The Muslim Feminist Group Scrambling France’s Left-Right Divide 

On Islam, disagreements within the two political families may matter more than the differences between them.

Women wearing head scarves carry the French national flag during a demonstration.
Women wearing head scarves carry the French national flag during a demonstration against a bill banning Muslim head scarves from public schools in Paris on February 14, 2004.  (Michel Spingler / AP)

Lallab, a Muslim feminist organization in France, has been raking in national awards and media attention since its creation by two young students in 2016. It emphasizes the interplay of racism, sexism, and Islamophobia in Muslim women’s daily lives in France, and its website is rife with language like “intersectional” and “allyship,” more reminiscent of American activism than French. Lallab’s brand of feminism has made waves—last year, its treasurer got into a heated television debate with the former prime minister about the headscarf —and now, it’s finding itself at the center of a controversy that shakes up the traditional left/right divide in France.

Early last month, Lallab sought out accreditation from the French government. The group wanted to participate in the civic service, a voluntary program that enables young French citizens to do short-term work in the public interest. This would have given Lallab access to government funds to hire civic service volunteers, who would then participate in its activism and advocacy work. Within days of Lallab’s mission proposal going up on the Civic Service Organization’s website, a scandal erupted: Many observers objected to what they saw as a violation of the organization’s stated commitment to secularism—which is required of an agency funded by the government. Lallab’s detractors considered the group a religious organization; some credible sources said it had ties to, or even was a front for, the Muslim Brotherhood in France (Lallab has denied this).

But Lallab managed to find both allies and enemies in unexpected places. Prominent leftists—not just right-wing watchdogs—decried Lallab’s civic-service posting on social media. Perhaps even more unusual was the way the issue divided the left itself: Benoît Hamon, the Socialist Party candidate for the 2017 presidential election, came out in support of Lallab, while the former Socialist Party prime minister, Manuel Valls, opposed it.

And while one might have expected a feminist leftist organization like France’s Planned Parenthood to oppose a group that includes members accused of being anti-gay marriage and anti-abortion, it actually issued a statement of support for Lallab. When asked about its rationale, Planned Parenthood’s national coordinator Victoria Noseda stressed that the statement was not an endorsement of Lallab or its members, but rather a show of solidarity for a feminist organization. (Lallab later issued a statement declaring itself pro-choice as an organization, notwithstanding the positions of some of its members on the issue.)

Within days, Lallab’s online posting had been removed, although Civic Service Organization president Yannick Blanc told me it was taken down pending review for “administrative reasons,” not ideological ones. The debate over whether Lallab should be allowed to participate in the civic service is ongoing.

The Lallab controversy is an illustration of the splits within France’s traditional political groupings over the question of Islam. And that, in turn, is but one manifestation of what appears to be a broader realignment in French politics, where the groups defined by “left” and “right” labels are no longer as clear-cut as they have been in the past. The recent presidential election threw this into sharp relief: For the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic, neither major left- or right-wing party made it into the runoff, and a brand-new party whose candidate left the Socialist Party won the election. As my colleague Uri Friedman noted: “It’s a bit like Donald Trump creating his own America First party and competing against Michael Bloomberg, of the newly launched America for Everyone party, in the 2020 presidential election, as Republicans and Democrats watch from the sidelines.”

Eric Feferberg / Getty

The traditional “right” and “left” political families formed in reaction to the ideals of the French Revolution—namely, pure secularism, civil disobedience, and Enlightenment values. The divide did not exist before the Revolution and, according to author François Huguenin, it struggles to remain relevant as the revolution recedes further into history. The right no longer has a revolution to oppose, and the left no longer has a revolution to support: “The constant revolution, which was the engine of the left and its fuel, is dying out,” he said.

Once the clerical party of the monarchy, the right in France stood as a staunch defender of the Church and opposed the secularism of the French Revolution. Broadly speaking, it remained hostile to what it perceived as the left’s excess of zeal in implementing secularism, or laïcité, and this skepticism survived until World War II, after which the right began using secularism as a shield against the increasing size and importance of Islam in France.

Today, the right has defined itself largely with regard to economic and security issues—like labor reform and strong defense. But it has been torn apart from the inside between those who have argued for a strict interpretation of French secularism and those who approach the debate more flexibly. Its mainstream party, the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), went through an internal crisis in 2015 and was renamed The Republicans, in what was widely seen as a PR move. It’s no longer clear what the right stands for, and it has suffered as a result: During the legislative elections of 2017, the right-wing coalition got its worst score in the history of the Fifth Republic.

The left is also struggling to define what it stands for. Characterized by radical social-justice activism in the 1960s and 70s, the left—except at the fringes—now loosely stands for the ideals of liberalism, that is, emphasizing individual responsibility over government intervention. (With the important caveat that in Europe, in contrast to the United States, a base level of government intervention that might be considered radical in America—including universal health care and strong labor protections—is taken for granted.) But even this modest program doesn’t enjoy the support of all its members. Republican leftists—those who identify with the rigidly secular history of the Fifth Republic—feel at odds with more “radical” leftists, who adhere to a more American approach toward religion and multiculturalism, with its emphasis on freedom of religion. One part of the French left believes that the state should offer protection from religion, and the other, protection of religion.

“There is an important … divide around Islam in France, and between people who are, in the name of a certain brand of secularism, open to Islam, and others who, in the name of another secularism, are very closed off to Islam,” said Pierre Bréchon, a professor of political science at Sciences Po Grenoble. “This debate goes beyond the left/right divide.”

In fact, the issue of Islam in France is “breaking” the left, according to Benjamin Haddad, a research fellow at the Hudson Institute. This is not just for ideological reasons, but for practical ones as well, he says: Local elected officials have long leveraged identity politics to win elections, but now the strategy is backfiring. Christophe Barbier, a journalist and author of The Final Days of the Left, put it this way: “If the left continues on this path, it will provoke a major ideological confrontation that will precipitate its defeat, because there will always be more people in this country that will react vindictively and aggressively toward immigrants, and especially Muslims, rather than risking a bet on community-building.”

Controversies over secularism and identity, like the one surrounding Lallab and the Civic Service, can be vicious. To date, Lallab has been the victim of three cyber-harassment campaigns. Some of its members have been threatened with sexual assault and had their personal information leaked on the internet.

The religious Muslim feminist group seeking government recognition in France thus sits uneasily within the traditional French political structure, and in one way embodies the struggle over the meaning of secularism. Within the left, competing definitions of laïcité will encourage one stream to decry and one stream to support a group like Lallab. Within the right, one stream, willing to compromise on its vision of secularism, may tolerate Lallab, while the other will not.

If all of this seems like an extreme reaction to a post on a government-affiliated website, it wasn’t so to Lallab’s detractors, who saw in the controversy a vindication of their belief that French secularism is in danger. And it wasn’t unexpected for Lallab’s founders, either. When I asked Lallab co-founder Sarah Zouak whether she was surprised by the vitriol coming from both left and right, she answered, “Not at all.”