Will it be 'return of the Mac' at next May's election? Photo by DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP via Getty Images

March 11, 2021   6 mins

In France it has become difficult to have a rational debate about anything to do with Islam or Islamism. The opposing sides accuse one another of hysteria. Often, not always, they have a point. But in recent days, France — chattering, media-political France at any rate — has exploded into a blazing quarrel about a hyphenated word: Islamo-gauchisme or “Islamo-leftism”. What is it? Does it really exist? Is it, as some people say, a threat to the French way of life?

The term was invented 19 years ago by a French academic to describe an alliance between radical Islam and the extreme Left. The word has since been hijacked by the French Right  – both the far right and more traditional conservatives — to mock attempts to combat racism or discrimination against France’s 5,000,000 Muslims.

Islamo-gauchisme certainly exists — as it does in Britain and other countries — as a wilful blindness by part of the radical Left to the violent, anti-western, anti-feminist, anti-Semitic teachings of radical Islam. It also exists, more respectably, as a left-wing voting bloc in multi-racial suburbs. Migrants and their descendants have become a kind of substitute “proletariat” since the white working-class shifted to the right and far right.

It further exists, some academics complain, as a dogmatic and intolerant approach to social and political studies, based on a coalition of French and American theories on race, class, gender and post-colonial oppression.

And yet a part of the French Left remains fiercely secular and worried by the advance of radical or “political” forms of Islam — to the point where other left-wingers accuse them of being (another buzz word) “Islamophobic”. In summary, “Islamo-gauchisme” has become so many things that it has lost much of its meaning, except as a term of abuse.

Last month the universities minister, FrĂ©dĂ©rique Vidal, a mildly left-wing scientist turned politician, ordered an investigation into what she called the “gangrene” of Islamo-leftist ideas in French politics and social science faculties. Her timing was odd. Many people thought that there were far more pressing issues on French campuses — such as how to teach, and feed, students in a time of Covid — and her intervention caused an explosion of anger on the French Left, as well as critical articles in liberal US media. Cue also an accusation by the usually measured Le Monde, that President Emmanuel Macron is “flirting with the far-right.” 

It is a misleading accusation, even unfair. It would be truer to say that Macron has lost control of the political debate surrounding his efforts to contain radical Islam — efforts which have been more ambitious and, in some respects, more successful than any of his predecessors. But politics is about perception. If enough people say that there is a problem — including the mildly left-wing but cautious Le Monde — then there is a problem.

France is just over a year away from a presidential election, which could pair Macron once again with the far-right leader Marine Le Pen in the second-round run-off next May. There is already a drum-beat rising on the French Left that Macron and Le Pen are “just the same” and that left-wing voters will, or should, stay at home in the second round this time, possibly letting Le Pen into the ElysĂ©e.

In those circumstances, what, one might ask, is Macron’s electoral interest in angering left-wing voters and chasing a far-right electorate which derides him as a pointy-headed internationalist from the French governing elite?

To confuse the situation further, the latest, much-watched monthly opinion poll by Ifop for Paris Match shows Macron’s support rising on the Left and tumbling on the Right. It appears that French voters know something that Le Monde and the New York Times don’t know.

First some context. The “Islamo-gauchiste” argument rages mostly in the Paris political-media world.  It has had little impact so far in wider France. The same is not true of the larger debate on radical Islam and the secular French state — a debate which Macron chose, rather courageously, to re-open in a speech in the western Paris suburbs five months ago.

A draft law to “reinforce Republican principles” and curb the advance of radical or extremist Islamic ideology is now going through the French Parliament, with text developed in consultation with a representative section of moderate Muslim leaders. It is intended, inter alia, to prevent the spread and foreign financing of violent and intolerant mutations of Islam. It should help the great bulk of law-abiding French Muslims who wish to practise their faith without being bullied by religious extremists or by the French far-Right.

This was a dangerous box for Macron to open but a box that he could not ignore. There had been over 30 Islamist terrorist attacks in France, big and small, since the slaughter at the Charlie Hebdo offices in 2015. There have been two attacks since he made the speech on 2 October, including the beheading two weeks later of a history teacher who had invited his class of 14- year-olds to consider the rights and wrongs of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.

On security, race and Islamism, Macron is no revolutionary. He is a French secular traditionalist, sharing neither the identitarian racial politics of the hard right nor the identitarian anti-racist, anti-authoritarian politics of the new or young Left.

He has, however, allowed some of the more right-leaning members of his government — and notably the ambitious, young interior minister, GĂ©rald Darmanin — to stray towards what sounds, or can be made to sound, like a much harder-right-wing viewpoint.

Long before the “islamo-gauchiste” controversy exploded, Macron, Darmanin and the new law on “Republican principles” were being falsely criticised by the French Left and by liberal US commentators as an attack on Islam, not Islamism. Last month Darmanin debated with Le Pen on the proposed law on live prime time TV. The interior minister defended Islam as a “great faith” and eloquently dismissed calls from Le Pen and some centre-right and even Macronist politicians for a ban on the hijab or Muslim headscarf on French streets.

That is now forgotten. All that is recalled of the 70-minute debate is a single word, in a passage towards the end, when Darmanin accused Le Pen of going “soft” on Islamism.  If you watched the entire debate, it was apparent that Darmanin was mocking Le Pen for claiming hypocritically to defend “Islam and all religions” while her party remains virulently Islamophobic (systematically opposing the building of mosques for instance).

Was Darmanin trying to be too clever? Was he trying to appear simultaneously liberal and tougher-than-Le Pen on the Lepennist subject par excellence? Probably. At any rate, his ambiguous remarks were ill-conceived and have done his boss, Macron, damage in the current hysterical ambience on Islam and Islamism in France.

And then up stepped FrĂ©dĂ©rique Vidal, a brilliant bio-chemist who proved, until now, to be a rather obscure universities minister. She has been accused of starting a McCarthyist witch-hunt into Left-leaning and foreign (i.e. American) ideas on not just “islamo-gauchisme” but all gender and race theory — “woke” ideas, as Anglophones call them.

Ms Vidal says this is not a witch-hunt but a fact-finding mission. The ElysĂ©e criticised her comments — but then did nothing, and Le Monde has since carried several multi-signature articles from French academics and politicians, either defending the minister or demanding her head.

Some of the academics reject all suggestion that “islamo-gauchisme” exists. Others — including one of the most respected French Islamic scholars, Giles Kepel and the philosopher Pierre-AndrĂ© Taguieff, the man who invented the term in 2002 — say that the phenomenon exists but the word has become valueless.

In an article in Le Monde, Kepel, Taguieff and a score of other academics claimed that it was now difficult to obtain research work or speaking time at French universities if you challenge the dominant academic viewpoint on race, gender and post-colonial theories.

As the inventor of the word “islamo-gauchisme”, Mr Taguieff  is worth listing to. Everyone in French politics or academia, he says, now risks being labelled as an “islamophobe” or an “islamo-gauchiste”.

“This opposition is falsely simple,” he wrote last October. “Very many French people, both on the Right and the Left, see Islamism in all its forms as a great threat to our national unity. Are they all Islamophobes? This is a confusion deliberately fostered by the Islamists themselves.”

Taguieff also dismises crisply one of the objections, raised by American critics, to the term “islamo-gauchisme”: that it recycles the far-Right and Nazi term “Judeo-Bolshevik” used in the 1920s and 1930s.

“That term was a means of alleging that Bolshevism was a Jewish phenomenon and that all Bolsheviks were Jews,” Taguieff said. “It is absurd to suggest that the term Islamo-gauchisme means all leftists are Muslims and that left-wing politics are a Muslim phenomenon.”

One thing the “islamo-gauchisme”  row proves is that Macron was wrong in 2017 when he claimed that he had made the Right-Left opposition obsolete. Four years later, France — media and political France at any rate — still mostly  thinks in Right-Left terms (even if they are re-branded as Islamophobic v Islamo-gauchist). Even Macron’s own centrist party, La RĂ©publique en Marche divides on this issue roughly according to whether they are ex-Left or ex-Right.

The whole debate may seem to be harmless to some senior Macron senior supporters from the centre-Right — even potentially a vote-gainer. That’s a dangerous argument.

The election will be decided by Covid and by the economy more than Islamism or Islamo-gauchisme. But Macron cannot afford to be branded as hard right (whatever the recent polls show); he needs to restate the balanced approach he took in his speech on 2 October, which also promised action to end the systematic marginalisation of racial and religious minorities in France. “Typical Macron”, his critics said at the time: lots of en mĂȘme temps — on the one hand, on the other hand.

That’s unfair. In his approach to Islamism, Marcon has (or once had) a reasonable tale to tell. His non-ideological, pragmatic approach has gone much further than the ideologically-constrained attempts of previous governments of Right or Left. His law on Republican values is going through Parliament, and so are three initiatives to boost the economy of the banlieue and to curb discrimination — distinctly non-Lepennist actions which are scarcely mentioned by either French or American left-wing commentators.

Far from a deliberate flirtation with the far-Right, as Le Monde suggests, the muddled debate on Islamism is more a symptom of a new Macronist tendency to drift, a failing also seen with his approach to Covid. A young president who promised to go beyond Left and Right instead heads into his re-election campaign going nowhere.

John Lichfield was Paris correspondent of The Independent for 20 years. Half-English and half-Belgian, he was born in Stoke-on-Trent and lives in Normandy.