Earlier this month, Emmanuel Macron visited the town of Mureaux, in the Yvelines department north-west of Paris, to warn the French of the growing threat of “Islamist separatism”. This is a radical political project, said the president, which tests the resilience of the secular French republic and poses a threat to “freedom of expression, freedom of conscience and the right to blasphemy”.
At the time, Mr. Macron was accused in some quarters of cynically chasing the far-right vote and in others of stigmatizing Muslims. However, the beheading of a college history professor on October 17, which police treat as an act of terrorism, made Mr Macron’s analysis less extravagant than prescient.
The teacher, Samuel Paty, was assassinated following threats he received for showing students caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad during a free speech class. (He had apparently invited those who might be upset to leave the classroom before he did.) The murder took place in a leafy street in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine in Yvelines, not far from Les Mureaux where the president s ‘was expressed. Mr Macron said after the murder that he carried all the hallmarks of an “Islamist terrorist” attack.
France finds it unusually complicated to talk about religion in public life, and does so in a way that liberal multicultural countries often find it difficult to understand. The land of Voltaire protects the right to believe and not to believe, as well as the right to treat any sacred belief with disrespect. He also attempts to ban religious affairs from official public life. A law of 1905 enshrined secularism, a strict form of secularism intended to protect private religious expression but also to keep religion out of state institutions, after an anticlerical struggle with the Catholic Church. It is supported by another law which protects the right to blasphemy, which dates from 1881.
For the laity, who are on both the left and the right, this doctrine needs constant strengthening. Successive governments have done so, banning from public school classrooms in 2004 all “ostentatious” religious symbols (including the Muslim veil), and in 2010 from all public places face coverings (including the burqa). . French blasphemy law protected, for example, publication by Charlie hebdo satirical cartoons of the Prophet (which Mr. Paty showed to his class) against charges of incitement to hatred. In French law, it is legal to insult a religion, but not to insult or incite hatred of an individual on the basis of that religion. The overall effect, however, some French Muslims say, is to legitimize Islamophobia and the humiliation of those of the Muslim faith. Defenders of the law note that mocking Jesus would also be protected.
Since being elected in 2017, Mr. Macron has also found it difficult to speak publicly about all of this. Five years ago, when he was Minister of the Economy and France was battered by a series of terrorist attacks, including one in the offices of Charlie Hebdo, the young politician took a more laissez-faire approach. to do. In a speech that year, he shocked die-hard secularists by urging the French to recognize their own responsibility in creating “fertile ground” for terrorism through discrimination and closed opportunities. The following year, Mr. Macron described a debate on whether to ban the “burkini”, which some mayors of seaside resorts tried (unsuccessfully) to do, as “crazy”.
In power, however, Mr Macron appears to have had doubts. He is now convinced that the “soft” signs of Islamism – such as a bus driver refusing to pick up passengers dressed “inappropriately”, or requests for religious menus in public school canteens – can in fact mask a more sinister political project, which can supply recruits to violence. During his stay at Les Mureaux, Mr. Macron stressed that 70 residents of Yvelines had left to become jihadists in Syria and that 170 people are currently being followed by the intelligence services for suspicion of radicalization. In the past three years, the anti-terrorist police have foiled 32 attempted attacks in France.
The government is currently drafting a bill that will notably ban home education (to counter radical Koranic schools), prohibit foreign imams from training religious in France and tighten controls on cultural associations and prayer rooms. “The problem,” Macron said, “is an ideology that claims its own laws should be superior to those of the republic.” Hugo Micheron, author of a book on jihadists in France, says that it is no coincidence that a teacher in Conflans was the target. “Education in France represents the transmission of the principles of the republic”, he says, and the current generation of jihadists “is waging an ideological war to counter this transmission, and in which France is seen as the factory of the Western ideology ”.
Mr. Macron will no doubt now judge that he was right to take a hard line. There was a lot of social media activity before Mr. Paty was killed. A parent from Conflans school had filed a complaint against the teacher showing the cartoons and posted about it. This parent’s half-sister has joined the Islamic State in Syria and is wanted by police. Another radicalized individual known to the French intelligence services was also involved in the mobilization against Mr. Paty, according to French information. The perpetrator himself – an 18-year-old refugee of Chechen descent shot dead by police – posted a photo of the decapitated head on social media. It was addressed to Mr. Macron and claimed responsibility for the murder of “one of your hellhounds who dared to denigrate Muhammad”. Police have so far arrested 11 people in connection with the murder.
As France faces aftershock, this latest indescribable attack is likely to strengthen the hands of those calling for a crackdown to defend freedom of expression and secularism. This in turn will strengthen the resolve of critics who argue that such measures legitimize Islamophobia. Mr Macron said earlier this month he wanted to avoid being trapped by those who seek to portray the fight against political Islam as one that “stigmatizes all Muslims”. Rather, it is about the capacity of the French state to educate children, believers or non-believers, as free-spirited citizens. The struggle, Macron said on the evening of the Conflans attack, is nothing short of “existential”.
(Photo credit: AFP)