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Le Pen says French govt afraid to use word 'Islamist'

Marine Le Pen, leader of France's far-right National Front party
Marine Le Pen, leader of France's far-right National Front party AFP

The debate in France over how to refer to terrorists who kill others in the name of Islam is heating up after the country’s leading far-right figure took the government to task for shying away from the word “Islamist”.

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Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front (FN) party, has accused the French government of failing to tackle Islamic fundamentalists, in part by its reluctance to call them just that. The controversy over using of the word “Islamist” in tandem with “extremists” or “militants” is not new, but it has moved to the front burner in the wake of France’s recent terrorist attacks – its deadliest in over 50 years.

In an opinion piece for the New York Times, Le Pen specifically targeted Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, but blamed the entire political establishment for allegedly not “looking the enemy in the eye” and for its lack of vigilance.

“It does our Muslim compatriots no favors to fuel suspicions and leave things unspoken. Islamist terrorism is a cancer on Islam, and Muslims themselves must fight it at our side,” she wrote in the op-ed published on Sunday.

Le Pen, in typical fashion, then used the platform to rail against Europe’s system of open internal borders, and “massive waves of immigration, both legal and clandestine”.

Fabius has made no secret of his dislike of the word “Islamic” or “Islamist” when speaking about home-grown or foreign jihadists.

Speaking on Europe 1 radio on January 11, two days after the French-born Kouachi brothers yelled “Allahou Akbar”, or God is great in Arabic, as they gunned down 12 people at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, Fabius explained:

“I don’t want to play the role of censor, but I think the word Islamist … is not the right one to use. I call them terrorists. Because as soon as you use the word Islam, you are promoting an idea of continuity between a Muslim – who practises his religion, which is a religion of peace – and something which is an interpretation of the Muslim religion.”

Eye on elections

Contacted by FRANCE 24, the New York Times confirmed that Sunday’s op-ed was Le Pen’s first for the newspaper, but would not say if it considered the far-right figure someone who expressed the views of large segments of French society. Last year represented a milestone for Le Pen’s party, with unprecedented victories in mayoral, EU parliament and senate ballots.

According to French far-right expert Jean-Yves Camus, Le Pen’s opinion piece is the New York Times is part of her election strategy for 2015.

“The only way she can make further gains in local elections in March and regional ones in December is by winning over more conservative voters. She has to show she is more conservative than the right-wing Union for a Popular Movement Party (UMP), so it is no surprise she is attacking the government as well as the previous administration of Nicolas Sarkozy.”

Despite Le Pen’s professed concern for France’s Muslims, whom she said “need the distinction between Islamist terrorism and their faith to be made clearly”, Camus said she was in fact addressing her core constituents.

“The National Front has tried to connect with parts of the so-called Muslim community in France in the past, but so far it has been unsuccessful,” Camus said. “It is a very fragmented group. There is no single spiritual leader and there is no central organisation like the Jewish community in France has had historically.”

“Most Muslim voters in France eventually vote independently, and even if some are very conservative, they eventually realise that the FN is also a xenophobic party.”

Camus said that historically the FN opposed immigration regardless of the country of origin, but in recent years has turned its attention to Islam as a religion and an ideology that it sees as incompatible with European culture.

Daesh vs Islamic State

France’s reluctance to use the words “Islamic” or “Islamist” in connection to terrorism first became a subject of debate last year, when Fabius refused to call the Islamic State militant group by the name they chose for themselves. The armed Sunni-Muslim movement that has taken control over large parts of Syria and Iraq – and made international headlines by beheading Western captives – has been referred to as “Daesh” by France’s foreign ministry since September. Many French media have followed suit.

The word Daesh originates from an acronym for the group in Arabic, but it is by no means neutral. Considered an insult by IS members, the term was invented by the group’s political opponents in Iran and Syria specifically to undermine the notion it has any claim over Islam as a religion or an autonomous state, their self-styled “caliphate”. The word also has negative connotations in Arabic, a fact not lost on Fabius.

Paris is now engaged in a comparable semantic struggle, but on its home turf. The French government has repeatedly urged citizens not to conflate the Charlie Hebdo attackers, who are part of extremist minority, with millions of ordinary French Muslims. It has brandished the gunmen terrorists and called for a clear distinction between them and France’s second largest faith.

“France is not at war against a religion,” Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared in a rousing speech at the National Assembly on January 13. “France is not at war against Islam and Muslims. France will protect … as it has always done, all its citizens. Those who are believers, like those who are not.”

The government’s concern is proving legitimate. France’s National Observatory Against Islamophobia has recorded an unprecedented rise in anti-Muslim acts across the country in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. They have ranged from threats and harassment of women wearing Muslim veils, to shots fired against mosques.

The Paris police prefecture has already banned two protests “against the Islamisation of Europe”, organised by a fringe far-right group and inspired by Germany's anti-Islamic PEGIDA movement.

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