FN, the residents gave two reasons: rising crime and an unemployment rate of 30 percent.
Boutih knows better than most why more and more Muslims are turning to the Front National. In an interview last month with Le Figaro, he explained that in February this year he was commissioned by the Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, to examine the radicalisation of young French Muslims. The report he presented, Génération Radicale, proved unpalatable to his fellow Socialists, who dismissed its findings at a meeting at the party’s headquarters in July. Summoned to address the party’s inner circle, Boutih subsequently told Le Figaro. ‘I produced a speech on the emergence of the violence, I’m therefore going against the tide [of Socialist opinion]. I became an embarrassment. Everything was done for me to disappear from political life.’
The failure of both Francois Hollande’s and Nicolas Sarkozy’s governments to tackle Islamic extremism in France has left many Muslims feeling abandoned by the traditional politicians. In late October Paris’s daily tabloid, Le Parisien, visited Seine-Saint-Denis to see what headway the FN was making in its bid to attract disillusioned voters. Those who talked did so on the condition of anonymity but what they said was illuminating. ‘I want to see Marine Le Pen in the Elysee,’ said one person. ‘Hollande, Sarko, they’re clones. The FN are the only ones to be firm.’ Similarly, a woman called Nabila said she intended to vote for the FN. ‘She [Marine Le Pen] is not like her father. She’s not 100 percent racist. I’m Muslim but I don’t find it normal that there are so many illegal immigrants coming. The Left, the Right, they’ve never changed anything. So why not her?’
The majority of Muslims have traditionally voted for the Socialists and while most would never dream of turning to the Front National, many are so disillusioned with the ruling party that they are abstaining. Prime Minister Manuel Valls has this week called on them to vote but his message is struggling to be heard. As one young Muslim voter explained: ‘It’s not that I’m disengaged… I just don’t see the point of going to vote if I don’t find anything in what any of the parties are proposing.’
Gavin Mortimer is the author of ‘The Men Who Made the SAS: a History of the Long Range Desert Group in WW2’.