When asked if she would vote for the centrist Emmanuel Macron over the far-right Marine Le Pen in a possible runoff for the French presidency, Nadia Henni-Moulai could only muster an unenthusiastic “I’ll see”.
“Macron might convince me by then … but I won’t vote for him by default,” she said before vexing at the “anti-Islam continuum from the far-right to the far-left”.
Henni-Moulai, a French Muslim of Algerian origin, was one of several Muslims Al Jazeera spoke to who expressed reservations about backing Macron.
Their positions varied from cautious support to promises to avoid voting in the election altogether.
The upcoming contest could have serious consequences for the country’s Muslims, with polls putting the Front National’s Le Pen in front in the first round of voting.
Restrictions on halal meat, religious clothing, and “burkinis” have formed part of the far-right leader’s strategy to fight for the “soul of France”.
Macron, her centrist rival, trails behind her in the first round, but polls show he has a healthy lead should the pair face off in the deciding second round.
At 39, the former minister for economy has pulled in energetic crowds for his campaign rallies, drawn by his promise of “democratic revolution” in the face of a global turn to far-right populism of the kind represented by Le Pen.
On Islam, Macron has been cordial, insisting “no religion is a problem in France today”and even drawing ire from the right by condemning French “crimes and acts of barbarism” during its colonial rule in Algeria.
Henni-Moulai, the founder of the website Melting Book, which aims to amplify minority voices in the media, cast doubt on whether Macron could deliver on his energetic campaign, given his “establishment” background.
“He presents himself as against the system, but like the others he graduated from the ENA,” she said, using the acronym for the National School of Administration, where France’s top civil servants are trained.
“He worked as an investment banker afterwards …. Despite his claims, he is a part of the system,” she added.
The temptations of indulging in anti-Muslim rhetoric were too strong and Macron would eventually succumb, Henni-Moulai claimed.
“Muslim bashing is inescapable, especially if you want to reach the Elysée palace.
“I’m quite skeptical about his ability to get elected with his current arguments … as the French adage goes: Campaign from the right, govern from the centre.”
Not everyone Al Jazeera spoke to carried their skepticism of Macron as strongly as Henni-Moulai, but a thread of doubt surrounding whether he would follow through on his promises featured in most of the conversations.
Yousef Barbouch, a sales professional from the southern city of Toulouse, praised Macron’s stance on Islam but pointed out that past successful candidates had reneged on their earlier goodwill.
“There is a certain optimism you feel when you see his position on Islam within society and on hijabis, for example,” Barbouch said.
“[Macron] has this British and American mindset where he doesn’t care what you believe as long as you bring a value to the country, and that’s really refreshing to hear in today’s context of fear [surrounding Islam].”
However, Barbouch recalled the example of former President Nicolas Sarkozy, who he said had started his tenure with similar statements before turning his back on them later.
“I won’t forget that in 2009, Sarkozy had similar opinions; he defended hijabis, for example, but seven years later he’s fiercely opposed to the headscarf.”
Karim Brequin, a Parisian business consultant, also noted receptiveness among Muslims for Macron’s amiable comments on Islam but said his association with controversial establishment figures could count against him.
“Many are looking towards Macron as he seems to be more culturally aware than the other candidates,” Brequin told Al Jazeera.
“The fact that he is young and represents some kind of new momentum is relevant to many … however, his relationship with Dominique Strauss-Kahn raises questions,” he said, referring to the former finance minister once touted as a future president until he became embroiled in a rape scandal.
Rim-Sarah Alouane, a researcher in Public Law at the University Toulouse Capitole, said Macron deserved praise for not using fear of Islam as an electoral device.
“Credit has to be given to Macron for being one of the very few candidates who do not abuse laïcité [French secularism] and Muslims to power their campaign,” she said, adding: “His American-style empowerment discourse makes it possible to restore sorely needed hope to French Muslims who have been targeted both by the right and the left during the presidential campaign debates.”
That praise, however, was tempered by the fear that Macron’s promises seemed “to good to be true …
“This new hope of the French political landscape [Macron] has a very elusive programme that does not address the roots of the economic and social issues faced by the most disenfranchised populations in this country.
“Going to visit the banlieues [suburbs] or declaring loudly that multiculturalism is great is laudable, and of course very much needed, but unless he moves beyond words, people will not be fooled.”
Such economic concerns were also a factor for Yasser Louati, a leading French activist against Islamophobia.
Although statistics based on religion are hard to come by in France owing to state prohibition on their collection, immigrants, many of whom are Muslim, have almost double the unemployment rate of French-born residents.
“Macron will bring no positive changes to the working class and minorities whatsoever,” Louati said.
“His positions are known to be highly in favour of neoliberalism, with a complete disregard for its catastrophic social consequences, such as unequal concentration of power and wealth, repression, or environmental crisis.”
Louati conceded that Macron had made “brave declarations” on the role of the state in discriminating against minority youths and had avoided exploiting anti-Islamic rhetoric, but said his key platform policies remain unknown.
“Nobody knows what his programme is about … Macron has never expressed how to effectively tackle the root causes of racism or whether he intends to repeal Islamophobic laws.”
Taking a harder line than any of the other French Muslims Al Jazeera spoke to, Louati said he would avoid voting in the upcoming elections.
“I would not vote for Emmanuel Macron nor any other candidate because that would be giving more credit to a morally bankrupt and institutionally failed political system.”