With fewer than two weeks to go, the completion of my Laidlaw summer research project is fast-approaching, and the more than slightly daunting task of drawing conclusions from the past 8 weeks of research is now upon me. Thankfully in that time I have amassed a fair quantity of notes, all hand-written as I somehow never lost the habit, and somewhere in there I hope to find the interesting and original insights that will make my efforts, and the Laidlaw programmes generous support, all worthwhile.
Attempting to understand the complex relationship of France’s far-right political party the Front National, to the country’s intrinsic, foundational, and undeniably unique conception of secularism or laïcité, has been interesting, and at times involved tackling many more questions than those I originally sought to deal with. Beyond the shocking headlines and video clips of French police forcing Muslim women to remove their veil on sunny southern beaches, and of town mayors (not exclusively from the Front National) defending such actions, there are actually far-deeper issues at play which elude the simple labels of racism and discrimination, albeit that such intolerance exists in France as much as it does elsewhere.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most rewarding and academically fruitful aspect of my summer research project was undoubtedly the two weeks I spent conducting interviews in France at the end of June. I spoke to a broad range of people, Front National party members, and elected politicians of course, but also representatives of activist groups and government officials. While I did hear views I personally would describe as racist and Islamophobic, what I heard a lot more of was a sense of apprehension about the future, and a legitimate opposition to globalisation, multiculturalism, and a direction of modernity which many saw as threatening to their identity.
One interview in particular stands out in my head. On the 19th of June, I spoke to a farmer turned FN regional councillor in the small village of Châteaurenard, not too far from Marseille, who had joined the Front National after a proposed free trade deal with Morocco which would see his produce being undercut by agricultural imports from North-Africa. He saw globalisation as threatening to his livelihood, and the Front National as the only party which would defend local interests against global market forces. While many of us may question how he chose to fight his campaign, few would fail to understand his concerns.
As such, in the debate around the Front National, and laïcité, globalisation inevitably emerges, as does immigration, integration, terrorism, colonial history, political history, and a range of contemporary social issues. I would say that attempting to chart a course through this complex web of often very sensitive subjects, and while taking their relevance into account, remaining focused on the question at hand, has been a particular challenge of my project. Deciding which avenues of research to pursue, and which to leave aside as an inevitable consequence of the time constraints of a ten-week project has thus been an important learning curve from my time as a Laidlaw intern, and will no doubt be important experience for any time-sensitive projects I may undertake in the future.