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As high-stakes vote looms, can French Muslim party make inroads?

France's far-right National Front is expected to make large gains in the first round of regional elections Sunday. The Union of French Muslim Democrats aims to bring a moderate voice to the political stage. 

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    Khalid Majid, president of the Union of French Muslim Democrats, talks to a resident of Montreuil, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Paris.
    Sara Miller Llana/The Christian Science Monitor
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As French Muslims brace for the expected breakthrough of the anti-immigrant, far right National Front party in this weekend's regional elections, Khalid Majid has an answer for them: the Union of French Muslim Democrats.

The president of the young political party acknowledges that his is a tiny following so far – just 1,000 dues-paying members and 7,000 fans on Facebook. But, he says, the UDMF offers an opportunity to push back against the exclusionary narrative of the far right, and to give Muslims a moderate political voice that they desperately need.

“We absolutely in this period of tragedy need to show that we also want to build this country,” says Mr. Majid, wrapped in a gray scarf against the bitter wind as he heads into a bustling Saturday market in Montreuil, an ethnic community on the outskirts of Paris.

The party, founded in 2012, faces a tough uphill battle. It distinguishes itself as Muslim – even though its leaders insist it’s not exclusively for Muslims. Other Muslim parties in Europe have attempted to carve out political space with varying degrees of success, and none has worked its way to the mainstream amid divisions among Muslims themselves and platforms that typically don’t reach beyond the concerns of the Muslim community. 

It’s a particular challenge in France, where laws of secularism dictate that religion has no place in public life. And at such a polarized time, when the work of moderate Muslims is more important than ever, many worry that a political party as such could ultimately fan, not extinguish, the flames of the far right.

“The problem is that it identifies Muslim voters as a constituency apart, just at the very moment when many Muslims in France are anxious not to be seen as a separate community,” says James Shields, a professor of French politics at Aston University in the United Kingdom.

The Muslim vote in France, where Muslims make up an estimated 7.5 percent of the population, had long gone to the left, mostly because of socialist platforms that generally include more social protections and are more inclusive. But cultural issues like gay marriage have alienated Muslims, with some moving to the right and even the far right.

More typical, however, is a feeling among Muslims that they simply aren’t represented.

Nabil Neffati, a Muslim who stops outside the Montreuil market to listen to the UDMF campaigners, says the party could be an answer to those who have stayed away from politics. “The name of this party is strong symbolically, and I think it could be a type of electroshock for some young people who feel isolated and who don’t vote because they don’t believe in politicians,” he says.

A boon to the right?

But its name could also be its biggest problem.

The far right, for example, often cites the story line of "Submission," a fictional work by French writer Michel Houellebecq that imagines a France ruled under a Muslim party in 2022 and was published the day of the attacks against Charlie Hebdo in Paris. 

Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front, meanwhile, says only her party is prepared to protect France against the rising dangers of the self-declared Islamic State, which claimed responsibility for the Nov. 13 attack that killed 130 people. For the first time, her party could win one or more of the 13 regions of France, giving it a new foothold in French politics. In a campaign pitch Wednesday night, she said if IS is not defeated, “Islamist totalitarianism will take power in our country” and that “Shariah [Islamic law] will replace the Constitution.”

Karim Bitar, a senior research fellow at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris, says he worries that in this context, a party that explicitly identifies as one for Muslims could backfire. Problems of discrimination and exclusion would be better served, he argues, by Muslim participation in existing civic and political organizations.

“The creation of such a party could provide fodder to the propaganda of the extreme right,” he says. “Racism and identity politics feed off of one another.”

Not a religious party

The UDMF tries to cast off such concerns, saying it is not a sectarian party but a moderate one that will tackle the problems that concern all French, like unemployment. Its founder, Nagib Azergui, says that it also aims to refocus the debate over Islam, which he says is too often presented as a threat to French society.

“We contribute economically, philosophically, culturally [here].… There is the impression we just arrived to get social benefits,” he says. “These are political problems. They need a political solution.”

The UDMF dropped out from running in local elections last March, in part because of a misconception that it was a religious party, says Mr. Majid. Now they are running in the current race in Ile-de-France, the region that includes Paris, and plan to participate in the presidential elections in 2017.

That ambition resonates with voters like Ferroudja Ghersbousbele, who was born in Algeria. She embraces French secularism and wants her children to live side-by-side with Christians and Jews, she says.

But she says Muslims are invisible in political life. She listens intently to the UDMF message. “There are Muslims [in political parties] but they should do things [for Muslims],” she says, “like this party.”

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