Muslims and Islam played an outsized role in the French election, both as objects of political discourse and as actors in their own right. It can easily be forgotten that this was the first French election held under a state of emergency, and that basic civil liberties are suspended. Even mainstream politicians have begun darkly speaking of the “problem” of Islam in France. Marine Le Pen of the National Front, who was handily defeated by centrist Emmanuel Macron, advocated halting immigration, much of it from Muslim countries. Meanwhile, Muslim youth in less well-off neighborhoods complain of being routinely overpoliced and of impunity for police brutality.
Although there are something like 5-6 million Muslims in France, they probably account for only about 2 percent of the electorate. Some proportion are not citizens, and many citizens among them are trapped in working-class slums that offer few incentives to electoral participation. Still, while the Muslim vote is not large, in a close election it can make a difference. Some think that when 86 percent of Muslims voted for Socialist François Hollande in 2012, it swung the election to him. Even conservative French Muslims have tended to vote Socialist in the past decade and a half, given that many are working class and given the harsh Islamophobia of many Gaullists and, of course, the National Front.
The Muslim community emerged as an issue in the election in large part because of the string of high-profile terrorist attacks since January of 2015, most of them attributed to the so-called Islamic State group (ISIL), headquartered in Raqqa, Syria. The killing of staff and bystanders at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January 2015; the massacre at a rock concert and a random restaurant, among other targets, in November of the same year; and the truck attack on a crowd on Bastille Day of 2016; along with a host of smaller assaults, have roiled French political life.
These attacks were clearly planned or instigated from abroad, and intended to polarize French society in hopes of radicalizing the French electorate and French Muslims, to make the latter easier for ISIL to recruit. As it stands, about half of self-identified French Muslims describe themselves as secular, and another large proportion are ambivalent about identifying themselves as Muslim at all, having grown up in a mostly secular society without much knowledge of their ancestral religion. The French right wing is appalled that a little over a fourth say that Muslim law is more important than French law or that a majority think girls should be able to wear a headscarf to school. French Muslims, however, are substantially more secular than the average American. In the United States, 46 percent of Americans want the Bible to be a source of legislation and 9 percent want it to be the only source.