(CNN)Nicolas Sarkozy’s defeat in the French Republican primary Sunday night could mean a reshuffling of priorities on the center right of French politics.
The race will now be between two former prime ministers, Alain Juppe and Francois Fillon, and the winner will then have to lead the mainstream right in what is set to be a decisive moment for France next year.
Fillon’s decisive and surprising victory in the first round could demonstrate that Jupp’s more conciliatory tone has failed. With over 44% of the vote, Fillon may appear to many as a moderate compared to Sarkozy, but his neoliberal views — coupled with a very conservative approach to societal matters, particularly with regard to identity, immigration and Islam — should allow him to tap into the electorate of his defeated opponents. It was a strong sign that Sarkozy announced he would vote for Fillon as he conceded.
Islam has become the perfect scapegoat for French politicians who claim Muslims’ incompatibility with “our” ways — no matter how unclear these are — became no longer a question of race but of culture and religion. But the end point is similar, and what has been called “new racism” is in fact very much still racism.
As I have explained at length elsewhere, “Muslimness” in this “new racism” is defined by the onlooker in a position of power, not the bearer of the identity, and is imposed onto people through generalization, misperception and stigmatization made ubiquitous by public discourse and repetition.
Sexism, violence and other generalizations become problems described as being located within the so-called “Muslim community.” This in turn justifies subjugating a minority to special and often violent treatment. And it prevents us from looking at the more systemic shortcomings of our societies in terms of gender violence and other forms of inequality and injustice.
Dystopia as the new norm?
Such a diversion has proven a blessing for mainstream politicians as they have failed to offer their people (including the minorities they willfully stigmatize) more hopeful avenues for politics. Dystopia has become the new norm.
With less than six months to go before the first round of the French presidential election, it seems that none of the mainstream candidates are willing to denounce Islamophobia in all its forms. While Jupp has taken a more conciliatory approach, his underwhelming performance in the first round of the Rpublicans’ primaries could spur a tougher approach in the coming week.
While the situation is particularly worrying for minorities in France, polls revealing incredible levels of political dissatisfaction could point to a different future (up to 9 out of 10 respondents to the Eurobarometer survey say they don’t trust political parties). While Brexit and Trump’s successful campaigns did indeed capitalize on far-right sentiments, both did little to sufficiently address the more important economic issues that concern the electorate.
While the far right has so far managed to tap into this resentment most successfully, at least in appearance, a progressive and inclusive alternative could turn the tide, as mainstream parties have proven their inability to retain or win back voters even when faced with an unpalatable alternative.
The question for the French people who believe in a different future than that offered by the FN is thus both simple and impossibly complicated: Can they wait for traditional parties to provide such an alternative, or should they take matters into their own hands?