Islamodiversion: How Sarkozy and France’s Political Class Outdo Trump, Exploiting Islamophobia to Distract from Economic Problems

Stoking fear of Muslims is a potent weapon for reactionary politicians.

Photo Credit: Nicolas Reviens, Flickr,

French Muslims have long been part of France’s history, often times for the worst. In 2016, after the summer was marked by a national hysteria surround the burkini ban by several mayors from the left and the right, racism specifically targeting Muslims has reached new heights as the presidential election is approaching.

What used to be politically incorrect 15 years ago has not only become mainstream but is now a prerequisite for any person who wants to position himself for national mandates in France. Former president Nicolas Sarkozy has made the permanent stigmatisation of Muslims a trademark of his campaign. It would take pages of writing to report every racist remark Sarkozy has made against Muslims. From his bill praising the colonization of North Africa to his declaration that scarfed Muslim women are not welcome in France, he has initiated a movement called the "unapologetic right” that adopts the far-right rhetoric against foreigners, Roma, Arabs and Muslims in general and transmits them in the center of the political debate.

Sarkozy’s rivals for the right-wing primaries share common traits with him: None of them have brought forward a serious program detailing social policies or anything relevant to the needs of average French citizens. Instead, they are hoping the public will overlook their blurry ethical lines and disastrous economic policies and focus instead on a supposed threat from the country’s Muslims. This tactic is what I like to call the “Islamodiversion.”

The Islamodiversion found its place in French politics in 2003 when Prime Minister Jean Pierre Raffarin launched a massive and unilateral reform of pension funds. Unions and workers took to the street in outrage and defied the government to express their staunch opposition. Amazingly, the issue that occupied public debates that year was the Muslim headscarf, confining the massive social movement to the margins of the public conscience. The French newspaper PLPL reported that an incredible 1,284 media pieces were produced about the Muslim headscarf, while the pension reform only received 478.

In 2009, as the world economy was on the verge of collapsing, President Nicolas Sarkozy developed the clever idea of launching a national debate—but not on the excesses of capitalism or how to reform national and global financial institutions. Instead, he hammered on the theme of French national identity. The debate quickly transformed into a national platform for slurs against Muslims. The daily reports of racist rants by local politicians grew accumulated to the point that Sarkozy and the national leadership that inspired the whole wave of incitement grew embarrassed and momentarily retreated.

But a year later, when Minister of Economy and Finance Eric Woerth launched a new unpopular “reform” on retirement, the Islamodiversion surfaced again. To divert public opinion and avoid facing public anger, Nicolas Sarkozy once again launched a debate on visible Muslim signs in public signs. This time, he targeted the full face veil and kept the issue constantly in the forefront of discussion until a law was adopted. However, Sarkozy’s team knew a bill targeting people according to their religion in public space would be impossible for a constitutional council to pass, so they justified it on the basis of “the need to see people’s faces for security reasons.” Somehow, despite this discriminatory legislation, wealthy princesses from the Gulf sporting full face veils managed to hang around in Paris without being fined by the police.

Having proven its efficacy, the Islamodiversion has grown in popularity. One of the most prominent Islamodiversionists today is former Minister of Agriculture Bruno Lemaire, who has centered his campaign on a “ruthless war against political Islam” without ever defining where he draws the line between religion and political ideology. Another progenitor of the tactic is Francois Fillon, an impotent and frustrated prime minister under Sarkozy who has gone as far as proclaiming that colonialism was intended to be a cultural exchange between France and those it ruled over. Even veteran politician Alain Juppé, who has occupied several top government positions and who was thought to be the moderate and most experienced of the lot, could not help but indulging in Islamodiversion, declaring a contract was needed to be passed between the French state and French Muslims. Juppé declared that they are still perceived as new immigrants despite having been in France for decades.

Unfortunately, Sarkozy and his like are far from being isolated and the far right alone cannot be blamed for the toxic racist atmosphere that prevails in France. Indeed, the left has its notorious Islamophobes who are at the top of the current administration. Chief among them is current PM Manuel Valls, who became a national figure when in 2002 he used his authority as a mayor to shut down a Muslim-owned store that did not sell pork or alcohol. Since then, Valls has continuously singled out Muslims for the past 15 years with terms such as “Islamo-fascism” and “the enemy within,” supporting the burkini ban even after the higher courts declared it illegal and siding with notorious Islamophobes such as Elizabeth Badinter. (Badinter recently called for boycotting companies until they ceased producing Islamic fashions even as she accepted a contract to do PR for a Saudi Arabian country.)

The power of Islamophobia over the French political class has resulted in an almost uniform vision between right and the left in which Muslims are seen as second-class citizens that need to be disciplined and coerced. The racist rhetoric from across the spectrum has translated into widespread discrimination at school, work, housing, access to healthcare and an increasing level of violence especially against Muslim women. The average, working-class Islamophobe in this country plays the role of the useful idiot at the hands of the ruling elites. Obsessed by their hatred and fear of the Muslim, a metaphysical entity only capable of doing evil or of being a cause of great harm to society, they have lost any interest in holding elites responsible for their massive and ongoing failures.

For the Islamophobe, only the full eradication of the presence of Muslims can purify society. The initial postulate therefore is that society was initially good before those Muslims arrived—that France needs to be made great again.

It is as though Islamophobes, after getting rid of Muslims, wouldn’t have to face structural inequalities, the domination of the ruling elites, their corruption, their disdain for the poor and the weak. Hearing Islamophobes complain about Muslims constantly endangering our societies, our identity and national cohesion sends the message that their disappearance would lead to a state of social justice.

As long as Muslims exist in Western societies, corrupt political regimes that have for long abandoned the interest of the people will have the capacity to divert public anger and frustration and avoid questioning their legitimacy. The old regime is a dying one, yet it is able to go the extra mile with the Islamodiversion, turning one part of its citizenry against the other.

From the constant debates on “French identity” or “Western values,” both completely subjective ideas, one can only question the fallacious nature of the argument that things were better before. The very same people today who pose as defenders of French identity, both from the left and the right, bear the legacy of those who either allied with occupying Nazi Germany or gave full powers to Marshal Petain, the collaborationist who ran the Nazi-allied Vichy state. Yet in France today, it is far easier for members of France’s political class freely compares Muslim citizens to Nazis and pundits to propose the idea of deporting them than it is to acknowledge the  full history of French collusion with the Nazis.

This problematization of Muslim citizens is best illustrated by the steady escalation of manufactured controversies surrounding their presence in Europe and their very existence as Muslim citizens. Combined with the series of laws that keep being passed and legitimized either under the protection of laïcité (separation of church and state) or the preservation of French identity, it is becoming increasingly difficult to treat French citizens on an equal basis and not feed the satisfaction of one group in dominating another.

What We're Gonna Do Right Here Is Go Back Into Time#France2016#islamophobia pic.twitter.com/gqI6LSukAK

— Yasser Louati (@yasserlouati) September 6, 2016

Caught in its own madness, France has established itself as the laughingstock of the Western world. The recent outrage over the burkini is just the latest illustration, but it will happen again. Wrapped in their primitive patriotism, those who elect Islamophobes have become the useful idiots of an oligarchy that holds them in even greater contempt than the Muslims it targets each election season.

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Yasser Louati is a French human rights and civil liberties activist. Follow him on Twitter at @yasserlouati.