‘They’re trying to divide us’: Muslims in France voice fears over rise of far right

<span>‘We’re at risk of taking a huge step backwards,’ said Sylvie Nedgar, right, with her daughter, Amelie.</span><span>Photograph: Ed Alcock/The Guardian</span>
‘We’re at risk of taking a huge step backwards,’ said Sylvie Nedgar, right, with her daughter, Amelie.Photograph: Ed Alcock/The Guardian

They marched through the narrow streets of Lyon’s medieval old town, about three dozen of them, emboldened after the French far-right gains in the European elections. Masks covering their faces, they wound past the hidden passageways that provided cover for the resistance during the second world war, chanting: “We are fucking Nazis” and “Islam out of Europe”.

For some in this French city, last week’s far-right demonstration, captured on video, was a chilling reminder of just how much is at stake in the snap parliamentary elections that could see the French far-right lead government.

“The consequences would be catastrophic,” said Kamel Kabtane, the head of the French Institute of Muslim Civilisation, founded in 2017 to promote intercultural dialogue in Lyon. “For France, for all of the citizens of this country and, in particular, for the Muslim community.”

Related: French elections: who are the key players and what is at stake?

Polls suggest the far-right, anti-immigrant National Rally (RN) is on course to win the elections but will fall short of a majority. “We’re up against those who object to our very presence in this country,” said Kabtane in his office at the institute, located in the city’s tree-lined outskirts. “And they’ll do everything they can to make life difficult for us.”

France is home to one of Europe’s largest Muslim populations, with an estimated 6 million people who practise Islam or have a Muslim background. The community also ranks among Europe’s most established, with families who have spent as many as five generations carving out lives that blend French and Muslim traditions.

Kabtane was among those who began sounding the alarm bells, rallying Muslims to vote in the snap elections, after the European parliamentary ballot saw RN garner more than 30% of the vote in France. “[RN’s] discourse is built on foreigners, immigrants and on the practice of Islam in France,” he said.

What is clear is that RN sees a France where the motto of “liberté, égalité, fraternité” seemingly only applies to some, he said. “Will we have the liberty to practise our religion tomorrow? Will we be equal? And will the principle of fraternity continue, or will we be sidelined as some would like?”

Outside a shopping centre in Lyon that ranks among Europe’s largest, Ceyda Demer criticised politicians for being short on ideas but big on discrimination. “You watch their interviews and they don’t say anything about the environment or fundamental rights,” said the 14-year-old. “They only talk about Muslims and the rights they want to take away.”

Her assessment came as Jordan Bardella, RN’s president, vowed the party would work towards eventually banning the wearing of headscarves in public places and urged France to give him a majority so he could drastically cut immigration.

Launched in the early 1970s as the National Front, the founders of RN included Jean-Marie Le Pen, who was convicted three times for contesting crimes against humanity, in the third instance after dismissing the Holocaust as a “detail” of history.

Rife with antisemitic, homophobic and racist views, the party was long seen as a danger to democracy. While Marine Le Pen, Jean-Marie’s daughter, has spent much of the past decade working to soften the party’s image, RN’s vehemence against immigrants, and Muslims in particular, remains the party’s calling card.

The group has previously called for a ban on ritual slaughter – which would in effect prohibit halal and kosher meat – while in 2015, Marine Le Pen was tried and cleared of inciting religious hatred after she compared Muslims praying on a street in 2010 to the Nazi occupation.

Bardella has continued the party’s tirade against “political Islam”, describing it recently as a threat that seeks to “conquer” France and “impose its own prohibitions” on French people.

It is the kind of rhetoric that is woefully out of step with everyday reality in France, said Hissam Khalfi, 23. “They’re hurting my France. They’re trying to divide us,” he said. “I’m French; I feel French. Growing up here, there were people of all colours and backgrounds in my neighbourhood; we never had any problems.”

He was confident that voters would turn out en masse – surpassing the 51% who voted in the European elections – to back his version of France. “I’m not worried,” he said. “Some people try to divide us but France will stay united.”

The sentiment was echoed by Najatte Khallef, 41, who pointed to the white headscarf she was wearing. “I go to work wearing my hijab and, I promise you, no one says a word to me,” said Khallef, who was born in France. “Never has anyone even looked at me oddly.”

It is a different story, however, when she tunes into the media, where there seems to be constant fuss over her clothing choices. “It’s only journalists and those who want power who talk about it,” she said.

After the European election results, the rector of the Grand Mosque of Paris, Chems-Eddine Hafiz, railed against the failure of France’s traditional political parties to address issues such as persistent unemployment, stagnant wages and the rising cost of living. By not doing so, they had “abandoned the field to those who sow division and hatred”, he wrote in his weekly post.

He added that RN had seized on this opening, casting Muslims and north Africans as “scapegoats, the symbols of everything that is perceived as threatening, as foreign, as incompatible with a supposedly homogeneous national identity”.

Mainstream politicians had done more than simply give way to the far right, said Fatima Bent, citing the many ways in which they had normalised the far-right’s discourse by targeting the rights of Muslim women.

As a member of the feminist, antiracist group Lallab, Bent is among those working to defend the rights and amplify the voices of Muslim women, offering a powerful counterpoint to measures such as the burkini bans brought in by several French towns, and last year’s prohibition in schools of abayas – the style of long, flowing dresses worn by some Muslim women.

For Bent, there was little question that the European election results and the spectre of a far-right win in the coming weeks had opened another, potentially more dangerous front.

Related: ‘This could end up ugly’: after Macron’s gamble, will the far right seize power in France?

“For us Muslim women, who were already experiencing very difficult things under Hollande, under Macron, under Sarkozy, if the extreme right comes in, our experiences are going to be more pronounced, more violent,” she said. “This is a fascist shift that could cost us, as Muslim women, our rights, our mental health and our lives.”

With polls suggesting that Emmanuel Macron’s centrist Renaissance party will lose out to blocs on the left and the far right, it is anyone’s guess what lies ahead for France, said Sylvie Nedgar as she waited with her 19-year-old daughter to catch a tram in central Lyon. “But already it has divided the country into two,” she said, pointing to protests against the far right by hundreds of thousands of people across France in recent days.

In a 2022 debate, Macron suggested to Le Pen that the idea of banning the hijab in public could set off a “civil war”. Two years on, Nedgar, who grew up in a family whose roots stretch from Algeria to France and where Christian and Muslim traditions mingle easily, said the tensions had swelled to a point where it was impossible to ignore the threat.

“We’re at risk of taking a huge step backwards,” she said. “Covid was really nothing compared to this. The real challenge is this moment, right now.”