French Muslims' fury as politicians focus on Islam

‘France spits on my family’: French Muslims’ fury as politicians focus on Islam, with one town described as ‘Afghanistan two hours from Paris’… after reporter writing about Sharia was forced to go into hiding

  • French Muslims say they now live under ‘permanent suspicion’ due to anti-Islamic rhetoric from politicians
  • French far-right presidential candidate Eric Zemmour described town of Roubaix in northern France as ‘Afghanistan two hours from Paris’
  • Comes after journalist Ophélie Meunier, who covered rise of radical Islam in Roubaix, was given police protection after receiving death threats

French Muslims have spoken of their fury as politicians have focused on Islam during the presidential election campaign, with one far-right candidate describing a town as ‘Afghanistan two hours from Paris’. 

They fear that anti-Islamic rhetoric has now been normalised in France by far-right candidates such as Eric Zemmour and Marine Le Pen of the National Rally, with some Muslims saying they now live under ‘permanent suspicion’. 

‘I have the impression that today’s France spits on my parents, who fought to liberate it, on my parents who come to build its roads, and on me, who has respected all of the rules of democracy and integration,’ said Khadija, 38, a social worker in the Loiret region in central France.  

The anger at anti-Muslim rhetoric in France comes after Zemmour caused a fresh outcry on Monday by describing the town of Roubaix in northern France as ‘Afghanistan two hours from Paris’.

Zemmour, who has twice been convicted of hate crimes for statements about Islam, told France Inter Radio: ‘French people who are Muslims must live in the French way and not consider that sharia law is superior to the laws of the republic.’

He made the comments after a French journalist who fronted a documentary about the rise of radical Islam in Roubaix was given police protection after receiving death threats over her investigation. 

Ophélie Meunier, 34, revealed Sharia-compliant faceless children’s toys being on sale in the town, as well as restaurant booths to ‘shield’ women from the male gaze.  

Muslims fear that anti-Islamic rhetoric has now been normalised in France by far-right candidates such as Eric Zemmour (left) and Marine Le Pen (right) of the National Rally, with some saying they now live under ‘permanent suspicion’

French journalist Ophélie Meunier, who fronted a documentary about the rise of radical Islam in Roubaix, was given police protection after receiving death threats over her investigation

Veiled women pass by a Halal Quick fast-food restaurant in the northern French city of Roubaix on August 30, 2010

For Muslims, who make up almost nine per cent of the country’s mainland population, they have been made uneasy over the bursts of rhetoric against them during the presidential election campaign. 

‘Sometimes I tell myself that no one can understand quite how violent this is,’ said Fatma Bouvet de la Maisonneuve, a psychiatrist of Tunisian origin and author of the book ‘An Arab Woman in France’.

Acknowledging that people can be tempted to turn in upon themselves, she said: ‘Frankly, sometimes we just want to meet among Arabs to tell each other how bad things are,’ she said.

Marine Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie Le Pen, who made it to the second round in the 2002 presidential vote, has shocked much of France with repeated broadsides against Islam and immigrants.

French Muslims fear that such rhetoric has now been normalised and increasingly supported by widespread news reports and saturation of social media.

‘I feel bad, very bad,’ said Khadija, who asked that her second name be withheld. 

‘A few days ago, my five-year-old daughter told me that she did not like being Arab,’ she said, complaining of ‘living under permanent suspicion, no longer knowing what’s behind the baker’s smile, or what people really think’.

A veiled woman walks past a soldier patroling in a street of Roubaix, northern France, on January 13, 2015

For Kamel, who works for a charity association, the attacks on the night of November 13, 2015 changed everything. Islamist gunmen massacred 130 people in and around Paris at locations including restaurants and the Bataclan music venue.

‘I parted ways with many of my friends who were beginning to link Muslims with terrorism,’ he said.

For the prominent sociologist Ahmed Boubaker, ‘a dam has broken’ and now ‘there is a total lack of inhibition’ on the part of political figures accusing Muslims of failing to integrate.

‘However, I am not convinced that French society is as racist as we say it is,’ he said.

‘It is the politicians who are chasing after the pseudo-racism of public opinion, without realising that in fact they are manufacturing it.’

For others in France, they feel the secularism on which the modern-day republic was founded is under threat from religious ideologies brought in by overseas migrants.

It comes after French journalist Ophélie Meunier, 34, received death threats in the wake of documentary Zone Interdite – or ‘Restricted Zone – that aired in France on January 23 looking at the influence of hardline Islamic views in Roubaix.  

Meunier found a restaurant where women are given cubicles to eat away from men, and a toy shop selling faceless dolls to comply with strict interpretations of Islam that forbid depicting facial features.

She also spoke to Amine Elbahi, 26, a Muslim lawyer from Roubaix who helped expose an educational institution that received £53,000 of public money to teach poor children, but was accused of spreading Islamic teachings instead.

Elbahi spoke out against the influence of radical Islam in the film, and has now been branded an ‘infidel’ and threatened with beheading. He is also under police guard.

At one point, Meunier is believed to have been separated from her husband and two children and placed in a ‘safe house’.

A small minority of Muslims believe that depiction of distinct features on any children’s toy is haram — forbidden — in the Hadith, a major source of religious law and moral guidance based on the sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad. Pictured: Faceless dolls

The documentary was filmed in Roubaix, a poor town in northern France, where the Muslim population is proportionately one of the highest in the country

Why do hardline Islamists forbid depictions of people? 

The Quran, Islam’s holy book, forbids idolatry – the worship of anyone or anything other than the one God, which Muslims believe to be Allah.

Meanwhile Hadith – the teachings, actions, and received beliefs of the Prophet Mohammed – prohibit the depiction of humans and, depending on interpretation, other living beings.

Traditionally, this has been justified on the basis that depictions of humans could easily become idols.

This is why depictions of prominent religious figures – such as Mohammed and other prophets – are expressly forbidden, with many observant Muslims adhering to this rule. 

For example, widespread protests broke out in predominantly Muslim countries after it emerged French teacher Samuel Paty – who was subsequently beheaded – had shown cartoons of Mohammed to his pupils. 

But interpretations of Hadith and what exactly constitutes a depiction likely to attract worship vary widely between different branches of Islam and between scholars and clerics.

The most hardline interpretations teach that any depictions of humans are haram – or forbidden.

In Afghanistan, clerics recently declared shop mannequins to be haram and ordered that they be beheaded so as to remove the faces.

And during ISIS’s 2014 conquest of vast areas of Syria and Iraq, fighters were often seen defacing religious monuments of other Islamic sects which they believed to be idolatrous. 

But others take a more-relaxed view. 

Shia Muslims, who ISIS and other extremists view as apostates, sometimes depict Husayn – grandson of Mohammed – though not the prophet himself. 

‘It’s intolerable for Ophelie to find herself in this situation for having just done her job’, a colleague told the Mail this week.

Roubaix, which is twinned with Bradford, West Yorkshire, has one of the largest Muslim populations (an estimated 20,000) of any town in a country which itself has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe (an estimated 5.7 million).

In a clip shared on Zone Interdite’s official Twitter page ahead of the release of the full documentary, specialist in radical Islam Professor Bernard Rougier holds the faceless dolls and teddy-bears as he explains: ‘It’s a way to show that from childhood, you will be a better Muslim than others, and implies, others are not good or true Muslims.

‘And so it is the introduction of an ideological principle into the world of childhood… in that sense it is quite worrying, yes.’ 

The hidden-camera footage shows the undercover reporter going into the shops selling the dolls, which also offer books with the same imagery. 

The documentary also featured a restaurant where women are given cubicles to eat away from men  

The waiter can be heard advising the reporter from Zone Interdite, who had a hidden camera and was posing as a customer, that female diners should come during the week, as weekends are very busy, so they can be sure of getting a cubicle. 

The reporter then asked: ‘It’s good for women with headscarves?’ The waiter replied: ‘That’s what it is for.’ 

‘There is no law against the booths,’ a relative of the owner Abdellaziz Ould Lazizi told the Mail this week. ‘All sorts of people use them: men, women, families, Christians, Muslims and Jews.’

Critics have suggested that opening up the booths to all customers — when perhaps the real purpose is to cater for Muslim women as the waiter implies on camera — is simply a way of getting round what is known in France as laicite (secularism), the aim of which is to keep religion out of public spaces. 

Emmanuel Macron, a centrist who is gearing up to fight a presidential election in April where he is likely to face off against a right-wing challenger, has been accused of being soft on immigration and of failing to defend French values. 

Macron’s rival Zemmour was quick to align himself with Meunier after it emerged she had been threatened following the documentary. 

The documentary uncovered a toy shop in  Roubaix selling faceless dolls, 

‘Ophélie Meunier is in mortal danger,’ he tweeted on Saturday, as the documentary began garnering widespread attention.

‘This is what happens when you show the French the Islamization of our country. Millions of patriots thank her for her courage.’ 

During the presidential campaign, Le Pen and Zemmour have been tearing into each other in the hope of making the run-off against Macron. 

The two agree on any number of points: expelling foreigners who repeatedly break the law, privatising France’s public broadcasters, stopping construction of wind turbines in favour of nuclear energy and ending free trade agreements to protect French farmers.

But ‘what’s at stake is the leadership of the far-right, with two very distinct profiles,’ said Stephane Francois, professor of political science at the University of Mons in neighbouring Belgium.

‘On the one hand, you have Marine Le Pen, who has tried to soften her language’ to eliminate traditional reluctance to vote far-right, Francois said, while Zemmour ‘goes straight for what’s radical and thinks Le Pen is too moderate’.

French members of the French National Police Intervention Group (GIPN) arrest a suspected radical Islamists group member, on April 4, 2012, in the French northern city of Roubaix

After Le Pen and Zemmour held competing rallies, the far-right mayor of southern town Beziers Robert Menard told broadcaster CNews Sunday that ‘they said more or less the same things’.

But Zemmour ‘continues to be brutal, hard, cutting, he’s wrong to be like that, he’s dividing France,’ added Menard, himself a Le Pen supporter, but also a friend of Zemmour.

One of the more controversial proposals of the ultranationalist Zemmour is to ban parents from giving their children foreign-sounding first names. He has also likened young criminals in predominantly immigrant housing estates to jihadists.

A recent survey by pollsters Ipsos Sopra-Steria found the far-right candidates neck-and-neck at around 14 percent, while conservative Valerie Pecresse’s 16.5 percent kept her in place as top challenger to Macron, with around 24 percent backing. 

Coming after a long career in TV punditry, Zemmour’s candidacy has upset 53-year-old Le Pen’s third run at the Elysee Palace.

In recent weeks he has wooed away high-profile members of her camp, with even her niece Marion Marechal saying she now leans towards the former journalist.

Le Pen had spent years softening the image of the outfit she inherited from her father Jean-Marie, going so far as to change its name from the toxic ‘National Front’ to ‘National Rally’ (RN) once he was safely retired from the leadership.

Although she reached the second round in 2017, Macron won handily after a humiliating TV debate in which Le Pen appeared to lack command of the issues.

This time, ‘my laws are already written… my plans are thought through, straightforward and costed,’ she told newspaper Le Figaro last week.

But while she hammered on Macron’s open flank, the cost-of-living debate around rising inflation and energy prices, Le Pen could not help but make some swipes at her ideological twin’s camp.

Zemmour ‘isn’t fighting to win, but to kill the National Rally,’ Le Pen insisted, accusing him of trying to set up ‘some fantastical realignment of politics’ that could sweep him to power at the next election in 2027.

She charged that the other far-right candidate was defending a narrow vision of a traditional Catholic France.

‘My aim isn’t to defend Asterix’s village,’ she told Le Figaro – a reference to the world-famous comic-book character whose tiny hometown is the last to hold out against Roman invaders. 

Zemmour tacked away from questions on economics and inflation in an interview with broadcaster France Inter on Monday.

‘There is one major problem, which is the great replacement of the French people by another people, another civilisation,’ the 63-year-old said, returning to his stock theme of immigration and Islam.

The phrase ‘Great Replacement’ is drawn from a 2011 book by French writer Renaud Camus, whose conspiratorial argument that white Europeans are being deliberately supplanted by non-white immigrants has inspired extreme-right figures like Christchurch mass shooter Brenton Tarrant.

And the name of Zemmour’s party, ‘Reconquest!’, evokes the expulsion of the Muslims from Spain and Portugal during the Middle Ages.

‘Zemmour is reinventing or recreating the National Front in its early years, the 1970s and 80s,’ said Stephane Francois, the political scientist.

‘He’s pouring oil on the flames, sending messages to the most radical of the extreme right… he wants to rally behind him the right of the UMP (former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservative party), identitarians, neo-Nazis, Holocaust deniers and so on.’

The candidate continues to double down on his claim that France bears no responsibility for the rounding-up of Jews during the Nazi occupation.

‘It was the Germans who demanded this roundup,’ he told France Inter.

Meanwhile, he retorted that allegations from Pecresse and Le Pen that he is backed by Nazis were ‘stupid’.

‘There are no Nazi supporters in my team,’ Zemmour said.

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