Has Macron overreacted?
Emmanuel Macron, the French president, is good with words. But did he go too far in the wake of the brutal murder of a teacher whose only “crime” was showing his pupils controversial caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad printed by the Charlie Hebdo magazine during a class on freedom of speech? Sadly, Macron has needed to speak out more on this subject in the wake of the October 16 beheading of Samuel Faty in a school near Paris by a young Chechen. On October 29, in Nice, another horrific killing took place in a church which left three worshippers dead at the hands of a Tunisian.
The president vowed solemnly that the French people would “not give in to any terror” in fighting intolerance. Having asserted on October 2 that Islam is “in crisis all over the world today,” in the wake of Paty’s murder Macron promised to crack down on Islamist extremism, including closing mosques and other organisations accused of fomenting radicalism and violence. His comments sparked anger across the Muslim world and calls for a boycott of French goods from Turkey to Pakistan. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Imran Khan have attacked him - although both have failed conspicuously to protest about China’s persecution of its Uighur Muslim minority.
France’s security alert has been raised to its highest level: that permits the authorities to deploy more police and carry out searches at railway stations and airports. The interior minister, Gerald Darmanin, reported that 80 investigations were taking place into radical preachers and suspected extremists accused of spreading online hate. Officials were assessing about 50 associations in the Muslim community, “some of which will certainly be dissolved”.
Darmanin attracted further attention when he declared, after the Nice murders, that France is engaged in a “war against Islamist ideology”, and predicted more attacks. “We are in war against an enemy that is both inside and outside.” To say that this issue is domestically sensitive is an understatement: over 240 people have died from Islamist violence since 12 people were massacred in the attack on the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine in 2015. Opposition politicians –especially on the right – have taken to accusing the government of waging a war of words rather than taking decisive action.
The leader of the far-right National Rally – and Macron’s likely rival presidential candidate in April 2022 - Marine Le Pen, laid a wreath outside Paty’s school and demanded “wartime legislation” to combat the terrorist threat as well as an “immediate” moratorium on immigration and the expulsion of all foreigners on terror watchlists.
So the larger challenge for Macron is finding the right response to extremism while avoiding promoting a “clash of civilisations”, being accused of Islamophobia and an escalation of tensions with the largest Muslim population in Europe. France’s relations with Muslim and Arab countries is another concern at a time of unprecedented international uncertainty. Not everything the government is doing is incorrect. It has insisted, for example, that imams must complete their training in France and all children, including Muslims, must be educated at state schools from the age of three. Non-French Islamist hardliners have been deported. But the concept of laicite – the hallowed and rigid secularism of the French state – is also part of the problem.
That means that that there is little room for religious expression in public life, which is bad for Muslims, as are the bans on women wearing veils in public spaces. Another toxic issue is the legacy of France’s colonial history, especially in Algeria and elsewhere in the Maghreb. A third factor is the “ghettoization” of Muslim immigrants in their bleak banlieues, who may turn to religion as a defence mechanism and rallying point. Still, there is no doubt that Islamist hardliners exist alongside preachers who are working for tolerance amongst their communities. Social media is another problem. When police shot dead the Chechen who murdered Paty a photo of the teacher’s decapitated head was posted to Twitter from his mobile phone, along with the message: “I have executed one of the dogs from hell who dared to put Muhammad down” – fuelling fears of self-radicalisation of individuals or small groups without being part of wider networks.
Another relevant fact is that France was the European country with the highest number of citizens who left to join ISIS/Daesh in Iraq and Syria in 2014-15. It also reported over 200 arrests for jihadist terrorism in 2019. Extremists must clearly not be permitted to whip up hostility to the overwhelming majority of French Muslims who are law-abiding citizens and are well-integrated culturally and socially – if less so economically. Language matters as debate rages over whether Macron’s approach is too hard or too soft. “The president is now positioning himself as the defender of French values, determined to drain the Islamist swamp,” wrote Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born, Dutch-American activist and well-known critic of Islam.
But Macron, his popularity plummeting because of his bungled management of the covid pandemic, should take care how he handles this other dangerously escalating crisis. It is about far more than his own chances of re-election.