The Front National and Arab Immigrants

A 'Muslim Vote' for Le Pen?

France's right-wing Front National has slowly changed its stance towards Arab immigrants and has even accepted some as party members. What is the idea behind this new strategy, and, does it work? Götz Nordbruch takes a look

France's right-wing Front National has recently changed its strategy towards Arab immigrants and has even accepted some as party members. What is the idea behind this new strategy, and: does it work? Götz Nordbruch takes a look

Far-right presidential hopeful Jean-Marie Le Pen gestures as he addresses reporters at his party's headquarters in Saint-Cloud, west of Paris, April 2007 (photo: AP)
What ever happened to Jean-Marie Le Pen? The slogan at the back advocates the idea of "citizenship", irrespective of ethnic background

​​"A cathedral-sized mosque in Marseille? No, the answer is no!" This was the message on a flyer passed out by the extremist far-right Front National (FN) in the southern French city of Marseille in recent weeks. In light of the planned construction of a "Grand Mosque" for the city's approximately 200,000 Muslims, the party of Jean-Marie Le Pen warned against the increasing influence of Islamic organizations.

For decades, the FN has been fishing for votes with a scenario of the country being "swamped by foreigners." And it has proved successful exactly in Marseille and its surroundings. In the April 2002 presidential elections, Le Pen received 23.23% of the vote here. Despite a considerable collapse of support in May's election, Marseille still gave over 13% voter support to the Algerian War veteran.

Since the early 1970s, the Front National has established its profile with racist campaigns. Party members were often responsible for violent attacks on immigrants. All the more surprising then were reports indicating a growing support for the party by French Muslims.

Immigrants voting for Le Pen

According to estimates by the French Ministry of the Interior, which were reported by the newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné in the run-up to the presidential election, some 8% of French citizens of Maghreb origin were prepared to vote for a candidate of the extreme right. In other reports, there was talk of the rage against the old-established parties in the suburbs, which was driving ever more immigrants into the arms of Le Pen.

Farid Smahi was not surprised by these reports. Smahi, whose Algerian father fought for the French army in the Second World War, is a member of the FN politburo. For years, he has been trying to win over Muslims and immigrants to the party, which has become known for its nationalist polemic and law-and-order slogans.

Those first and foremost interested in Le Pen's politics are members of the Muslim and Maghreb middle class, yet also an increasing number of students, claims Smahi.

They are aware that, despite all the fine speeches, the established parties have done nothing to improve the situation of immigrants. Even well educated young people from immigrant backgrounds "frequently can't do better than to land a job in front of a counter at McDonalds. The young people have been shunted off to the banlieues," criticizes Smahi. Instead of equal opportunity, "these youths either find every kind of hindrance thrown in their path or a broom shoved in their hands."

The party's leitmotif of "préférence nationale"

In April, Le Pen had already made an unexpected election appearance in Argenteuil, bidding for support with similar statements. In this Paris suburb, regarded as a social trouble spot, Le Pen declared to his audience, "While certain persons would like to see you on the receiving end of a water cannon, instead of excluding you, we want to offer you help in getting out of these suburban ghettos where French politicians have cordoned you off.

Smahi is optimistic that immigrants with French citizenship will be reached by such promises. Many immigrants could, after all, also endorse the party's leitmotif of "préférence nationale," or "French first."

"Those who don't spit in our soup and feel themselves to be part of the nation are French," stressed Smahi and added, "Young people are fed up that so much attention is given to the 'sans papiers,' while the situation in the banlieues continues to worsen."

The party affiliated forum "Arabisme et Francité," in which Smahi serves as president, is adamantly opposed to double citizenship. "Just as you can only have one mother, you can only have one fatherland," says Smahi. In order to avoid a conflict of loyalties, immigrants have to decide. What counts is not one's origin or religion, but a profession of loyalty to France as a secular nation.

"Education and health care, not mosques"

Smahi sees no contradiction in being against the mosque project in Marseille and trying to win over Muslim voters. As a Muslim patriot, he doesn't care for having "a mosque at every bus stop. Instead, people should concern themselves about education and health care."

It was Le Pen himself who brought attention to these efforts in the run-up to the elections by speaking to Arabic language media. In an interview with the Arabic broadcaster al-Arabiyya, he stressed his opposition to the war in Iraq and his criticism of France's policies towards Iran.

In the past, Le Pen publicly spoke out in favor of Saddam Hussein. The party affiliated association SOS Enfants d'Irak, founded in the mid-90s by Le Pen's wife Jeanne-Marie Paschos, provided effective public support for these views.

Such positions with respect to the various conflicts in the Middle East were tied to the hope of attracting Muslim voters. This, together with the offer to treat as French citizens with equal rights and obligations those immigrants ready to put their cultural and religious differences to one side, promised to tap a whole new group of voters for the party. At least this was the hope of "modernizers" within the FN attempting to free the party from its image as being the mouthpiece of old fogies.

A failed strategy?

Despite occasional support by some long-established immigrants, Le Pen's strategy appears to have failed. This is the view of Jean-Yves Camus, a political scientist from the Paris Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques (IRIS), who has followed both extremist far-right and Islamic organizations in France for many years.

The ideological opening of the party to Muslims was quite controversial within the FN itself. There have been hardly any indications, however, of a noticeable turn to the party among Muslim voters. Muslim candidates who ran in the recent parliamentary election in districts with a high percentage of Muslim voters only managed to attain less than 2% of the vote. According to Camus, the voting pattern of Muslim voters was similar in the presidential election.

Nonetheless, this is no reason to assume the coast is clear. The attempt of the far-right to court favor with Muslim voters could contribute to hardening a distorted public image of radicalized French Muslims. Camus warns that the campaign by the FN could strengthen the impression that there exists in France "a radical right form of Islamism supported by Le Pen, because he is an anti-Semite and, in the past, has denied the Holocaust."

A 'green-brown' alliance?

"Many observers could use this to corroborate their claim that a significant part of the Muslim community is becoming increasingly intolerant and anti-Semitic while allying themselves to other extremists," Camus goes on to say.

"In short, if there were such a thing as a 'Muslim vote' for Le Pen, then it would be evidence of the existence of an 'Islamic fascism' and a 'green-brown' alliance. This is just not the case." The poor showing of far-right candidates in the banlieues makes this clear.

Smahi, on the other hand, has a completely different view of the future. He expects that someday, the majority of French patriots will come from immigrant families. The election results, however, don't support his assertion. Le Pen's sort of patriotism is far from attaining any degree of popularity among French Muslims.

Götz Nordbruch

© 2007

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

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