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IS terror has failed to mark French presidential election, expert says

Political scientist and Islam expert Gilles Kepel
Political scientist and Islam expert Gilles Kepel RFI
4 min

Despite far-right candidate Marine Le Pen's presence in the deciding round this Sunday, jihadists have failed to "take the French presidential election hostage", one of the foremost experts on Muslims in the West in general and France in particular has told RFI.


One of the pledges made by Le Pen is to roll back immigration and contain the spread of Islam in France.

Is such a promise likely to sway undecided voters, whether on the left or right?

Political scientist Gilles Kepel points out that, despite pollsters’ and pundits’ forecasts, Le Pen was beaten into second place by liberal Emmanuel Macron in the first round of voting.

One of the reasons for that was that “jihadists failed in their attempt to take the French election hostage”, he says.

If the wave of attacks from the 2015 Charlie Hebdo massacre to the 2016 Bastille Day truck killings in the French Riviera city of Nice had continued, the vote for the far-right National Front (FN) would have been much higher than the 21.3 percent Le Pen received on 23 April.

IS under pressure in Iraq, Syria

The jihadists’ failure to carry on the assaults stems in part from the fact that the Islamic State armed group's “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq “is under threat because it is being attacked, bombed on a daily basis, you cannot cross the border any more, you cannot get in, you cannot get out”, according to Kepel.

“They’re trying to save their necks, they don’t have much time to plot for attacks in Europe or in France or in the West,” he concludes.

Kepel adds that the death of Rashid Kassim in a drone raid in February this year also contributed to the decrease in the number of jihadists’ acts of violence.

Kassim, a French national, has been linked to dozens of attacks in France, including the murder of a senior police officer and his partner near Paris last June and last July's killing of Catholic priest Jacques Hamel in Normandy.

A third factor, says Kepel, is the “significant progress” made by French intelligence agencies in foiling Islamists’ plots thanks to improved electronic surveillance.

French Muslim vote divided

Having voted 80-90 percent for incumbent François Hollande in May 2012, French citizens identifying as Muslims are more divided in this year's election, Kepel told RFI.

As Hollande won by just over 1.1 million votes, Kepel believes Muslim support played a key role in his victory. But he says that many then became “antagonised” by the same-sex marriage law being passed during Hollande’s mandate.

This year the Muslim vote is “more split”, according to Kepel, with 37 percent voting for hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, some 10 per cent for the mainstream right's François Fillon, and even five percent for Le Pen.

Secularism not to blame

Kepel firmly adheres to the ideal of strict secularism. He took an active part in the process that led to the implementation of the law in 2004 that banned displaying religious symbols and clothing in state schools.

He dismisses the suggestion that multicultularism and a more relaxed approach, such as is found in the UK and Germany, could help weaken the grip of Islamic fundamentalism.

“If it were the case you would not have [had] the attacks in Germany or in Britain, and the policeman in front of the Houses of Parliament in Westminster would not have been stabbed," he argues. "There would have been no attacks [at] Glasgow Airport earlier on; and [we] would not have witnessed the lorry or the truck running over the crowd in Breitscheidplatz in Berlin on 16 December.

"So it’s not an issue of secularism and it’s not an issue of being particularly strict because French “laïcité” does not compel you to abandon your religion, on the contrary; it tells you it has no room in the public sphere as such.”

Living with death threat

Kepel has been living with a death threat hanging over his head since the Magnanville police couple killer unveiled a list of seven jihadist targets that included Kepel on Facebook Live.

It is not his views that are at stake, he explains, but “my scholarship”.

“What those people are trying to do is stop the study of [Islam], the reading of the text,” he explains. He traces the death threat to the time he debated with Islamist inmates in a French prison. “The jihadists thought they lost and they called Raqqa [the city in Syria that is the capital of the IS "caliphate"] with a forbidden phone and said: This guy is dangerous because he knows what it’s about”.

Kepel sounds remarkably serene in the circumstances.

“Of course it’s a constraint, but when you have dedicated your life, your whole academic life, for more than 40 years, to this phenomenon, it’s not going to threaten me. An orientalist is an animal with thick skin and cold blood.”

To read our French presidential election 2017 coverage click here

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