French politics

The question in France ahead of polls this month: Is there such a thing as a Muslim vote?

Experts say the impact of religion on voting practices should neither be overestimated, nor ignored.

On April 8, the well-known French television show Salut les Terriens turned sour when guests discussed the very sensitive topic of the so-called French Muslim vote.

One panelist, journalist Sonia Mabrouk, argued that Muslims in France are constantly used by opportunists, from politicians to intellectuals, as a constituency to serve their own purposes.

The incident recalled the final televised debate of France’s 2012 presidential election, when then candidate François Hollande sparred with incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy over the Muslim vote.

Hollande was in favour of extending the right to vote in local elections to non-European Union citizens living in France, while Sarkozy argued against it. The president claimed that such a move would lead to “identity-based voting practices” and “divisive sectarian demands”.

Women, it’s worth remembering, were once suspected of voting with their sex.

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As the French go to the polls on April 23 and May 7 to elect their new president, the question reemerges: is it reasonable to assume that Muslims’ voting behaviour is based on their religion and on the Quran?

The impact of religion on votes

Some 93% of French Muslims cast their ballots for François Hollande in the second round of the 2012 presidential election, according to a poll by OpinionWay. That’s 41% above the national average, since Hollande was ultimately elected with 52% of votes.

Several attempts have been made to explain why French Muslims voted almost unanimously for the Left.

In their 2012 book Français comme les autres? (As French as everyone else?), political scientists Sylvain Brouard and Vincent Tiberj concluded that the impact of religion on the voting practices of believers should not be overestimated.

Catholics in France and in the United States, for example, vote in ways diametrically opposed to each other. In France, people who identify as Catholic are today markedly in favour of the conservative Républicains, particularly since the legalisation of same-sex marriage in 2013.

In the United States, on the other hand, they tend to vote for the Democrats, a more socially progressive party.

How can this difference be explained? According to Brouard and Tiberj, Catholics in the United States vote Democratic for precisely the same reasons that Muslims in France went for Hollande’s Socialist Party: they cast their ballots for candidates who support minority rights.

OpinionWay’s 2012 poll showed that many people who identified as Muslim voted for François Hollande. (Photo credit: F Khemilat, Author provided)
OpinionWay’s 2012 poll showed that many people who identified as Muslim voted for François Hollande. (Photo credit: F Khemilat, Author provided)

Both groups are often found among racial and religious minorities – American citizens of Latin American origin and people of Maghrebian or African background in France – who have faced economic and social marginalisation in their respective countries.

In France, on the other hand, Catholicism is the main religious faith. Hence, the difference in voting orientations (though a bastion of Left-wing Catholic voters has also historically existed in France).

In other words, religion is not the be-all, end-all of a believer’s political choices.

Identifying as Muslims

Though the impact of faith must be taken with a grain of salt, it is not entirely irrelevant in the context of elections. Qualitative research I conducted in 2012 and 2013 found that the vote of French Muslim citizens I interviewed was indeed influenced by their religious identity.

Being a Muslim did not predetermine their answer to the question, Who should I vote for? But it did lead people to ask, Who shouldn’t I vote for? The impact was negative, helping them eliminate candidates deemed Islamophobic, rather than positive ([I] choose a candidate who defends my values, including religious values).

French Muslims took into account laws banning the headscarf or niqab, a veil that covers the face, as well as public comments against Islam, for instance, when weighing different candidates and their platforms. Candidates’ positions on foreign policy were also considered, with military interventions in Muslim-majority countries particularly frowned upon.

This is similar to how French citizens who identify as Jewish tend to be especially sensitive to antisemitism and to the position of candidates regarding Israel.

According to my study, being a Muslim can have three different effects on a person’s vote: it can consolidate a choice previously made, based on factors unrelated to religion; it can help select among a few candidates on the basis of the Islamophobia criterion; and when a candidate’s attitude towards Muslims is negatively perceived, it can destabilise and change a person’s political orientation.

Take, for example, Youssouf, a self-made man who in 2007 voted for Nicolas Sarkozy, the Republican party candidate. But in 2012, after what he called “the unashamed Islamophobic discourses and public policies targeting Islam made by him and his governement”, Youssouf decided to vote for the Left-wing François Hollande. Even though Youssouf didn’t at all like Hollande’s stance on economic and social issues.

Because of their lower socioeconomic status and the marginalisation they face, many French Muslims, especially those living in France’s banlieues (suburbs), might simply choose not to vote.

Some of them justify their abstention with religious explanations, claiming that “voting is not halal”, since France is not a Muslim country.

Calls for abstention in 2017

Generally, this position is only held by a minority of highly orthodox Tabligh or Salafist Muslims. But today, several public Muslim intellectuals, including leaders who are not necessarily from those sects, are calling for an “active abstention” by Muslims of the 2017 presidential election. The intent is to escape the constant trap of voting for the “lesser of two evils”.

Nizarr Bourchada, leader of the Français et Musulmans (French and Muslim) party, advocates a similar approach. His is one of the first French political parties to claim a strong attachment to both Islamic and French Republican values.

This echoes French author Michel Houellebecq’s prescient 2015 novel Soumission (Submission). Set in 2022, the book imagines the rise to power in France of a Muslim political party that imposes polygamy and prohibits women from wearing clothes that make them desirable.

Soumission imagines a dystopic French Islamic future that tapped into many French citizens’ fears. (Photo credit: Jacky Naegelen/Reuters)
Soumission imagines a dystopic French Islamic future that tapped into many French citizens’ fears. (Photo credit: Jacky Naegelen/Reuters)

Within a few weeks of publication, Soumission had become a bestseller in France, Italy and Germany. It bolsters the idea that a collective vote of French Muslims, or at least their federation into a political party, would be a threat for French society.

The reality is quite different. But whatever the outcome of this election season, it seems that the fantasy of a Muslim vote will continue to haunt Europe’s imagination for years to come.

Fatima Khemilat, PhD Student, Sciences Po Aix.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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