Jewish and Muslim leaders attend silent march to honour victims of shooting at Ozar Hatorah school in Toulouse
Jewish and Muslim leaders march together to honor victims of a shooting near a synagogue and school in Toulouse, France, earlier in March. Reuters

These are momentous and troubling times for France's Muslim population.

Hailing from Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and other countries, French Muslims number about 5 million. Ahead of April's presidential election in France, incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy has complained there are too many immigrants in the country -- an allusion to Arabs and Muslims, many of whom are seen as incapable of assimilating and as members of a faith and culture that aren't compatible with French values.

Sarkozy's remark was clearly intended to siphon votes from France's far-right National Front, a party that is also vehemently anti-immigrant.

The saga of French Muslims took an ugly turn recently when an Islamic militant, Mohamed Merah, was identified as the killer of three French paratroopers of North African heritage and four Jews in and around the southwestern city of Toulouse.

The killings have laid bare a number of cross-currents in modern French society.

The International Business Times spoke with an expert on French politics to discuss the status of Muslims in France. Douglas Yates is a professor of political science at the American Graduate School in Paris as well as the American University of Paris.

IB TIMES: Nicolas Sarkozy has already alienated Muslims in France by calling for a drastic reduction in immigration and a crackdown on illegal immigration. Is the Muslim population of France likely to vote en masse for the Socialist challenger, Francois Hollande, or are they generally apathetic about the election?

YATES: Muslim voters exist on both the left and right, but clearly are being courted more by the left. However, their abstention rates are pretty high, for the usual socio-demographic reasons. In particular, immigrant populations have very low participation rates, and when they live in marginalized ghettos, with lower income, lower education and lower measures on other characteristics associated with voting behavior, despite their large share of the national population, they are still highly underrepresented on voter registration lists

IB TIMES: How do you think the Toulouse massacre will affect the election? Will it push more people to vote for Sarkozy because of his aggressive stance against Muslim immigration?

YATES: The Toulouse massacre was a small gift for Sarkozy, who has made his reputation as the security president. Marine Le Pen is openly capitalizing on the anti-Muslim sentiment, while Sarkozy benefits by calling for stepped-up administrative and police procedures. For him, the greatest present was his government's swift apprehension of the suspect, and the termination by death of his murderous rampage.

If things had dragged on, it would have made Sarkozy look bad in the one area where he has staked his reputation. The execution of the executioner gave Sarkozy closure, and the sense of doing something about the problem.

IB TIMES: Marine Le Pen condemned the Toulouse massacre and has warned about the rise of fundamentalist Muslims in the poor suburbs of France. Will Toulouse lead to more French votes for National Front?

YATES: Le Pen has not increased her voting bloc in several months, so it looks like her share of the vote has stabilized at around one-fifth of the electorate. The events in Toulouse allow her to express herself, but in a sense, she must preach to the converted.

IB TIMES: The National Front (at least under Marine's father, Jean Marie Le Pen) was highly anti-Semitic, aside from espousing anti-Islamic views. Has the party toned down its anti-Jewish rhetoric, given that the Muslims are far more numerous in France than Jews?

YATES: Marine Le Pen has distinguished herself from her father on the issue of anti-Semitism. She is not afraid to cohabitate with right-wing neo-Nazis in Europe, as revealed by her infamous attendance at a right-wing ball in Austria, but she is not going to adopt the old anti-Semitic rhetoric of her father, which reflected his generation of the Algerian War and the World War II echo of the even older rhetoric of the French collaborationist right. Marine seems to have concluded that, in the battle against Muslim immigrants, there are acceptable Semites and unacceptable ones.

IB TIMES: Before the mass murderer Mohammad Merah was identified, were there fears that the killings (of the paratroopers and at the Jewish school) were perpetrated by an extreme right wing French nationalist?

YATES: Yes, the first reports almost all suggested that the murderer was a neo-Nazi, because of the racial and religious profiles of his victims. But as soon as the true culprit was identified, excuses were made and the analysis quickly followed the revelations.

The media openly made its mea culpa, and was self-critical on the earlier hasty inference. This is good news because it means that the French have not fallen into knee-jerk reactions of blaming all terrorist acts on Muslims.

IB TIMES: Have Muslim organizations in France roundly condemned Mohammad Merah? Or have they remained silent on the topic?

YATES: When at first people believed the murderer was a right-wing skinhead, Muslim and Jewish leaders made public appearances. But once the culprit was identified, they stepped out of the spotlight, not wanting to be identified in any way with either him or his extremist views.

The established Muslim community in France does not support Islamism, and, in fact, feels the same away about religious extremists that many moderate Christians feel about right-wing fundamentalists in America.

Having said that, there is a large body of Islamist sympathizers in excluded and marginalized communities of France, and some of these have expressed their support for his acts. Given Sarkozy's campaign promises to punish extremists, this is probably not a good time to adopt such views -- for among the victims were children, and members of the French security forces.

IB TIMES: Muslims greatly outnumber Jews in France (by something like six-to-one). Nonetheless, are French Jews more economically and politically powerful than Muslims?

YATES: The Jewish community in France is the largest outside of Israel, and they are well-organized and highly influential in all walks of life: economic, political, scientific, artistic, media, and intellectual. So yes, they are more influential than their more numerous Muslim counterparts. But as history proceeds, a shift in the balance of forces will eventually occur, as French Muslims get richer, better educated, and more integrated into the elite.

IB TIMES: How have Jews and Muslims in France generally gotten along in recent years?

YATES: Jews and Muslims in France get along well. There are established channels of communication between these religious communities. But when a problem occurs, it is more newsworthy, and thus the impression is created that there are more problems than solutions.

Nothing could be farther from the case. Apart from religious fundamentalists in both communities, who tend to draw more attention than their relative numbers merit, French Muslims and French Jews are French first, Muslims and Jews second.

IB TIMES: Has there been a wholesale deportation of illegal immigrants from France during Sarkozy's term in office?

YATES: If you listen to Marine Le Pen and the National Front, waves of immigrants have been crashing on the shores of France during the Sarkozy era. If you listen to the Left, the Sarkozy government has been rounding up and shipping off immigrants en masse.

The truth is that the government has dealt with immigration on a case-by-case basis, and is very much constrained by European Union (EU) human rights regulations on the matter.

Aside from symbolic efforts designed to send strong messages to French voters, and sometimes infuriating their European partners -- like the round-up of Romanian Roma (Gypsies) or the Tunisian boat people during the Arab Spring -- the government has not acted strongly one way or the other, but rather has been forced to manage a very large wave of economic migration to France.

IB TIMES: Is there an educated, middle-class among French Muslims - or is the majority of them poor and outside the mainstream?

YATES: Yes, there is an educated middle class among French Muslims, but like other post-colonial populations who arrived in France during the 20th century, they are less integrated into the culture, workforce, and elite networks than other more established immigrant groups.

The big urban ghettos, scenes of riots and crime and protests, are however, predominantly made up of these recent immigrants. There is no denying the creation of racial and ethnic ghettos in France, with all of the usual poverty that accompanies such developments. But a robo-portrait of the French elite is more diverse than ever before.

IB TIMES: Sarkozy has a prominent Muslim woman named Rachida Dati on his team. Is this window-dressing, or has he made some sincere efforts to reach out to Muslims?

YATES: Tokenism is what you are talking about. But the reality is that Sarkozy has real partners in those communities. Most racial minorities in France are assimilated into the language, culture and value system through the public educational system. This assimilation and acculturation has been going on for several generations, and so Sarkozy has no problems finding suitable representatives of these communities.

In recent years there has been a need for the French elite to find a place for these assimilated individuals. Thus, there tends to be favorable public opinion for these tokens.

IB TIMES: France's Muslim population is itself very diverse -- including Algerians, Tunisians, Moroccans, Turks and others. So can they really be regarded as a unified monolith?

YATES: French Muslims have an identity that is being shaped. French Muslim is a modern social construct.

Despite the very real differences between Algerians and Moroccans, which one feels in the street, their common post-colonial history, their economic exclusion and efforts by the mainstream culture to cater to their religious, musical, culinary and even recreational needs are constantly reinforced through a very powerful media system.

French television, radio and press are powerful tools of constructed identity. If you watch French films or participate in French popular culture, the strong Muslim accent is unmistakable.