In colonial times, Islamic civilisation was viewed by French orientalists as excitingly decadent and extravagantly degenerate. The Muslim world, to them, was a place of glamour, extreme licentiousness, and sexual promise, where beautiful and scantily-clad women lounged with iced drinks and hookahs in perfumed palace gardens, to be visited by lustful Muslim men.

Today, the issue of Islam is central to political discourse in the French Presidential election. At first glance, it appears in the context of a lofty intellectual question on civilisation: how should new arrivals to French society compose themselves?

French culture is sophisticated, romantic, and refined, prizing the ideals of politeness and comportment. The French believe that to enter into their society is to elegantly assimilate, to be a citizen equal to everyone else in a universal and Enlightened civilisation. It is to blend in and immerse oneself fully in a refined, secular, and liberal culture of wine-drinking, romancing, and fine dining.

This Enlightened civilisation has little time for Islam, a tradition it sees as backwards, illiberal, and un-European. For Muslims in France, the condition for entry into French society is that they must shed visible signs of their Muslimness.

Yet many of these Muslims, seeing Islam as a divinely revealed truth, are reluctant to let go of such a crucial component of their being. Most also have roots in places that were, until recently, ruled by the French (who hardly attempted to fit in gracefully as colonisers) and so they feel that they have the right to participate in discussions about what Frenchness is. Most people in France disagree.

“This Enlightened civilisation has little time for Islam, a tradition it sees as backwards, illiberal, and un-European”

The struggle to assimilate Muslims is thus a hot topic in the French Republic today, and the far-right approach commands significant support. Candidates in the Presidential election have gone to extreme lengths to demonstrate their commitment to dealing with the ‘Muslim problem’: Eric Zemmour, for example, called for a halt to immigration and a ban on the name Mohammed. He gained 7% of the vote in the election’s recent first round. Marine Le Pen, meanwhile, has long campaigned for a crackdown on Muslims and migrants. The traditional far-right candidate, she gained 23% of the vote and will now face President Macron in the second round of the election on the 24th of April.

Macron himself has presided over a dramatic inquisition into Muslim civil society. Under his rule, over 700 Muslim organisations have been shut down, including Islamic schools, mosques, and Muslim businesses. Nearly 50,000 Euros have been seized from Muslims. All mosques, meanwhile, have been strong-armed into signing a Charter of Principles pledging to support secularism and refrain from taking political positions. The national organisation which monitored Islamophobia, unsurprisingly, has been forcibly dissolved.

The project to assimilate Muslims into the vaunted liberté, égalité, and fraternité of French civilisation has proved authoritarian, discriminatory, and divisive. As Stephen Clarke writes of the supposed values of the French Revolution, ‘the reality was more like Tyranny, Megalomania and Fratricide.’

Of course, France has been traumatised by a series of horrific terrorist attacks in recent years. But most policies targeting Islam have nothing to do with stopping violence (which nearly all Muslims, the government knows, oppose) and everything to do with a grandiose civilising mission to refashion the devout Muslim into an Enlightened French citizen.

Yet the startling ferocity of the national discourse on Islam, which has boosted the far right, is explained not by concern over secularism and Enlightenment, but by something more fundamentally human: sex.

Consider that France has banned the veil in public and the headscarf in schools. It is outrageous, bien pensant opinion holds, that many Muslim women wish not to be seen by men. They want to go swimming in women-only environments? Barbaric – men should be able to watch and swim with them too, the government has decided.

And woe betide any Muslim woman who wants to cover up while she’s on the beach – in 2016 Muslim women wearing ‘burkinis’ by the sea in Nice were forced to take them off by the police. On top of all this, one of Marine le Pen’s most flamboyant policies is an outright ban on the headscarf in public.

We might actually miss the point, then, by fixating on sober debates about secularity and religion. Much of the French debate about Islam hinges on a fanatical obsession with undressing Muslim women. (It might be useful here to note that until very recently France did not have an age of consent. Now it is 15.)

This obsession with men being allowed to see Muslim women stretches back to the colonial era. Edward Said explained how orientalists described the East ‘as feminine, its riches as fertile, its main symbols the sensual woman, the harem, and the despotic – but curiously attractive – ruler’. It was a place where ‘one could look for sexual experience unobtainable in Europe’. For lots of young French men travelling to Algeria, the colonial project was imbued with an invigorating sense of sexual adventure.

The psychological torment for many of these men was that the sexual pleasures they imagined were enjoyed by Muslim men (sometimes portrayed by European artists in voyeuristic and scandalous paintings) seemed inaccessible to them. As Frantz Fanon wrote of an Algerian woman wearing the veil: ‘This woman, who sees without being seen, frustrates the coloniser.’

“Colonial sexual fanaticism is alive and kicking in popular French discourse today”

Imperial domination was intimately tied to a frenzied attempt to expose Algeria’s women to the eyes of French men. During the brutal French-Algerian war (1954-62) French settlers even held bizarre unveiling ceremonies for Muslim women.

That colonial sexual fanaticism is alive and kicking in popular French discourse today. It is coupled with a widespread fear that Muslim fertility spells the end of the white majority in France. This stems from the ‘Great Replacement’ theory, which was invented by Renaud Camus, a cartoonish figure who lives in a fourteenth-century castle and writes screeds on aesthetic fascism.

A majority of people in France believe in the Great Replacement, and it has been important in the election. Eric Zemmour deploys the term brazenly, asking whether ‘young French people will accept to live as a minority on the land of their ancestors’, and employees of the Élysée, France’s presidential palace, claim that the President himself uses the term in private.

The paranoia among many white French people about demographic change is rooted in the racial and sexual anxiety that North African immigrants reproduce at higher rates than the white majority, meaning that the non-white Muslim population of France is growing. Cambridge academic Abdal Hakim Murad argues that much Islamophobic sentiment is so virulent because of ‘intense jealousies’ over the common Muslim ‘desire to raise a healthy number of children in the context of a traditional family’.


Mountain View

Macron on course for a second term: harsh economic reform coupled with structural racism ahead

Many white French people thus fear that they may soon cease to be a majority in France. Reducing immigration would combat this trend, the logic follows, as would pressuring Muslims to assimilate; they would then be more likely to enter into romantic relationships outside of their own communities.

This concern over demographics explains the remarkable salience of the ‘Muslim question’ in France today. There is a dramatic urgency to discussions on the topic; right-wing icon Marion Maréchal believes that “for the French it is a vital question, they feel it in their flesh, a vital threat that gives them anxiety.”

The far right in France, ultimately, are not promoting a careful, considered debate about French nationhood and social cohesion. Their impassioned war on Islam hinges upon a desire to see French Muslim women with their hair uncovered and an extreme anxiety over Muslim reproduction rates. No wonder, then, that French Islamophobia is so startlingly and terrifyingly visceral - it is about sex.