Emmanuel Macron outside the Austrian Embassy in Paris Credit: Berzane Nasser/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images

In trying to defeat terrorism, Macron must not undermine the principles of the French Republic

Fighting a culture war against the Muslim “enemy within” will not help counter terrorism
November 9, 2020

When French pupils returned to school in November, they marked a minute of silence to remember Samuel Paty. The teacher’s lesson on free speech, which included Charlie Hebdo’s satirical images of the Prophet Muhammad, was used to justify his brutal murder on 16th October. A fortnight later, three people were killed at a church in Nice. Today, a wounded France is, inevitably, not only grieving but also trying to make sense of these gruesome crimes.

There has been much defiant resharing of the images in the wake of the attacks, which in turn has seen Muslim-majority countries call for a boycott of French goods. This led to protests and an attack on a security guard at the French consulate in Saudi Arabia. In response, President Emmanuel Macron sought de-escalation: “The caricatures are not a governmental project,” he insisted to Al Jazeera, “but emerged from free and independent newspapers.”

Charlie Hebdo might be independent, but support for such images is now a litmus test for patriotism. Despite the magazine’s tragic losses, its free speech has been institutionalised. After Paty’s killing, mayors projected the Muhammad cartoons onto government buildings. Macron has now backed using them as part of the curriculum. It is entirely possible, though, to support free speech and also condemn the provocation of sensitivities in a country where Muslims are systematically disadvantaged.

French public opinion on this issue has hardened. In 2006, over half of French people thought it wrong of Charlie Hebdo to publish caricatures of the Prophet, while after the 2015 attacks on the magazine’s offices, which killed 12 people, 57 per cent thought they should be allowed to be disseminated. By contrast, 69 per cent of French Muslims believed publication was wrong. Some French Christians share Muslim concerns. After the Nice attack, the Archbishop of Toulouse said that showing the cartoons in class was “throwing oil on the fire."

But this is about more than cartoons. There is a wider conversation to be had about France’s six million Muslims, religious civil liberties and the rule of law. Free speech is threatened in France, but often not from the direction you might expect. The writer Éric Zemmour—twice convicted of hate speech against Muslims—continues to appear on primetime TV programmes. French journalists openly compare Islam to fascism. Marion Maréchal Le Pen, granddaughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, was given space in a mainstream paper to call for tighter restrictions on Muslims. As Thomas Portes, President of the National Observatory of the Far-Right, commented recently: “In the country of the Enlightenment, more and more voices are calling into question human rights.”

As a result, today one out of three French Muslims avoid speaking their minds on controversial subjects, while 41 per cent of Muslim parents warn their children to be careful what they say in school. Where does such self-censorship fit into our free speech narratives?

Amnesty International has flagged the way the French state has shut down movements ranging from Black Lives Matter France, to climate campaigners and the “yellow jackets.” Last year, 20,280 people were found guilty of “insulting a person of public authority,” a vague accusation including “anything written, drawn or said which threatens the dignity or respect owed to a person in public office.” If free speech is to mean anything, it means more than simply the right to antagonise Muslims.

In France today, 41 per cent of Muslims experience discrimination on the basis of their origins or skin colour, and one in seven for their religious identity. Muslims are twice as likely to experience discrimination in housing, three times when it comes to schooling and five times when interacting with the police. Young black and Arab men are 20 times more likely to be stopped and searched by police than their white counterparts.

Yet President Macron has identified the problem as “Islamist separatism.” According to his government, signs of separatism include halal food aisles in supermarkets, while previous government advice has listed “growing a beard,” “praying regularly” and “greater religiosity during Ramadan” as signs of radicalisation. Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin has said he wants to make it illegal to request to be treated by a doctor of the same sex—with possible punishment of five years in prison.

A failure to distinguish habitual Islamic practices from genuine radicalisation has fuelled a culture war against what Darmanin described in a radio interview as “the enemy within.” This sabre-rattling will have disastrous consequences for community cohesion—and counter-terrorism efforts.

There has been little institutional curiosity about why a rejectionist interpretation of Islam finds favour among some Muslims—or how such ideologies might be connected to wider societal discontent. Instead, the sole source of France’s woes is conveniently located in a religion branded as foreign.

The ugliest side of fear is its ability to make us compromise our principles. In August 2016, the state council—the highest French administrative body—overturned the ban on “burkinis” on public beaches, reminding the government of the principles of the foundation of the Republic. Despite this, the court's decision was challenged by the then Interior Minister Manuel Valls, who incited others to ignore it. Valls has since suggested France should remove itself from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human rights.

France will not be safer if it dismantles the principles of its democracy. Instead we risk a return to what our forefathers fought against—despotism and rule by an elite. Those same politicians who pose as embattled victims of a civilisational conflict are chipping away at the ideals of freedom, equality and justice for all. There is a lesson here for the kids; I’m just not sure the cartoons really capture it.