Republic of Islamophobia

The Rise of Respectable Racism in France

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James Wolfreys
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , May
     208 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Republic of Islamophobia: The Rise of Respectable Racism in France is an eye-catching title that does some disservice to the account of French governance of Islam that Jim Wolfreys offers in this book. As its subtitle suggests, the book recasts religious opposition as racism, arguing that this is a state-sponsored strategy that serves to obscure the real source of inequality—neoliberalism. As middle-class anxiety rises in the face of economic insecurity, Jim Wolfreys suggests, “a key political battle is being waged in contemporary France in order to focus this anxiety onto immigrants and their descendants—in other words, to blame the consequences of inequality on those who suffer from it the most” (127). There is much to be said for Wolfreys’s argument, which offers a panorama of recent political events and controversies, and the work of a variety of French language sociologists and commentators. The book is certainly an effective riposte to lurid British accounts of the “French Intifada” and the French cottage industry of handwringing about national decline.

The opening chapter deals with the response to the Islamist-inspired attacks of 2015 on the offices of the magazine Charlie Hebdo, the November attacks on cafes and music venues in Paris, and the 2017 attacks on the Bastille Day celebrations in Nice. Subsequent chapters trace the emergence of an anti-Muslim panic back to the 1990s through the affair of the “veil” in schools and public spaces, and the rise of the Front National and the cooptation of its ideology into mainstream political parties. With a particular emphasis on the “revolt of the suburbs” in 2005—both an intensification of rhetoric and an awakening of anti-Islamophobic resistance— Wolfreys traces not only manipulation by the Right, but the confrontation between the traditional extreme Left and new anticolonial and antiracist movements such as the “Indigènes de la République.” His conclusion contextualizes these developments by offering a comparison to Islamophobic elements in British and American politics. 

There remain some unanswered questions in reading this very lucid and stimulating book. The first is what it means to be Muslim in France: Wolfreys seems to present Islam as almost entirely a function of the state, with little analysis of what Muslims themselves do or think. Religion is subsumed into a racial category, and then into a set of economic relationships. Yet is it really the case that if France were to break with neoliberal economics, or deal with racism, conflicts over Islam would disappear? 

In explaining the nature of Islamophobia, Wolfreys argues that its tropes “identify Muslims as representatives of their religion rather than individuals in their own right” (27). Elsewhere he sees neoliberalism breaking down social groupings into individuals, thereby fracturing their solidarity and effectiveness. The question is whether “Islamophobia” or “racism” is really the best frame for analyzing these contradictions, or whether they apply more generally to religion and the state. This points to a constitutive difficulty in the Republic—and perhaps in modern polities more generally. The French Revolution opened political culture to the participation of all religions, without ultimately resolving the problem of the role religion should play in the state. How does the freedom to practice religion as one wishes (including in public) square with the “secular” insistence that religion should be a private matter? As for equality, is it the practitioners who are equal, or the religions? Do Muslims have rights as Muslims or only as citizens? 

Despite frequent references to the importance of France’s colonial history, there is little reference to events prior to 1970, with the exception of a brief discussion of the Law of 1905 that separated church and state. Naomi Davidson showed in her book Only Muslim: Embodying Islam in Twentieth-Century France (Cornell University Press, 2012) that the French state has been invested in the production of Muslims as Muslims for much more than a century, through “Islamophilia” as much as “Islamophobia.” The conflation of Muslims with “immigrants,” racial minorities, or the poor and disenfranchised, while reflecting many of the confused entanglements of French public discourse on Islam today, neglects that longer history and unwittingly reinforces the misconception that Muslims are newcomers to the French polity. The welcome comparison to Britain presents the question of the few mentions of North Africa, despite the critical impact of the “troubles” of the 1990s in Algeria on France and French attitudes. Indeed, the Fifth Republic itself was born out of the struggle in Algeria, and the perspective of a political scientist on how that has impacted on the structures of France today would have been extremely useful. 

Overall, then, this is a strong and polemical work that will be read eagerly by those seeking insight into France’s troubled relationship with Islam, but which leaves one with the sense that its heroes and villains are established from the outset. Despite Wolfreys’s salutary reminder that there is no easy opposition between the French system and a putative “Anglo-Saxon” system, English-speaking readers may still come away with a certain complacency, having failed to understand that many of those who struggle against the French state still identify strongly with the values of liberty, equality, and fraternity, as tarnished as they may sometimes be. For all the faults of French political culture today, we must resist reducing its complexities to a pessimistic caricature of Islamophobia.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ian Coller is Associate Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine.

Date of Review: 
November 6, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

James Wolfreys lectures in French and European politics at King's College London. He is co-author (with Peter Fysh) of The Politics of Racism in France.


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