Skip to content

Will stoking Islamophobia help reverse France’s international decline? 

French citizens protest against islamophobia in Paris, France on 10 November 2019 [Pierre Crom/Getty Images]

We are living in a period of international tumult. A war on European soil, a global pandemic and increasing climate change alarm converge to destabilise the international political balance. In the midst of this, France’s status as an international power is feeling increasingly insecure. Indeed, in the last decade France’s receding global influence has become an active concern for those within the country, and now is understood as a phenomenon its policy makers are trying to address.

The fear of a strategic downgrade

Nations like China, India, Turkiye and others, once believed to be eternally dependent on the West, have strongly emerged to lay new foundations of a multi-polar world. Long regarded as a natural and unchallenged leader behind the United States, France’s response to this systemic shift was a stutter nurtured by anxiety and self-doubt.

In 2017, the French State published its “National Strategic Review“. This document indicated the strategic analysis of the state – where it explicitly recognised its fear of a “strategic downgrade” due to rising international competition, without identifying a clear set of solutions. In other words, France’s ability to project its influence in the world and strongly defend its interests was decreasing, and it had not clearly identified a path towards reclaiming its status.

This anxiety is not entirely without foundation. Many of France’s strategic strengths are being challenged with varying degrees of intensity. France’s withdrawal from Mali represented a major military setback in an arena where France expected to dominate very easily. The AUKUS security alliance led to Australia’s withdrawal from a near $40 billion submarine deal with France, in favour of US submarines. France described it not only as a betrayal, but a demonstration of how shifting global alliances threaten the country’s global influence.

France’s inability to productively mediate between warring parties – whether in the Syrian revolution or between Ukraine and Russia – brought into question the strength of its diplomatic networks. The influence of the French language in Francophone nations – a remnant of its colonial past with a geographical reach encompassing 300 million people and spanning over three continents – has long been challenged by English’s dominance, and appears today to be losing out fast.

READ: What British comedian, David Baddiel, gets wrong about Israel and anti-Semitism

Furthermore, France’s characteristic and virulent Islamophobia continues to tarnish its global standing and is facing stiff challenges at multiple international forums including most recently at the OSCE.

A beach towel reads "No to Islamophobia" written in the colours of the French flag lying in the sand of a 'beach' created by protesters outside the French Embassy in London on August 25, 2016, during a "Wear what you want beach party" to demonstrate against the ban on Burkinis on French beaches and to show solidarity with Muslim women. French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve warned Wednesday against stigmatising Muslims, as a furore over the banning of burkinis grew with the emergence of pictures showing police surrounding a veiled woman on a beach. Dozens of French towns and villages, mostly on the Cote d'Azur, have banned beachwear that "conspicuously" shows a person's religion -- a measure aimed at the full-body Islamic swimsuit but which has also been used against women wearing long clothes and a headscarf. / AFP / JUSTIN TALLIS (Photo credit should read JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images)

A beach towel reads “No to Islamophobia” written in the colours of the French flag lying in the sand of a ‘beach’ created by protesters outside the French Embassy in London on August 25, 2016
[JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images]

The Islamophobic foundations of an international French revival

On 9 November this year, the state unveiled the latest version of the National Strategic Review. The document outlines a list of ten strategic objectives in order for the nation to safeguard its sovereignty and reassert its influence.

Second in the list is the objective of a more “united and resilient France”. The review goes on to further detail what this broad expression entails: “This effort must be deployed in metropolitan and overseas France, particularly by promoting the spirit of defence and ensuring national cohesion.”

Interestingly, strengthening the “resilience of society” – according to the review – is directly linked to the “transmission of republican values”. This point deserves a proper analysis. It is a direct answer to an observation expressed in the 2017 version of the review: “National cohesion conditions the legitimacy of the action of the armed forces through the Nation’s support for decisions to use force. Today, this cohesion is confronted with the spread of ideologies that challenge the values and principles of the Republic.” (emphasis added)

One must be cognizant of the French political context, “the values and principles of the Republic” are mainly used to oppose the constructed notion of “Islamist separatism” – often used to mask the targeting of Islam and Muslims by the state.

This conflict escalated to the closure of numerous Islamic schools and mosques, and fear-mongering over “religious attire” worn by Muslims in public schools – all justified, according to the state, by the need to protect and implement ‘Republican values’.

As a natural consequence of this reasoning, Islam and Muslims are overt factors undermining ‘cohesion’ and ‘resilience’. In other words, according to France’s policy makers, France’s success on the international stage can be undermined by a minority’s way of life.

‘It’s imperative that more voices like mine are at the table’: Georgia first Muslim Palestinian rep

A vulnerability exposed

Outlining France’s international challenges is not to suggest that the country is on the verge of any kind of imminent collapse. France’s assets – a nuclear power, permanent member of the UN Security Council, seventh strongest economy in the world with the third largest diplomatic network – cannot be overlooked.

However, for France to believe the scapegoating of its Muslim community forms part of a viable solution to its international challenges is a worrying sign. It proves how determined the state is to obstruct – by any means – Muslim’s fundamental rights.

France’s state-sanctioned Islamophobia underscores its real and perceived insecurity. France’s autocratic attitude towards religious minorities can and must be effectively opposed and undermined. As France is keen on repairing its global image, international awareness and advocacy may just have a chance to stop the downward spiral of Islamophobia.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.