PARIS — A long line stretched in front of Hall 2 of the Bourget Exhibition Center on the outskirts of the French capital last Saturday afternoon, ahead of an annual three-day conference by the Union of Islamic Organizations of France. Fliers announced the topic of the upcoming roundtable: "Eleven candidates in the presidential election, who will you vote for?"

Many in attendance confess that they have not yet made their choice, with just days to go before Sunday's first round of voting. Others, however, have picked their candidate. Leïla has made her decision. She will vote "J.L.M." for Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the far-left candidate who has shot up in the polls over the past month.

"This is neither the Right nor the Socialist party," this 32-year-old stay-at-home mom explains. "For five years, the Socialists have not ceased to stigmatize women wearing hijabs. This time, we will show them that these women are not submissive!"

Like many here, Leïla voted in 2012 for Socialist candidate François Hollande, who has been an unpopular president and opted not to seek reelection. Over these past five years in France, which has Europe's largest Muslim population (estimated at 5 million in a nation of 66 million), issues linked to Islam have increasingly dominated debate. Immigration, terrorism and the wearing of Islamic head scarves and hijabs by Muslim women are among the topics that have come up during the current campaign. Still, few have asked what Muslim citizens themselves will do when they go to the polls.

In 2017, voting for the left remains "a fundamental tendency" predominant in the Muslim community, confirms Fatima Khemilat, a doctorate candidate at Science Po Aix university who is studying the Muslim electorate.

But this time may be more split than the vote five years ago. Khemilat notes that the hard-line rhetoric of Manuel Valls, who served as prime minister under Hollande, on the topic of Islam — and particularly on the wearing of hijabs by Muslim women — "has been experienced like a betrayal."

No candidates present

When the Bourget room finally opens its doors for the debate on the presidential election, the organizers bemoan the fact that not one of the 11 presidential candidates sent a representative. The UOIF, linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, has been rebranded as the "Muslims of France," but continues to be on the defensive because of regular criticism by right-wing candidates François Fillon and Marine Le Pen against the Muslim Brotherhood.

Muslims have abstained for 30 years, this plays into the hands of those who do not want the Muslim presence in France.

Indeed, among the speakers this past weekend was Camel Bechikh, a Muslim from the political right. He spoke about the "national right" in reference to Le Pen's populist National Front party. "Must we welcome new waves of migrants?" asked this activist known for his past vocal opposition to gay marriage.

For his part, Amar Lasfar, the president of the UOIF, advised that people "not confine themselves just to what a candidate has said about Islam" when choosing for whom to vote. Such a calculation, he said, could lead to a run-off of two right-wing candidates. "Vote!" was the central message from Lasfar, "we will protect France from the threat of the extreme right."

muslim islam paris election montmartre

In Montmartre — Photo: Francisco Osorio

In the room, Ahmed Mcherfi, an official of the Reims region in northeast France, looked back on how Muslims' role in French politics has evolved. "There was a time when we posed the question of whether we could vote. Today, we ask for whom should we vote. It is a sign of integration. Muslims have abstained for 30 years, this plays into the hands of those who do not want the Muslim presence in France."

In attendance with her mother, Fatima is undecided between Mélenchon, Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon and centrist front-runner Emmanuel Macron, saying that there are elements of each that she likes. Ultimately, this civil servant will vote for "the most tolerant, the most just, and the most dynamic" candidate.

New Party

Hannah Zahouani has decided to take her political life to the next step. This 40-year-old business manager and community activist is a candidate in the legislative elections in June for the fifth district of Seine-Saint-Denis, this city on the outskirts of Paris. She had come to the gathering to distribute pamphlets for her brand new party, French And Muslim, which features a "platform based on Muslim ethics and in perfect harmony with values of the (French) Republic."

Claiming to be neither from the political left, right nor center, its proposals range from the establishment of "universal wages" to the integration of the Muslim religion in the 1905 law that separated church and state to a "total respect for modesty before education establishments."

Many of its leaders broke off from the Union of Muslim Democrats of France, after internal disputes following the 2015 regional elections where the party claims to have garnered more than 5% support in election districts in the Ile-de-France region in and around Paris. For the legislative elections this June, which follow the presidential race, there will now be two competing Muslim parties. Competing factions may be the clearest sign of all that Muslims are becoming a regular part of French politics.

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