By OISÍN PHILLIPS
On the October 21st, French President Emmanuel Macron referred to Samuel Paty as “the face of the Republic” during a memorial held in Paty’s honour, who was decapitated by a Muslim Chechen refugee after presenting Charlie Hebdo cartoons in his class depicting the prophet Muhammad in a lesson on freedom of expression. Parisian Imam Chalghoumi denounced the attack and urged French Muslims and other Muslim authorities to place disdain on perpetrators of Islamist extremism and not the French government. However, this sentiment was not universal. Turkish President Erdogan placed blame on Macron for provoking the attack and promoted a boycott on French imports while the President of Pakistan, Imran Khan, accused Macron of fuelling Islamophobia in France.
Is anyone to blame for these tensions between the French government and premiers of predominantly Muslim nations? Has the French government responded accordingly or indirectly promoted Islamophobia? Is Islam inherently incompatible with French existence, or is there any possible solution in reducing tensions amongst the French public?
The view that Islam is largely incompatible with the French way of living largely stems from the French Revolution: a historical landmark that established France as a republican democracy by rejecting the existing monarchy. It is from this that secularism became so integral to French existence. Nice’s imam Abdelkader Sadouni emphasises the impact the revolution had on French secularism, claiming that the execution permanently eradicated not only the divinity of King Louis XVI, but the divine right of kings entirely. France’s secular foundations have become especially relevant in the 2010s with various new laws introduced in France garnering national and international media attention due to their attempts at limiting public displays of Islamic faith, such as the highly contested burkini ban. What further supports this is the economic disparity of Muslims in France, with claims of a modern day social apartheid in French Banlieue, or city suburbs, such as Saint-Ouen and Félix Pyat. It is the view amongst French imams that the economic divide Muslims face, coupled with the government’s opposition to public religious expression, that radicalises young Muslims, reinforcing the notion that Muslims are incompatible with the current political state of France.
By holding a firm stance against Islamic terrorism in the name of French identity and secularism, Macron appeals to more right-leaning members of the public. This could be due to the fact that Marine Le Pen is steadily gaining in popularity while Macron loses favourability amongst the public, which poses a great threat to his attempt at reelection in 2022. This can be seen in their similar approval ratings, with Macron only reaching 28% favourability and Le Pen 25% in July 2020, and Macron’s rating falling to 26% in October 2020, while Le Pen’s stayed at 25%.
As a result of the battle between the French secularist identity and religious fundamentalism, 95% of those surveyed by the French Institute of Public Opinion believe the threat of terror attack to be high, compared to 99% immediately following the 2016 Nice attack. Furthermore, Macron’s strong support of cartoons deemed highly offensive to Muslims, coupled with the negative sentiments towards Muslims promoted by Le Pen, has led to an increase of discrimination towards Muslims in France. Further, promoting this discrimination is dangerous, as it may indeed lead to an increase in radicalisation amongst younger Muslims feeling ostracised and marginalised by society. Surely this is not the intended outcome desired by Macron, so how can he, along with the government, better ease tensions between French Muslims and French nationalists?
It seems as though Macron is not blinded into supporting a complete eradication of Islam from France. Appearing on Al Jazeera in order to emphasise the importance of secularism, Macron made reference to the distinction between Islam and Islamist extremism, noting how Muslims suffer from terrorist acts both in France and in predominantly Muslim nations, and acknowledging the economic shortcomings afflicting French Muslims. Summarising his viewpoints, Macron suggested that the government must act to provide economic security and opportunities to those living in city suburbs, while also investing French universities in the Maghreb region in order to promote increased collaboration between France and predominantly Muslim countries internationally.
However, Macron did also state that there is no stigmatisation against Muslims in France, which can be interpreted as tone-deaf in light of recent claims of systemic racism against French Muslims within the police force. Simultaneously, his call on Muslims to defy religious leaders who disagree with France’s position on freedom of speech on the basis of Islam can be misconstrued as the French government attempting to dictate Islam instead of promoting Muslim organisations that value freedom of expression.
While Macron’s appearance on Al Jazeera was a step in the right direction, more action has to be taken in ensuring that the practising Muslims of France are not wrongfully targeted over the actions of a few extremists, as Macron himself acknowledged they are among the largest victims of Islamic terrorism. In order to preserve French secularism, which Macron claims to be paramount above all other rights, the President must too expose the rise of groups such as Les Identitaires and its growing youth-wing Génération Identitaire, a right-wing nationalist movement which opposes Islam in France entirely. Macron must therefore adhere to the promises outlined in his interview with Al Jazeera: ensuring economic security and prosperity in the city suburbs, investing in Muslim representation in higher education institutions, and ensuring that a valuable discourse can take place, perhaps one similar to South Africa’s “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” following the end of Apartheid.
Only through a united France, where innocent Muslims are not targeted and ostracised for the actions of a few violent extremists and where the President portrays himself as a president for all, will terror truly be eradicated.
Image: Flickr (Mikael Colville-Andersen)