Fear, resentment and hate are making a comeback in France. Indeed, the recent terror attacks that took place in Paris, Nice and Lyon in October 2020 have reopened old wounds among the French people, just as they were preparing to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the 2015 Paris attacks. Not only have the attacks reignited several debates over freedom of speech and France’s very controversial secularism, but these events’ political repercussions are also endangering the nation’s democracy by reinforcing affective polarization and islamophobia, while consolidating far-right populism.
For several years now, France has been experiencing increasing partisanship and polarization mostly tied to political and social differences among its citizens. The last 2017 presidential election is evidence of this clear divide within the population, as Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally, came close to winning the election against current President Emmanuel Macron. This divide over socio-economic inequalities continues to grow, as the Yellow Vests Movement’s rise over the past two years has demonstrated. However, ever since the 2015 attacks, French partisanship and polarization have been, above all, fueled by ideology rooted in socio-cultural and religious differences, a symptom of rising anti-Muslim sentiment[i] created by the series of terror attacks linked to radical Islam.
More specifically, the horror of the October 2020 terror attacks, particularly the one involving the beheading of school teacher Samuel Paty, has reignited and intensified fear, resentment and hate against Islam. Following the attacks, the French government carried out raids against Muslim individuals and organizations suspected of potential radicalization. On this issue, French people remain extremely divided; some support the act, others condemn it for being too drastic and unfounded. Meanwhile, Marine Le Pen has adopted the language of war, saying that “Islamism is a bellicose ideology whose means of conquest is terrorism”. Such a statement inevitably causes more fear. The recent attacks are therefore not only creating fear on their own, but far-right populists are also using these events to advance their political agendas by exploiting people’s fears.
Politically and socially, the attacks are thus making French polarization increasingly affective – driven by emotions rather than public policy concerns, and identity-based. This kind of polarization is extremely dangerous as it relies on a preexisting identity cleavage[ii], essentially between Muslims and non-Muslims, creating an “us vs. them” dynamic among the people. The amalgam of Muslims and immigrants has also contributed to reinforcing this “us vs. them” dynamic, with “us” specifically designating native non-Muslims and “them” designating Muslims and immigrants. This ethnocentric rhetoric has been repeatedly associated to the National Rally who has been firmly advocating to suspend immigration for years.
In turn, this polarization, deeply anchored in ideological differences, has created more and more social and cultural intolerances. Arguably, this will hinder social interactions and mutual understanding between groups and communities, which will make depolarization highly difficult[i]. Societal polarization has increased, extending the division to social spaces such as families and friends, schools and communities; the “us vs. them” division is becoming ubiquitous. The more people will be driven by fear and resentment of the “other”, the less incentives they will have to try to understand the “other”, creating fictitious walls among each other. These are what Arlie Russell Hochschild calls “empathy walls”[iii], intrinsic to all polarized societies.
What does this mean for French democracy?
French citizens are increasingly aligning within two camps with mutually exclusive identities and ideologies, threatening to undermine social cohesion and political stability[iv]. The terror attacks are rendering cross-cutting intergroup differences obsolete and are turning everyone’s focus on a single difference revolving around Islam. Paired with emotional grievances, the people and some party leaders are looking for someone to blame. The National Rally has arguably been exploiting the social grievance brought by the attacks and the growing resentment against anything and anyone related to Islam to attract supporters. As Katherine Cramer argues[v], politics is therefore increasingly driven by the need to blame someone for the country’s grievances, and the terror attacks have made Muslims the obvious candidate.
Not only are terror attacks challenging French ideologies and values (eg. integration), but more importantly, they are also contributing to the erosion of democracy in France by nurturing far-right populism. Indeed, populism is well underway as the National Rally’s rhetoric is attracting anyone remotely angry, frustrated and suffering from resentment due to the attacks[vi]. In other words, terror attacks are just what Le Pen needs to amass more supporters. Moreover, like other populists, she has already gained legitimacy by operating within the established democratic system after running in the last presidential election, rendering her undemocratic agenda even more legitimate. In addition, according to Milan Svolik[vii], it is likely that Le Pen supporters will tend to be more lenient toward their candidate’s undemocratic principles as long as she aligns with their partisan interests. Together, both factors shape the perfect conditions for her to rise to power and directly threaten French democracy’s integrity and French society’s pluralism.
As terror attacks multiply, islamophobia spreads, and the National Rally’s support grows, French democracy’s safety lies in French people’s capacity to resist affective polarization and their ability to value democracy over partisan interests. They have done it once already in 2017, but will they do it twice in 2022?
[i] Bansak, Kirk, Hainmueller, Jens, and Hangartner, Dominik. 2016. “How Economic, Humanitarian, and Religious Concerns Shape European Attitudes Toward Asylum Seekers.” Science 354(6309): pp. 217-222
[ii] LeBas, Adrienne. 2018. “Can Polarization Be Positive? Conflict and Institutional Development in Africa.” American Behavioral Scientist 62(1): pp. 59-74
[iii] Hochschild, Arlie Russell. 2016. “Traveling to the Heart”, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. New York: The New Press. Chapter 1
[iv] McCoy, Jennifer, Rahman, Tahmina, and Somer, Murat. 2018. “Polarization and the Global Crisis of Democracy: Common Patterns, Dynamics and Pernicious Consequences for Democratic Polities.” American Behavioral Scientist 62(1): pp. 16-42
[v] Cramer, Katherine J. 2016. “Making Sense of politics through Resentment”, The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Chapter 1
[vi] Müller, Jan-Werner. 2016. What Is Populism? Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press
[vii] Svolik, Milan W. 2019. “Polarization Versus Democracy.” Journal of Democracy 30(3): pp. 20-32
Anh-Lise – You mentioned that the Yellow Vest manifestations have come in response to socio-economic inequalities in France. In Müller, particularly, we learned that populism, particularly right wing populism, can manifest itself as a misplaced expression of economic grievances that casts on racial minorities. Are there sectors or some members of the Yellow Vest movement that espouse the same or similar xenophobic beliefs as the Front National? If not, I wonder if Le Pen’s party is attempting to target those who are protesting Macron’s economic liberalization following recent terrorist attacks. It will be fascinating to see in the coming years and in the 2022 election whether or not working class movements will turn towards Le Pen’s populism, or to to labor politics.
Very interesting article. However, I am not so sure that the recent terror attacks and rising Islamophobia will lead to a potential Marine Le Pen victory in the next French Presidential election. Macron is still seen as the center candidate, and is depicted as a “defender of liberalism”, but at the same time he demonstrates elements of populism himself and is cracking down hard on supposed Islamic threats after the terror attacks. Like it or not, France has had problems with extremism amongst its Muslim population in recent years (from Bataclan to Charlie Hebdo to Nice), and many French voters see it as a threat to liberalism itself. For me, I wonder if the average French voter will simply see Macron as adequately addressing their concerns and vote for him. After all, why vote for the “political untouchable” that is Marine Le Pen when you can vote for the ‘liberal’ candidate and get the same results? No one is going to judge you for voting for Macron; Everyone is going to judge you if you vote for Le Pen. Also, Macron has a “Napoleon”-like energy that many French voters are drawn to. Overall, I think you could experience democratic erosion in France, but not in the way many people think; The “defender of liberalism” could actually be its enemy.
I found this article to be quite interesting as I haven’t heard much about France and its internal polarization since the last election there. I think that you show how Marine Le Pen and her party have been gaining many supporters in recent years and are taking advantage of recent events to further increase their ranks is an important inclusion in assessing the increased polarization in France. However, I am curious about what policies Marine Le Pen would put forward if she came into power that would cause democratic erosion. Do you think she would use censorship in the media or try to do something to France’s judicial system? Overall, I think that you demonstrate how increasing partisanship in France could lead to democratic erosion in the coming year and it will definitely be important to watch the buildup to the 2022 election.
President Macron of France has played a significant role in funding and assisting needs in Lebanon, after the Beirut explosions, worked with the Kurdistan Region with economic ties, and President Macron has celebrated his close ties with the United States, and other nations in the European Union, as well as elsewhere in the Middle East. It is interesting to see President Macron peacefully negotiate with these countries, while an abrupt of hate against Islamists and extreme radicals of Islam exploit political and social division domestically in France. The people of France grieved after the Paris attacks in 2015, with claims to ISIS terrorist members, and now endure the grief of the beheading of a teacher and other casualties, leading the people to support anti-immigration and anti-Islam ideals of political and social persuasion. Muslims have become a candidate to target in the country, with new policies depriving the freedom of speech to express people’s personal religious beliefs; such as, the ban against wearing headscarves and coverings in French schools and in the workspace, which is an Islamic ritual. French people have been in favor of nurturing the far-right populism and the concept of Islamophobia is increasing these populists party’s agenda in the country. Although politician, law attorney, and Presidential candidate of the National Rally, Marine Le Pen, lost to President Macron in the latest elections, the National Rally has gained an increasingly competitive narrative in favoring political secularism and polarizing the people. President Macron is attempting to tackle the Islamist separtisim in France, through new meausres and bans on discrimination, although he allowed the printings of cartoon figures of Prophet Mohammad in “taboo Islam figures.” Could this be the beginning of a social and political change in France with the favor of more conservative and populist leaders shifting France’s approach to freedom of speech and diversity, disrupting the democatic robustness of the notable EU country? “France has Western Europe’s largest Muslim population,” with more than 4 million citizens practicing Islam. France’s democracy is at risk, especially with the Muslim countries it negotiates with. This may be a turning point for France, if it does not quickly unify. This was an interesting blog post. I wonder if the people of France will retreat from the liberalist ideals Macron portrays and isolate themselves from inclusiveness, because of these radical and extreme casualties.
Staff, R., 2017. French More Polarized, Extreme Than Other Europeans, Poll Suggests. [online] Reuters.com. Available at: [Accessed 5 December 2020].
News, B., 2020. France’s Macron Asks Muslim Leaders To Back ‘Republican Values’ Charter. [online] BBC News. Available at: [Accessed 6 December 2020].
Reading about the situation in France is something I have not heard of. It’s so shocking to me that our media in the United States is so consumed with our domestic politics, we have become blind as to what is going on in other countries. After taking a terrorism course at UGA, it is truly intersting to see why terrorist act the way they do. The fighters for radical Islam really think their actions are in the best interest for their salvation and people. I believe a lot of the hate for French Muslims would dissolve if outsiders took the time to educate themselves on the difference between these terrorist and other sects of Islam. In theory, Islam and Christianity have lots of similarites. It is very discouraging and discerning to hear of a political figure openly blamining a people group based off of the actions of a few. Margi alized groups like Muslims deserve every right and privilege like any other person in society.
On a side note, I enjoy watching history shows about France and Scotland and other European countries back in the day. France is rooted with deep ties to the Catholic faith and the Vatican. It’s comes without shock to see some of these secular ideas uprooted in today’s politics because they are embedded into the country itself. It will take this generation to shift this perspective. I don’t believe strong faith is a bad thing by any means, but because there is an understanding of freedom of religion, it’s wrong to try and press your faith onto another person of a different faith. I see this same struggle within the United States.
Overall, I really enjoyed your post and look forward to seeing some of these issues resolved in France. It is such a beautiful place.
You have presented a lot of really well-supported, and insightful claims in your post. France is an interesting case, as it is not unique in having issues with populism and radical Islam, yet it seems to be struggling with extremism more so than some of its neighbors. I like where you said that French partisanship and polarization are “fueled by ideology rooted in sociocultural and religious differences.” This is a very important point to highlight, as these differences are a recurring theme throughout European countries that struggle with rising anti-Muslim movements. The recent attacks are certainly good fuel for nationalists like Le Pen, as they certainly prey on the fear of the people. Her blatant claims that Islam seeks conquests by terrorism are so concrete and harsh, yet she has a following who agrees with her. As a career politician who was also raised by a radical, Marine Le Pen is in a unique position to be very influential and not in a positive way.
I think you also identified a key issue in that the French are continuing to align more with one of two mutually exclusive sets of ideologies. This is very problematic and could be a factor in why France is not doing as well as other nations. As more people identify with one of two camps, there are less people to dilute the pool of polarization. This means that a more divisive and less productive dialogue is likely to happen. An awareness of this reality could be key to understanding how to bring France back from the brink of downfall. Norway is a good example of a country that is also struggling with the beginnings of populism and a noticeable anti-Muslim rhetoric. Unlike France however, the dialogue is not as polarized, and the multiparty system has prevented a sharp divide between the people thus far. Granted, their parties are largely “liberal” across the spectrum, but nevertheless, it has kept serious decline at bay. Additionally, the more conservative parties lack a figurehead as strong as Le Pen for example. Without the base of strong-willed and impassioned supporters, it is difficult for parties to really gain massive traction. France is in a very difficult position and there is no clear answer to any of the issues. The recent string of violent attacks proves that radical Islam is still very much alive, and individuals are capable of carrying out violence at any time. This is undoubtedly contributing to the cyclical nature of France’s democratic decline. More terror increases the fodder for populist and right-wing rhetoric, which continues to persecute Muslims as a whole, which further inflames radicals. If France is to stop this cycle, they must act quickly, and they must come up with solutions that address intersectionality and the nuances of the issues.
This is a very interesting and well written article. While I noticed a lot of other people commenting specifically on the presedential candidates for 2022 and which one was more likely to break down France’s democratic structures, I found your analysis on the polarized political climate of France more fascinating. It is important to acknowledge and discuss, as you did, the political divide among the citizens of a country. As you said, the walls put up by polarized groups become harder and harder to remove as time goes on, which would make reuniting and reinforcing democratic structures once a particular threat (in this case, open borders/immigration bans proposed by different groups) has been neutralized. Furthermore, the automatic alignment with candidates that support your agenda with disregard to the democratic processes is a far more serious side effect of polarization, as it an individual is blinded by the promises of what they want to what they as a citizen need from their government: fair protection and representation for all, including those who disagree with their views. Once citizens sacrifice their democracy for their desires, the erosion process is expedited without their conscious recognition, threatening the very rights and democracy they think they are protecting.
Again, great job on your article!
I think you’ve tackled some interesting points with a great deal of nuance. France, their dedication to secularism (laïcité), and the recent undeniable increase in islamophobia is a very delicate, complex issue. France takes great pride in adherence to their main principles, which have taken centuries of revolutions to develop and enforce. However, in their vigor to enforce secularization, the state has inextricably attached itself to the practice of religion in France, particularly Islam.
The increase in popularity in the far right is clear when we look Marine Le Pen’s career trajectory, especially compared to her father. Their drastically different levels of success, while sharing similar rhetoric, shows that xenophobia, particularly towards refugees and Muslims, has become much more effective as a political strategy. You are completely correct. the threat of right-wing consolidation and polarization in France is very real.
This being said, I think it’s important to take into account France’s baseline level of polarization. Coming from the lens of American domestic politics, I think we forget that not everywhere in the world is experiencing our level of hyperpolarization. France has a much more fluid movement of parties in power: there aren’t two main parties holding a duopoly. Independent parties win all the time. So yes, polarization is increasing, but thanks to France’s multi-party system, it will take a significant increase to make polarization as much of a threat to democracy as it is in the US.
Amazing writing, thank you for sharing your thoughts! 🙂