Islam a Key Issue in French 2012 Elections

Islam seems set to be a central issue in France’s 2012 presidential elections, while an Internet poll show that Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s far-right National Front (FN), is the most popular candidate.
Twenty-three percent would support Le Pen, according to the poll conducted by the Harris Institute and published by Le Parisien on March 6. French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist Party leader Martine Aubry each received 21 percent of the vote.
Anti-Islamism is a major reason for the National Front’s success, and Sarkozy wants to make it a core issue for his party too.
Sarkozy Shifting Right
Even before the poll was published, Sarkozy announced that he planned to hold a public debate on the role of Islam in French society. The proposal is opposed by the more moderate elements of Sarkozy’s party, who fear it could lead to the stigmatization of Muslims.
On the other hand, Sarkozy is holding photo ops with Catholic nuns and praising France’s Christian foundations.
“Christianity left us a magnificent heritage of civilization,” he said on March 3 at the Catholic pilgrimage center Puy-en-Velay.
“This heritage comes with obligations, this heritage is a privilege, but it presents us above all with a duty: It obliges us to pass it on to future generations, and we should embrace it without doubt or shame,” he said.
Sarkozy has shown he is willing to confront Islam. Next month a law comes into force banning veils that cover the whole face.
But Le Pen’s popularity shows that many in France want bolder measures against Islam. In December, she said that Muslims worshiping openly in the street represented an “occupation of territory.”
“There are of course no tanks, there are no soldiers, but it is nevertheless an occupation, and it weighs heavily on local residents,” she said.
Last March, the then leader of the National Front, Jean-Marie Le Pen, led his party to win an unexpected 11.74 percent of the nation’s vote in regional elections with his “No to Islamism” slogan.
But the party’s growth in popularity accelerated after Jean-Marie Le Pen’s daughter, Marine, replaced her father as head of the party on January 16 this year. Marine hasn’t said anything anti-Semitic or minimized the Holocaust like her father. Instead she has developed a wider appeal by focusing her message on anti-Islamism.
Her party has shifted from being on the fringe right to being a more mainstream group. “The French no longer only see the FN as an extreme-right party but as a populist and popular party transcending the right and left,” said political analyst Dominique Reynié.
Perhaps this is just as much a testament to how French attitudes toward Islam have shifted in recent years as it is to the National Front’s more moderate stance.
Another recent poll suggests Le Pen’s approach should resonate with voters. Forty-two percent of those surveyed said they saw Islam as an internal threat. A January poll conducted by ifop found that two thirds of French and Germans believe that the integration of Muslims into their societies has been a failure.
France a Model for Europe
Le Pen’s success will have effects beyond France. “The younger Le Pen’s success is significant not just to France, but also as a model for other European countries experiencing the same level of social angst over German-imposed austerity measures and wider EU institutions,” wrote U.S. think tank Stratfor in January. “France has led European political evolutions in the past, especially when it comes to the politics of the left. It may do so yet again, this time with regard to the politics of the right. Marine Le Pen could present a ‘proof of concept’ of a far-right leader with mainstream appeal that catches on in the rest of the Continent” (January 15).
Anti-Islamism is already popular in Europe. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders controls almost one sixth of the seats in parliament, and is even a semi-official part of the government. The anti-Semitic Jobbik party won 16.7 percent of the vote in Hungary last April. In Switzerland, 57.5 percent voted to ban the construction of new minarets.
While these parties are winning significant percentages of votes, few have had the success the new Le Pen is enjoying. If she continues to do well, expect right-wing leaders throughout Europe to copy her.
Sarkozy’s anti-Islamism is the other side of the same coin—as far-right parties grow in strength, more mainstream parties will shift into positions once considered extreme.
The polls in France clearly show that Europeans are waking up to the threat of radical Islam and are demanding that their politicians do something about it.