On Saturday August 27, a group of about 15 demonstrators gathered outside the French consulate on Avenue McGill College to protest the recent burkini ban enacted in several southern French towns. First implemented in Cannes on July 28 of this year, the ban has proved intensely controversial, with many calling it a flagrant example of institutionalized Islamophobia. Although it was recently declared unconstitutional by the country’s highest judicial body, some local politicians have refused to rescind the burkini ban.
“The idea behind this [protest] was just to say, in a very dignified and simple way, ‘I disagree with what’s happening in my country’,” said Carl Mörch, one of the organizers of Saturday’s event, speaking to The Daily. “[Islamophobia] is a growing trend, and we have to be aware of that – we have to fight it.”
Mörch is a French citizen, currently pursuing a doctorate in Montreal. Back home, he said, he is a member of the Socialist Party – the party currently in power, of which many members have tacitly or overtly supported the burkini ban. Indeed, Manuel Valls, the current Prime Minister of France and a Socialist Party member, called the burkini a symbol of “a murderous and regressive Islamism,” in French.
“[Islamophobia] is a growing trend, and we have to be aware of that – we have to fight it.”
The protest was initially promoted via Facebook. According to Montreal activist Jaggi Singh, it was originally organized by the Montreal section of the French Socialist Party. He expressed concerns on the event’s Facebook page, “essentially questioning the involvement of the French Socialist Party, and critiquing their own complicity with xenophobia,” he said.
“The French Socialist Party (and all the French parties, both left and right) have absolutely no credibility when it comes to this issue,” he argued. “Absurdly, a group that deserves to be protested themselves for encouraging xenophobia was organizing against the burkini.”
However, for Mörch, “It’s a difficult time to be a socialist because I really don’t agree with a lot of things that have been said by the government that’s supposed to represent my values.”
“The French Socialist Party (and all the French parties, both left and right) have absolutely no credibility when it comes to this issue.”
Haroun Bouazzi, a French anti-Islamophobia activist who helped organize the protest, sharply criticised the Socialist Party’s stance on the burkini. “It’s totally disgusting, and not part of the republican French values, and for this reason I think the Prime Minister should [resign],” he said in an interview with The Daily.
Bouazzi stressed the fact that state-sanctioned discrimination against Muslims is hardly a new phenomenon in France, pointing to the country’s history of imperial and colonial rule in North Africa, its suppression of anti-colonial activism, and, most recently, a slew of laws targeting elements of traditional Muslim dress, such as a 2004 law which banned headscarves and other religious symbols in public schools.
“Basically, […] there are racist people in France […] and everyone wants to show that they’re at least a little bit racist to get that vote.”
“We have […] no anti-racist alternative today in France,” said Bouazzi, “so it’s time for the left-wing parties to take the responsibility, to get rid of Mr. Valls and whoever is agreeing with him, and [create a] truly progressive anti-racist movement.”
Bouazzi argued that in a time of economic uncertainty and heightened fears regarding terrorism, particularly after the recent attack in Nice, the country’s political left has increasingly sought to exploit racial and religious prejudices to gain popular support.
“If France sneezes, we [in Quebec] get sick. It’s sad, but the opportunity […] to get elected based on Islamophobic and racist votes is something that also exists here.”
“Basically, […] there are racist people in France […] and everyone wants to show that they’re at least a little bit racist to get that vote,” he said.
In recent weeks, the burkini issue has made its way to Quebec, with Nathalie Roy of the Coalition Avenir Québec Party calling the garment “an accessory of female servitude.”
“If France sneezes, we [in Quebec] get sick,” said Bouazzi. “It’s sad, but the opportunity […] to get elected based on Islamophobic and racist votes is something that also exists here. […] Mme. Roy understood that.”
Bouazzi expressed guarded optimism about the future of Quebec’s Muslim minority, pointing out that previous efforts to garner political support through Islamophobia – such as the Quebec Charter of Values from 2013 – have largely failed.
“Our history is full of ugly things, and we are […] coming back to these ugly things.”
With regard to the rising tide of Islamophobia in France, however, Bouazzi was less optimistic.
“I think if Manuel Valls leaves, […] maybe there is an option [that things will get better],” he said. If not, France may well end up doing things that are disgusting to see, and that we have in our history.”
“Our history is full of ugly things, and we are […] coming back to these ugly things,” he concluded.