Since the 2015 terrorist attacks against the staff of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, France has faced a succession of such attacks by Muslim extremists, the most recent of which saw the October beheading of teacher Samuel Paty and the murder of three people at Notre Dame Basilica in Nice. The country has been left grappling with the question of why it has become such a target and how it ought to respond.
For President Macron, France is being targeted by terrorists because of its “freedom of expression, right to believe, or not, and its way of life.” He claims that a form of “Islamist separatism” has found find fertile ground for its ideals in some parts of the country – and to counter this, Macron announced his plan to create a “French Islam,” a practice of the faith which will be regulated by the state. For over four decades successive French presidents have sought to manage the state’s relationship with an ethnically and religiously diverse Muslim community, adherents of a faith without a formal leadership structure which might provide an obvious intermediary. All to little avail. State appointed leaders have struggled to gain community recognition, while attempts, like Macron’s, to delineate to Muslims the terms of their beliefs are unlikely to be well received. Not to mention the apparent irony of a secular leader defining terms of religious practice.
In France, the concept of laïcité(secularism) enjoins a strict delineation between the state and the private sphere of personal beliefs. Designed in origin to protect individuals from state intrusion, and the state from religious influence, it has in recent years been increasingly wielded to do the opposite: encroaching evermore into the private sphere of Muslim citizens: from dress codes, to dietary needs, via religious education, the state has sought to prohibit each of these in recent years, only to be confronted by the strength of a Republican framework which has ultimately seen courts uphold its principles.
While the president has been adamant that the problem isn’t Islam, but a rejection of Republican principles, his government’s rhetorical and political focus has caused many to feel otherwise. From incessant debates about the headscarf, to polemics around women only swimming class to the Interior Minister feigning shock at ‘ethnic aisles’ in supermarkets, mundane habits of Muslim life are touted as examples of a “separatism” the state links to terrorism.
In a report last year entitled “Discrimination Against Muslims: The State Must React”, Amnesty International denounced “hostile climate and discriminatory discourse” towards Muslims, highlighting a speech by the Interior Minister in which he listed very basic religious freedoms including praying, fasting and growing a beard as “signs of radicalization.” One man whose mosque was raided under the legacy of the post-2015 state of emergency legislation is quoted as saying “the worst part is, if they have real concerns, they would launch an enquiry, but like this, it just feels like they are punishing us for nothing.” In a climate of fear and where the far-right party of Marine Le Pen’s ideas have come to define the terms of public discourse around Islam and Muslims, the government’s unwillingness to distinguish normal forms of religious practice from forms of extremism leaves millions of French Muslims open to accusations of extremism.
Recent measures are being justified on the basis that sections of the Muslim community are in conflict with republican values, but there is little evidence of this. In fact, in the largest quantitative study of the relationship between terrorism and discrimination in France, researchers from the Centre for the Study of Conflict in Paris unearthed the exact opposite. They found that overall Muslims deeply trust the institutions of the Republic, more so even than the control group, aside from the media and the police: ”What emerges from the study looks more like a massive adherence of French Muslims to the Republic.”
Crucially, the study found that trust in the institutions of France diminished with only one factor: experiences of discrimination, something it predicts the latest measures are likely to exacerbate. The study concludes by saying “there is no rejection of the values and institutions of the Republic in France, by a majority of Muslims.”
The concern is that discrimination against Muslims in France is already prevalent in every sector, from housing to employment and interactions with the police. According to the government’s own figures, 42% of Muslims (other studies put the figure at 58%) declare having experienced discrimination due to their religion, a figure which rises to 60% among women who wear a headscarf. A recent YouGov survey found that 67% of French Arab Muslims believe their faith is perceived negatively, while 64% said the same of their ethnicity.
For many, the creeping authoritarianism which sees the minutia of Muslim life problematized and debated for prime time TV shows, is indicative of a worrying political instrumentalization of racism. Since 2015, and following the “state of emergency” which ended in 2017, the French parliament has approved exceptional measures which have led to thousands of abusive and discriminatory raids and house arrest disproportionately targeting Muslims. The signs of authoritarianism begin at the margins – but rarely do they end there.
In the wake of the recent attacks, two deeply controversial bills have been advanced by President Macron. The “global security” bill has been met by mass protests across France. Among its most contentious clauses are that it would allow the use of surveillance drones, as well as lead to a possible prison term and 45,000 euro fine for anyone showing images which could identify a police or army officer. The government claims that social and mainstream media exposure of police violence endangers individual police officers, with Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin explaining: “Society’s cancer is the disrespect of authority.” But journalists across France have been sounding the alarm, while the spokesman for the E.U. Commission, said: “In a crisis period it is more important than ever that journalists should be able to do their work freely and in full security.”
Just as the bill was being debated, footage emerged of a black French music producer, Michel Zecler, being brutally beaten by four police officers in his studio in Paris, in what campaigners say is simply the latest example of endemic police brutality. The new bill would criminalize the person filming the police officer. Along with human rights groups, journalists and academics, UN experts have called on France to review the entire bill, stating: “it will have serious implications for the right to private life, the right to peaceful protest and freedom of expression” and rejecting the concession of minor amendments.
The new law on “Republican principles” is also causing widespread concern. Among its more worrying clauses are that anyone convicted of “apologie of terrorism”- a thought crime the numbers of which have exploded since 2015, and which has seen children as young as 10 taken into police custody – would automatically be added to a terrorism watch list. In just over a month, 270 new cases have been opened.
Since Samuel Paty’s murder in October, France has flagged over 400 violations of the homage to the slain teacher, of which 150 are considered “apologia for terrorism,” and over 50% of which occurred within a school environment.
France’s interior minister has ordered investigations into 76 mosques “suspected of separatism” which now face potential closure, in a country where prayer space is already very limited, with only 2,623 mosques and prayers halls in France for an estimated 5.7m Muslims. At least 73 mosques and Islamic private schools across France have been closed by authorities since January on grounds of ‘extremism’, but as Amnesty makes clear ‘radicalization’ has often been used as a euphemism for ‘devout Muslim’.
The proposed new law will include much tighter controls over civil society, including and specifically, Muslim religious organizations and leadership which will be required to conform to a “Republican charter” – a veritable modern day patriotism test imposed on a suspect community. The state’s red lines for Muslim are “political Islam” and foreign funding, which has historically – and with full support from the state – provided French Muslim citizens with their religious institutions. Imams will have to be trained through a state sanctioned body which will ensure their conformity with the state’s version of laicity, itself increasingly contested by the quango created to monitor it.
Crucially, the space we call freedom, where civil society, religious or otherwise, is able to organize according to their ideals, principles and values, as long as these do not infringe the law – is shrinking. Particularly once again for Muslims. In recent weeks, several Muslim organisations, including France’s largest anti-islamophobia organization (CCIF) have been dissolved by government decree, on grounds denounced by Amnesty international and an array of public figures and organizations, which have called for a reversal of the decision dubbed “extreme”: “Amnesty international is extremely concerned about the signal that this sends to NGOs and the fight against discrimination in France.”
These proposed laws and the rafts of measures justified by counter-terrorism are profoundly eroding basic freedoms in France: freedom of speech, of association, of thought. In seeking to eradicate the space for oppositional thinking in the name of upholding “republican principles”, France is betraying itself.
France’s Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti told the press “too many people (…) are using the law of 1881 which protects freedom of expression to express views in conflict with the values of the Republic.” Yet if freedom means anything, it means the right to express views which are indeed in conflict with the state – including its claims to a monopoly on the meaning of Republican principles. Many people might call this popular counter power the very basis of democracy.
Instead, the space for oppositional views is shrinking rapidly. Macron’s education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, branded academics critical of the government’s approach, “islamo-leftists” “intellectually complicit” in terrorism for importing “indigenist, racialist, and decolonial ideologies,” which he claimed were responsible for ‘conditioning’ violent extremism. The accusation that academics who question the official narrative could be providing the fodder for terrorism led to the tabling of a law on university research, since approved by the Senate, that redefines and limits research to being “exercised with respect for the values of the Republic” – read, state sanctioned.
Just as President Macron champions France as the beacon of free speech and democracy, his government is involved in undermining – and seeking to undermine – some of the Republic’s most cherished principles, starting with freedom of the press.
President Macron is playing a dangerous double game – abroad, he plays on linguistic and cultural differences to play down serious concerns expressed by his own citizens in foreign publications, going so far as to contact the New York Times accusing the English-language media of “legitimizing this violence”, presumably by running stories he doesn’t approve of. A critical op-ed in the Financial Times was removed and replaced by one penned by the President himself in what many speculated was just the latest incident of political pressure being places on journalists to retract critical views. Meanwhile Reporters without Borders have tracked a disturbing increase in judicial harassment of investigative reporters, as well as concerns related to editorial independence.
There are many ways to shut down free speech, including by making the truth unsayable.
Days after the murder of Samuel Paty, France’s youth minister cut short a previously scheduled meeting with students to discuss religion because she was uncomfortable with the concerns being expressed around prejudice and islamophobia. We all know free speech is never absolute, it certainly isn’t in France where laws already regulate hate speech. But young people are not naïve. They can spot the hypocrisy of politicians who lecture them about free speech when it comes to accepting deeply disturbing caricatures, but won’t listen to their concerns around discrimination.
The state of free speech isn’t measured at the Elysée pulpit. It can be measured in the silencing of those who resist the government’s narrative over who is the blame for France’s long list of woes. But more broadly, the state of a nation’s freedoms can always be assessed at the margins. The specter of terrorism is a useful ploy to dismiss the increasingly punitive measures faced by French Muslims – but the delusion is to believe that their loss of freedom isn’t a loss of freedom for us all.
Terrorists will seek to aggrandize their limited reach, turning a knife attack into an internationally recognized “act of war” through symbolic targets and gory violence. But we could do with some perspective – over 3,000 people a year die in road accidents in France. Over 300 are dying a day of COVID. Since 2012, 260 people have died in terrorists attacks in France. Does the specter of terrorism truly warrant a profound undoing of democratic principles that people fought and died for?
We can view terrorism as an attack on our “values”– or we can reject this narrative. Our values aren’t threatened by these attacks, they are threatened by our response to them. It’s now urgent our leaders are held to the Republican ideals they claim to represent.