Speaking bluntly in a series of interviews to journalists from French daily Le Monde, controversial comments made by French President Francois Hollande have ignited a storm of controversy in fractured France.
- France has “a problem with Islam”, states French President Francois Hollande among a surge in support for far-right politics.
- Controversial, blunt remarks on have been published in “A President Should Not Say That: Secrets of Five Years in Office“.
- Another blow to religious race relations in a fractured country.
- Polls show Francois Hollande is the most unpopular French President in history and widely expected to lose re-election.
The country is still reeling from terrorist attacks in Paris, Nice and Normandy and experiencing a surge of support for the Islamophobic far right National Front during a torrid time for President Hollande.
The committed socialist has had a difficult and deeply unpopular presidency, often embroiled in scandal over his affair with actress Julie Gayet or attempting to rally France’s stuttering economy and unite the country in response to a string of deadly terrorist attacks.
Nevertheless these unguarded interviews will come as a surprise to his left-wing fan base and the wider international community where Francois Hollande has enjoyed a reputation for tolerance and moderation when it comes to the immigration debate.
What Hollande said:
Here are some of the most blunt and explosive comments made to authors;
- “The fact that there is a problem [in France] with Islam is true. Nobody doubts that.”
- “It’s not Islam itself that poses a problem for being a religion that dangerous for the Republic but because it wants to assert itself as a religion inside the French Republic,” he tells the interviewers. “What might also be a problem is if Muslims don’t criticize acts of radicalization, if imams behave in an anti-republican way.”
- “The veiled woman of today will be the Marianne of tomorrow … because, in a certain way, if we offer her the right conditions to blossom she will liberate herself from her veil and become a French woman, while remaining a believer if she wishes, capable of carrying with her an ideal … Ultimately, what are we betting on? That she will prefer freedom to subservience. Perhaps the veil is a kind of protection for her, but that tomorrow she will not need it in order to be reassured of her presence in society.”
- “I there think there are too many arrivals, of immigration that shouldn’t be there.”
Living under a double standard
French Muslims often describe themselves as a second class within French society, with anger and resentment fueled by neglect of the poorest parts of the country and a turbulent economy that has generated record unemployment of 3.59 million and a stagnation of opportunities.
A lack of representation alongside a brutal colonial legacy in North and West Africa has left many second and third generation French immigrants unsure of their place in modern France.
An attempt to ban the ‘burkini’ from French beaches in August was met with a mixture of outrage and mockery that seemed to hinge on France’s inability to integrate its minorities and blatant double-standards in it’s attempts to protect “French values”.
The rise of the far right – no laughing matter
However, behind the jokes lies the very real dangers of a marginalized, at-risk section of French youth, as evidenced by last weekend’s petrol bomb attack on a police patrol in Paris.
Religious and racial tension has been brought to the fore following the terrorist attacks and opinion polls regularly reporting that over 50% believe Islam is incompatible with French values. France’s far right politicians have been riding this wave of discontent and mistrust in Europe to become a serious threat to 2017’s election.
Islam – incompatible with French values?
With an election scheduled for April 2017, terrorism, immigration and incumbent President Francois Hollande’s unprecedented unpopularity are fueling an anti-populist backlash that is feeding France’s far-right, nationalist parties.
Opinion polls report that National Front party leader Marine Le Pen would win 30 percent of the national vote if elections were held today, a big rise from her tally of 18 percent in the 2012 election, which Socialist Party standard-bearer Mr. Hollande won.
Advoocating a curb on immigration, reclaiming powers from the European Union and strengthening law and order in the wake of a series of deadly Islamist attacks, the stunning success of the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom has only added credibility to her push for power.
The right man for the job?
Critics have also questioned President Hollande’s response to recent terrorist attacks and paint a picture of him as an ineffectual leader in a time of crisis.
After youths in a Paris banlieue, or housing complex, threw Molotov cocktails at police former Prime Minister Alain Juppe said that incident and a rise in ethnic and religious tensions were proof of Mr. Hollande’s inability to lead.
“A strong state is a state that does not back away, that ends lawlessness,” Mr. Juppe wrote.
An unpopular President
Incumbent Francois Hollande is officially the most unpopular president of the French Fifth Republic ever. According to as survey in September 2014, his approval rating was as low as 13% making him the first modern French leader to ever break the 20% threshold. In April 2016, that approval rating rose just 1% to 14%, and multiple studies and experts predict that if he runs for a second term as president, he would be defeated in the first round.
Hollande has said he will not run for re-election if he fails to secure a “meaningful” fall in the unemployment rate that has dogged his tenure.
Figures suggest the battle would be fought between the conservative Republicans party and Le Pen’s far-right Front National, in a scenario similar to the election in 2002.
Photo: Office of the President of France, speaking at the UN September 2016