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Explained: France’s complex relationship with Islam, and Macron’s recent remarks

The French President is under attack from leaders and citizens of Muslim countries following comments he made about Islam and secularism. A look at France’s complex relationship with Islam.

Written by Nirupama Subramanian | Mumbai |
Updated: November 6, 2020 12:46:33 pm
Simply Put: France, Macron and IslamFrench President Emmanuel Macron. (File Photo)

French President Emmanuel Macron’s remarks about Islam have pitted France against several countries in the Islamic world. A look at what he said, and why:

Why are many countries in the Muslim world angry with France?

France has a long and complex relationship with Islam, and its 5 million Muslim citizens (just under 9 per cent of its population).

On October 16, when an 18-year-old Chechen refugee in France beheaded schoolteacher Samuel Paty, 47, days after he had shown caricatures of Prophet Mohammed to his students, President Macron said: “We will continue… We will defend the freedom that you taught so well and we will bring secularism.” He said France would “not give up cartoons, drawings, even if others back down”.

Days before Paty’s killing, Macron had made a controversial speech. He declared that “Islam is a religion that is in crisis today all over the world”, “plagued by radical temptations and by a yearning for a reinvented jihad which is the destruction of the other”.

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He spoke of an “Islamist separatism” within the country, and the need to counter it through the rules and values of the Republic, to build a French version of Islam, an “Islam of Enlightenment” that would integrate French Muslim citizens better with the French way of life. French secularism was not the problem, he said. It was the “conscious, theorised, politic-religious project, which materialises in repeated deviations from the values of the Republic, often results in the constitution of a counter-society, and whose manifestations are children dropping out from school, the development of sporting and cultural community practices that are the pretext for teaching principles not in conformity with the laws of the Republic. It is indoctrination through the negation of our principles, equality between women and men, human dignity”.

Macron called it an attempt to create “a parallel order, to erect other values, develop another organisation of society, separatist at first, but whose final goal is to take control. And this is what makes us reject freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, the right to blasphemy”.

The speech, and Macron’s pronouncements after the killing of Paty, have infuriated many Islamic countries, with Turkey and Pakistan taking the lead in denouncing the French President of Islamophobia. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has long-standing rows with France and Marcron — over gas reserves off Cyprus, over Nagarno Karabakh, and over the wars in Libya and Syria — questioned Macron’s mental health after the speech. A number of Islamic countries have declared they will boycott French goods. 📣 Click to follow Express Explained on Telegram

Police officials probe the beheading of a teacher in Paris on October 16. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

What is the French definition of secularism?

Macron’s remarks brought to the fore the difficulties that France has faced in reconciling its strictly interpreted secularism with the increasing assertion of religious identity by its Muslim citizens, and how France itself has changed in the way it view Islam.

French secularism, or laicite, sees no place for religion in the public sphere. In this way, it is the opposite of how India has practised its secularism. Over the years, laicite has been in confrontation with the religious practices of many immigrant groups in France, including the Sikhs. But the biggest confrontations have been to do with its Muslim citizens, who form the largest group of Muslims in Europe, ahead of four million Turkish Muslims in Germany. Most French Muslims of today were born in France, descendants of first-generation immigrants from former French colonies in north Africa. The French constitution demands that those seeking citizenship must commit themselves to integration. But this has proved elusive.

Macron acknowledged in his speech that there have been shortcomings in how France has dealt with this challenge. He acknowledged that the country had not dealt with the legacy of its problematic Algerian war. He also said French governments had to take the blame for ghettoising Muslim communities across the country and creating conditions for radicalisation.

Only a few thousands may be radicalised Islamists, but France’s troubled relationship with Islam has manifested itself in many ways — in the 2005 rioting in the Paris banlieus, suburban ghettos where immigrants were confined; in the refusal, on the grounds of laicite, to allow Muslim women to wear the hijab in public spaces; the 2010, burqa ban. In 2011, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons triggered angry reactions in the Islamic world, but the French hold the right to blaspheme as an absolute individual freedom, equally available to those who want to insult Jesus Christ as those who will blaspheme Islam. This is considered the French “way of life” – which also includes knowing the language, as well adherence to laicite.

Also read | Explained: What explains the calls to ‘boycott France’ in the Muslim world?

Macron’s controversial speech well before Paty’s killing; so, what triggered it?

The killings at the Charlie Hebdo office in January 2015, apparently to avenge the publication of the Prophet Mohammed cartoons, were a turning point for France. Then in November came a series of coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris and a suburb that shook the entire world. The attacks included suicide bombings, shootings at a football stadium, mass shootings at cafes and restaurants, and another mass shooting and hostage taking at a theatre. In Europe, France was the country with the highest number of citizens who had left to join ISIS in Iraq and Syria in 2014-15.

So even though there is a real constitutional basis to Macron’s positioning on Islam — as necessitated by laicite — it is also a political necessity. No French politician at this point believes s/he can afford to ignore the impact of these events on French national life. The trial of the Charlie Hebdo killers began last month, five years after the attack, and for many, the killing of Paty was a continuation of the terrorist attack against Charlie Hebdo.

Macron, who describes his politics as “neither right nor left” — he was with the Socialist Party until 2009 — will go into a Presidential election in early 2022. The right wing Marine La Pen, who he defeated in the 2017 election, has led the charge against Macron for not cracking down hard enough against Islamism. Last year, Macron made changes to the immigration law on the grounds that it was being misused.

For good measure, Macron has also announced a controversial “anti-separatism” bill to crack down on Islamic radicalism that is to be introduced in Parliament in December. It envisages a range of measures, including school education reforms to ensure Muslim children do not drop out, stricter controls on mosques and preachers, and has caused concern among Muslims in France.

The President’s remarks showed how far France has travelled since the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Centre Twin Towers. While Le Monde declared “We are all Americans today”, Jacques Chirac, then the French President, had drawn the lines for his country’s support to the US war on terror.

France more than any other country in the west knew the dangers of conflating an entire religion with terrorism, and was worried the US might end up doing that. It sent troops to Afghanistan, but was vocal in its opposition to the invasion of Iraq. As US President George W Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair pushed the UN for backing to the planned invasion, French Foreign Minister Dominique Villepin made an impassioned appeal against it at the UN Security Council.

From France’s own assessment of available intelligence, he said, “nothing allows us to establish […] links” that the US was making between the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq and al-Qaeda. “On the other hand, we must assess the impact that disputed military action would have on this plan. Would not such intervention be liable to exacerbate the divisions between societies, cultures and peoples, divisions that nurture terrorism?”

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This article first appeared in the print edition on October 28 under the title ‘France, Emmanuel Macron and Islam’.

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