by Tricia Yeoh. First published in The Sun Online 1 Oct 2015

OVER the last week I spent in Paris under invitation of the French Foreign Ministry, almost every academic and official I met raised the refugee crisis and migration as the chief challenge for Europe, and by extension, France. Not only would this impact upon the country’s already unstable economic situation, it also tests the fragile balance between its increasingly mixed communities. These incidents spill over to other parts of the world, lessons of which are relevant even for Malaysia.

Islam is the second largest religion in France today, the majority of Muslims were early migrants from Algeria, following the latter’s war with and subsequent independence from 132 years of French colonisation. Migrants from Algeria have not stopped flowing since the 1960s, and today one out of four French citizens have an immigrant parent.

Most recently, France has announced its willingness to take in only up to 24,000 Syrian refugees, which pales in comparison to neighbouring Germany accepting 800,000. The ruling Socialist Party government, already trying hard to balance austerity measures with its own left-leaning state-centric ideological beliefs, has a bigger problem ahead: dealing with far right anti-immigrant sentiment emerging largely out of “white poor workers”, the rebellion of unemployed white youth especially in rural regions.

This is a trend we see all over Europe. The principle of free movement also means migrants have an easier time accessing countries with loose border control. At a time of economic downturn – which most of the region is facing – the geographical areas of each country with the lowest employment rates have seen the rise of far right political parties. In France’s case, it is the anti-immigrant National Front led by Marine Le Pen, which also came in first in the 2014 European Parliament election despite being anti-EU.

Cities where the National Front won in 2014 have seen a reduction in mosque contributions and social assistance to Muslims, as well as attempts to remove alternative pork-free menus for Muslim children in school canteens.

Based on the conversations I had, it seemed as if the National Front is dictating a popular narrative that other parties are reluctantly having to respond to.

Dealing with religion is not a new phenomenon in France, which implemented a law in 1905 to separate Church and State. In what is called laïcité, or French secularism, the state is strictly neutral with respect to religion, while guaranteeing that all religions should be treated equally and given equal rights and human dignity before the law. As such, public officials are not allowed to dress in any way that identifies them with a particular religion.

Laïcité in its original purpose was therefore to ensure equal treatment of all religions – by separating religion and state, the state is freed from recognising or favouring one religion over another.

But the right-wing factions have begun to read into it their own definition of cultural laïcité, where the National Front insists that identity and religious symbols of Islam are to be especially opposed. It is here that laïcité, which was meant to promote freedom to practise religions, is being reinterpreted by the far right as a law that pushes religious adherents – and strangely enough, only Muslims – into the private sphere, challenging their ability to practise in public.

Despite religion not being a part of French politics for many years, this has ceased to be the case, where political leaders are now compelled to take a stand on a very difficult subject. On the one hand, they are dealing with a traditional Catholic France with an upper-crusted French identity (early this year, Paris saw thousands on the streets protesting a gay-marriage law that has since passed) but also seeing the rapidly changing face of French society with its blooming multicultural communities.

The distrust of Muslims grew further when in January this year, satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo saw a massacre of 11 people. In the week after the shooting, there were 54 anti-Muslim incidents reported in France.

Malaysia is fortunate not to have such violent attacks. But are we, really? When you have leaders of the ruling party condoning violent statements made by groups, I am not so sure any more.

Just as we would decry the notion of a far-right, anti-Islam, anti-immigrant political party in France, on the grounds that it infringes upon Muslim rights, we should be equally critical of groups on local ground that are far-right, anti-Chinese and anti-immigrant (or in fact, anti-any race or religion!). Defending the rights of a minority (or majority) race or religion must be consistent, whether in France or Malaysia.

Ultimately, what is imperative is that every person is treated equally before the law as citizens of the common and shared space we happen to call a nation. Both France and Malaysia are dealing with deep and challenging problems that will not be resolved immediately. In an age of distrust between communities, diversity must be seen to be beneficial, not detrimental, to national cohesion.

Even if Malaysia does not practise laïcité, our leaders in government must be demanded to act neutrally on behalf of all its citizens, not just singling out one race or religion.

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Tricia Yeoh is the chief operating officer of IDEAS

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