Even though the Yellow Vest anti-government movement is historic in scope, duration and intensity, and even though Muslims compose 5-10% of France’s population, there has been almost zero media coverage of the interplay between these two forces.
Check Google in French or English and you truly find almost nothing. I have been waiting and waiting to do a story on this angle for Iran’s PressTV – I am their Paris correspondent – but there is simply no “news peg” from which we can start any report.
The reasons for this silence are due to a four key reasons but, mostly, it’s because the plight of Muslims and Yellow Vests are so obviously similar: just as French media ignores the Muslim community to promote violent misrepresentations instead, so they ignore the true substance of the Yellow Vests in favor of tabloid coverage.
For years I have talked with Nagib Azergui, who is the founder of the Democratic Union of French Muslims (English-language website here). This party is the most realistic political hope for France’s Muslims, and they seem certain to win seats in next month’s EU elections. They are not Islamists nor pushers of divisive identity politics – they are completely concerned with improving the lives of all French people. Secondarily, they have taken on a tough job – decontaminating Muslims in domestic French politics.
Azergui and I discussed why there is no media coverage of the Muslim Yellow Vests, and the level of support for the Yellow Vests in the French Muslim community.
French Muslims are indeed joining the Yellow Vests
I have covered the Yellow Vest demonstrations for months and I can assure you: there are plenty of Muslim Yellow Vests.
So why is there an impression that Muslims are not part of the movement? About the only thing we ever hear on the subject is: What a pity more Muslims didn’t show up.
“We heard the same complaints for the ‘Je Suis Charlie’ march for Charlie Hebdo,”said Azergui, referring to the attack on the satirical paper’s headquarters in 2015. “I was at the march with my children, and I saw many Muslims there.”
Azergui hits the nail on the head as to why Muslim Yellow Vests are hiding in plain sight from French media, which is hardly known for positive portrayals of Islam or Muslims.
“I think such statements reveal the subconscious image these commentators have of French Muslims – they expect us to show up wearing burkas, beards, African clothing, chanting slogans in Arabic and carrying signs in Arabic. But these types of Muslims are simply not representative of the average Muslim in France.”
So the first reason behind this false idea that there are no Muslim Yellow Vests is that many commentators are looking for caricatures – not French Muslims.
Muslims in France look very much like regular French people because they are regular French people.
A Black or Arab Yellow Vester does not stick out, mainly because all Yellow Vests look the same – they are wearing shiny Yellow Vests!
Let’s not forget that Muslims are a minority – there is about the same percentage of Muslims as there are people with red hair in often-Celtic France. Frankly, I have seen a million Yellow Vest faces and I can’t recall a single redhead – should I ask, “Why aren’t Celtic French supporting the Yellow Vests?” Of course, redheads are surely present… and often with plenty of Celtic-pride paraphernalia.
So the only way Muslims could get attention at Yellow Vest demonstrations is by being “excessively Muslim”… but such a thing is rather absurd, will not happen, and would certainly be dangerous – Muslim-pride paraphernalia would only attract negative attention, and Muslims already get enough of that.
Zero doubt among Muslims: when the truncheons fly, Muslims will get hit first
And the truncheons do fly every Saturday.
French police simply love to abuse Muslims: an estimated 70% of their prisoners are from Muslim backgrounds. French police simply love to abuse Yellow Vests. Police violence is guaranteed at which ever city is the week’s “focus”.
So the sight of a Muslim Yellow Vester makes many cops salivate. It also makes judges salivate at sentencing time.
“Muslims would be the first victims of police brutality,” confirmed Azergui. “They are always the sacrificial lambs in France, so why would it be any different at the Yellow Vest protests?”
On April 20th the police abuse was constant in Paris. Medics were working overtime as people were dropping like flies, but I only saw one unconscious person carried out on a stretcher – he was Black and thus quite possibly a Muslim, of course.
This guarantee of a double helping of both police brutality and judicial impunity is the second reason, but likely the most important reason, why Muslims might not be so eye-catching at Yellow Vest demonstrations.
This violence adds to the media silence – talking about Muslims and Yellow Vests would have to break the taboo against honest discussion of the institutionalised state violence towards the Muslim community.
Sad but true: one of the “great” things about the Yellow Vests is that it’s not only Muslims who are being brutalised anymore.
“France is starting to wake up to reality,” said Azergui. “When 4,000 Muslim families had their homes raided without a warrant during the State of Emergency, France didn’t care about police violence. There are so many images and videos which show how French cops abuse old people, women and innocent people – this is something Muslims live with daily. How could Muslims not have solidarity with such a movement?
Azergui’s thoughts reminded me of the case of Ali Ziri, a 69-year old Algerian native who was infamously beaten to death by French cops in 2009. Police violence is a real taboo in France, and by taking so many beatings the Yellow Vests are helping out their Muslim brothers and sisters.
Yellow Vests haven’t done enough to reach out to Muslims
The Yellow Vests are absolutely not an Islamophobic movement because none of their demands are steeped in religion or ethnicity. Their demands are economic, political and social – this is a class-based struggle.
The idea that because the Yellow Vests are a rural-based movement that they must be latently Islamophobic is absolutely false – in the 21st century there are at least a few Muslims in seemingly every tiny French village. Such accusations only reveals prejudice against rural people, and certainly in France and the West it is very au courant for urbanites to look down on small-town people as a “basket of deplorables”.
The Yellow Vests only trust other Yellow Vests – the only color they see is Yellow. As a worker for Iranian government media I am routinely persona non grata at many fake-leftist demonstrations, and even truly leftist ones, due to Iranophobia and Islamophobia. The only demonstrations I am welcomed at in France are for pro-Palestinians… and now the Yellow Vests, too. So I have no doubt – Muslims are welcome at Yellow Vest gatherings.
However, Yellow Vests have made some mistakes, and also failed to take some proper measures. At the very start of the movement Yellow Vests infamously turned in asylum-seekers to authorities, give the initial impression that extreme-right contaminated the Yellow Vests.
“The Yellow Vests are not a structured movement, but they have not done a good job repudiating some Islamophobic acts and disassociating themselves from Islamophobia completely. They just said, ‘Well, there are always some imbeciles in every crowd.’ That has left some lingering suspicions in the Muslim community.”
If the Yellow Vests would only organize a march dedicated to Muslim outreach I can promise – you will get at least one reporter there to help permanently dismiss this false accusation of Islamophobia. The rest of the French media… they might not be so interested in reporting it accurately.
Yellow Vests certainly do plenty of other demonstrations dedicated to certain themes and issues. It was absolutely necessary for the Yellow Vests to march in February against the absolutely false accusation that they were anti-Semitic. That was all a ruseto pave the way for Macron’s announcement that he would criminalise anti-Zionism – but we can understand why Muslims said to each other, “And where’s the march for us?”
Indeed, where? Why not?
The third reason for the lack of publicised interchange between the Yellow Vests and Muslims is that many Muslims may have been put off by the false propaganda campaigns of the Mainstream Media, and because we have yet to see a real Muslim outreach from the Yellow Vests.
Massive support for Yellow Vests from Muslims, even if sometimes from afar
When I asked Azergui if Muslims support the Yellow Vests he answered, “Yes,” before I had even finished the question.
In an unfortunate but perhaps real sense, many Muslims feel that they are best helping the Yellow Vests by staying out of it.
“If Muslims showed up and there were fights and destruction of property, we know the media would say these are ‘violent Islamists’, and this would only hurt the image of the Yellow Vests. We have already even heard this type of discourse.”
Azergui is right – last year there were absurd conspiracy theories that the Muslim Brotherhood was orchestrating the Yellow Vests – but Muslims simply must participate anyway.
That brings us to our fourth reason why Muslims haven’t attended Yellow Vest demonstrations in huge numbers – Muslims have never been allowed, encouraged or motivated to participate in French politics, so why would this time be any different?
Muslims were hidden underground in France for decades, after all. Their coming out party wasn’t until 1985 with the Touche pas mon pote (Don’t touch my buddy) campaign. The arrival of Nicolas Sarkozy as Interior Minister, then the mainstreaming of Islamophobia under Francois Hollande, then Macron’s normalisation of the Muslim-targeting State of Emergency – all this has reinforced to Muslims that their participation in French politics is neither useful nor desired.
So, of course the French media doesn’t want to talk about the Muslims and the Yellow Vests, because it only reminds France of their total failure to include the Muslim community in politics. And they like dominating, controlling and suppressing Muslims – let’s not act as if neo-imperialism is not alive and well in France.
So let’s not pretend that Mainstream Media really cares about Muslims and democracy, nor mainstream politicians: Despite all the Muslims in France, Macron no longer has a single Muslim minister in his cabinet. If Marine Le Pen had won the election she’d surely at least have a token Muslim minister….
Yellow Vests and Muslims are the two largest groups in France which suffer from socioeconomic marginalization – there is no doubt that they will be open political allies, eventually. We have 5 months of proof – the far-right contamination of the Yellow Vests was drastically overstated; by reaching out to Muslims immediately, the movement can even further display their leftist, progressive, class basis.
But there are obviously a raft of obstacles keeping Muslims from openly joining the Yellow Vest movement, mainly: mainstream media, mainstream politicians, and backwards policing and judicial methods. But not individual (nor collective) Yellow Vests.
The reality is that if the Yellow Vest movement does not adopt an open policy of anti-Islamophobia it will never succeed – how can it succeed when such a huge part of the company is not fully involved? Nor can it be considered a truly leftist movement – how can it be if race, religion or ethnic culture is prioritised over class?
However, it is truly leftist and it will succeed, I feel.
It is not a question of “who has to make the first step”, because Muslims are already involved with the Yellow Vests. However, both sides need to increase their cooperation and outreach for the good of France, the Eurozone, the European Union and the entire world.
Ramin Mazaheri is the chief correspondent in Paris for Press TV and has lived in France since 2009. He has been a daily newspaper reporter in the US, and has reported from Iran, Cuba, Egypt, Tunisia, South Korea and elsewhere. He is the author of I’ll Ruin Everything You Are: Ending Western Propaganda on Red China. His work has appeared in various journals, magazines and websites, as well as on radio and television. He can be reached on Facebook.