No Unified "Muslim Vote"
"Go out and vote!" – that was the message of the Islamic organisations to the Muslim population in the final few days before the first stage of the French presidential elections. None of the total of twelve candidates for the presidency managed to win the support of the major Islamic associations.
And in the run-off election on 6 May between Nicolas Sarkozy, the candidate of the governing "Union pour un Mouvement Populaire" (UMP) and Ségolène Royal, representing the opposition "Parti Socialiste" (PS), neither of the two candidates can be sure of Muslim voters' approval.
The first round of voting last Sunday was awaited with great tension, including by the country's approximately four million Muslims. France's estimated one to one-and-a-half million Muslim voters have been pulled in by the heated debates prior to the elections – if that was even necessary at all.
A survey carried out by the opinion poll institute IFOP in December 2006 on French Muslims' party preferences showed how much recent events have influenced Muslim voters' political orientations.
Muslim support for the Socialists, for example, rose 9 percentage points as a result of the rioting in the banlieues in November 2005, from 44.8 to 53.8 percent. In November 2006, 55.2 percent expressed a preference for the "Parti Socialiste" (PS).
The parties on the right-hand side of the political spectrum were clearly outdone, barely scraping 10 percent together.
Suburban riots election topic for the right wing
As clear as these figures might seem, it was far from predictable where Muslim voters would put their cross in the presidential elections. French Muslims are often directly affected by many of the topics on the election agenda.
High unemployment levels and the catastrophic situation on the housing market are just two of the most important.
But for Muslim voters, the main issues are those that accompany the unchanged poor situation in many banlieues. The riots in France's suburban estates were a welcome excuse for right-wing candidates to turn a spotlight on the subjects of immigration and national identity.
That also includes the question of the status of Islam in the French republic. So the motto of this year's annual meeting of the "Union des Organisations Islamiques de France" (UOIF), held in Le Bourget near to Paris the week before the first round of voting, was a conscious choice: "Pride, Memory, Identity. Islamophobia, discrimination and extremisms."
The motto of the three-day event, at which the organisers expected 150,000 visitors, "should be seen in conjunction with a general climate dominating France," explained the UOIF President, Lhaj Thami Brèze, in an interview with the newspaper Saphir-News.
"There is a smear campaign going on against our religion, and we want to remind society of its joint history with the Muslims. French identity goes back to a mixture, and we are part of this French nation. The Muslims of today are the successors to those who served France [in the world wars] and died for the fatherland."
The organisers were all the more disappointed that neither Sarkozy nor Royal, nor François Bayrou, the candidate of the Christian centrist party UDF, accepted their invitation to take part in the annual meeting. And Sarkozy and Royal in particular would have had plenty to explain.
Socialist attack on Islam?
Like Royal, who has to deal with her party's image of following a pro-Israeli course in its foreign policy, Sarkozy also gambled away a lot of sympathies with his support for Israel during the Lebanon war last summer.
And the domestic positions the two candidates have brought into the election are no less controversial.
Despite the PS's traditional wide support in the Muslim population, Muslim associations in particular regard the party's critical stance on the work of the "Conseil Français du Culte Musulman" (CFCM), the Islamic organisations' representation towards the state, as an attack on Islam.
Royal's repeated criticism of discrimination against women, justified by Islamic traditions, was another factor that fuelled mistrust in the major umbrella organisations.
Loss of sympathies for Sarkozy
But the dislike of Sarkozy, who has made a name for himself as Interior Minister with his rigid immigration and security policies, was even clearer. Despite his efforts on behalf of the CFCM, which earned him great respect from the Islamic associations, little of these sympathies has remained.
Recently, his determined defence of freedom of the press in the caricature case against the satirical magazine "Charlie Hebdo" earned him plenty of criticism. At the meeting in Le Bourget, the term "vote utile" – useful vote – was high up on the agenda, with talk of voting for the "lesser evil".
Ounis Qurqah, the chairman of the UOIF Fatwa council, made similar comments.
The best candidate in these elections, he stated in an online chat with Islam-Online on the subject, is "the one who does not accuse Muslims of extremism or backwardness. The one who does not make the Muslim community in France responsible for the country's many problems."
So there is no sign of a unified "Muslim vote". In fact, the very idea makes many Muslim voters uncomfortable.
Just like non-Muslim voters, Muslims too have very different opinions about which candidate will do them the least harm.
© Qantara.de 2007
Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire