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Macron and the Muslim world

How the murder of a teacher reignited the conflict between republican secularism, religion and ardent belief in France.

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The moment the coffin of Samuel Paty was carried by republican guards into the Cour d’Honneur of the Sorbonne in the early evening of 21 October was especially poignant. Paty, a history and geography teacher, had been attacked and beheaded five days prior by an 18-year-old Muslim of Chechen origin. The word most commonly used in the French media to describe the national mood at the time of the murder was “sidéré” (“shocked” or “devastated”). Paty was killed for having taught a civics class, in accord with the national curriculum, during which he showed children caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad from the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. The publication of the same cartoons had provoked the murder by Islamist assassins of 12 of the magazine’s team at its offices in Paris on 7 January 2015.

For showing these images (he had beforehand invited students to leave the room if they wished), Paty was attacked on social media by a parent, who is reported to have exchanged texts with the killer, and by a known Islamist radical, Abdelhakim Sefrioui. Then, on 16 October, as he was leaving the school in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine in Yvelines, a suburb to the north-west of Paris, Samuel Paty was savagely executed.

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The ceremony at the Cour d’Honneur was led by President Emmanuel Macron. Paty’s coffin was brought in, adorned with a posthumous Légion d’honneur (the highest award for military and civil merits in France), accompanied by U2’s song “One”, chosen by his family. The song, a call for peace and unity, was popular in the weeks after the Paris attacks and the siege by Islamist militants at the Bataclan theatre in November 2015. Television cameras picked out glistening eyes among the mourners. Outside, in the Place de la Sorbonne, usually so alive with cafés and students, a crowd of all generations stood in silence as the song was played. Some of them wept. I watched the ceremony at home on television but I had visited the Sorbonne earlier that afternoon and seen the hollow-eyed, grieving expressions of the crowds making their way towards the Place.

When it was his turn to speak, Emmanuel Macron was in a state of high emotion. He is a politician known for his nuance and restraint, but he made an impassioned and combative speech. He declared that Samuel Paty “embodied the values of the republic” because he had chosen “to teach respect, to show what civilisation meant”. Macron cited the socialist and republican hero Jean Jaurès, who was assassinated for his ideas in 1914; and Ferdinand Buisson, an academic and champion of human rights, who first used the term laïcité (meaning the separation of church and state) when it was enshrined in French law in 1905. Macron said Paty had done his duty as a teacher, which was “to make republicans”.

In France this statement was uncontroversial. To be a citizen, and not a subject, is for most of the population one of the most deeply held convictions. After Macron’s speech, in the cities of Toulouse and Montpellier, controversial images from Charlie Hebdo were projected on to the walls of hotels as an act of defiance against those who would oppose the republican ideal of laïcité. France, it seemed, was for once united in its anger and outrage, and supported Macron’s denunciation of extremism and terror.

It was therefore a profound shock to Macron’s government, and to ordinary French people, when the president’s remarks were received with such anger in the Muslim world. This was all the more surprising to Macron, since his stated foreign policy was to build diplomatic bridges with Arab countries, particularly in those territories in North Africa that had been colonies or protectorates of France. He has backed up his words with actions, most notably when admitting in 2018 that France had sanctioned the use of torture during the Algerian War of Independence (1954-62).

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However, within days of Macron’s speech, many Muslim voices seemed to rise in anger against France. What was more surprising was that in former French territories the anger was relatively muted. But in the Middle East and South Asia, in countries such as Kuwait, Qatar, Bangladesh and Somalia, French goods were boycotted, the French flag was burned in the street along with posters and effigies of Macron, and threats were made against France and the security of French citizens abroad. Macron and his government were accused of Islamophobia.

Over the next few days, relations between France and the Muslim world grew increasingly fraught. A photograph of Paty’s severed head, taken on a mobile phone by his killer Abdullakh Anzorov, was posted on the website of the Pakistani Islamist group Tehreek-e-Labbaik. The group hailed Anzorov, who was killed by police, as a “martyr”. Vatan-e Emrooz, an Iranian newspaper, described Macron as “the Devil of Paris… who worships Satan”, accompanying this statement with its own caricature of Macron as a demonic figure. On 29 October, a security guard at the French consulate in the Saudi Arabian port city of Jeddah was attacked with “a sharp instrument”.

The tensions came back home to France. Only a few hours before the incident in Saudi Arabia, a Tunisian immigrant called Brahim Aioussaoi killed three people in Nice’s Notre-Dame basilica. Even if the events were incoherent and unrelated, all of this seemed like a nightmarish reminder of France’s suffering in recent years.

[see also: How terror returned to the streets of Europe]

Yet what happened should not have come as a surprise to the French government or its security services. Paris has been on high alert since September, when the trial began of 14 people accused of having been accomplices of the brothers Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, who carried out the 2015 attack on Charlie Hebdo, and Amedy Coulibaly, who two days later killed four people at the Hypercacher kosher supermarket. The testimonies in court have stirred up memories in France of these recent traumas. According to security sources, there is a new generation of radical Islamist networks, which are organising and looking for “vengeance”.

All of this is taking place amid an increase in anti-extremist rhetoric from the Macron government. On 26 July, Marlène Schiappa, who had recently been appointed to the office of the interior minister Gérald Darmanin as the minister in charge of citizenship, announced that the government would be developing a new law against what she called “separatisms”, with a special focus on “political Islam”. This was followed up on 2 October with a speech by Emmanuel Macron, given in Yvelines. Macron said that Islam was a religion “in crisis all over the world”, not just in France. This seemed to many Muslims to be at best arrogant, if not insulting. Macron signalled his intention to bring in a new law that would reinforce the values of the republic by strengthening the original 1905 law, which defined laïcité. This would include banning home-schooling, except where there is a medical reason why a child can-not attend school, and stopping the practice of importing foreign imams, who are accused of bringing extremist interpretations of faith to France.

For once, Muslim anger with France cannot entirely be explained with reference to the country’s bloody colonial past in its former territories. Leading the attacks against Macron was the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a populist chancer who likes to think of himself as the leader of the Sunni Muslim world. Turkey had been sparring with France over opposing policies in Libya and Syria and over what France sees as Turkey’s “imperial ambitions” in the eastern Mediterranean. This latest dispute over Islam has given Erdogan a chance to boost his popularity and deflect attention away from Turkey’s failing economy. Turkey made no immediate response to the murder of Samuel Paty. This silence was followed by a speech in which Erdogan urged Macron “to check his mental health”. In response, Paris temporarily recalled its ambassador from Ankara. Just as Erdogan had hoped, his rhetoric incited anger among Muslims around the world.

Even beyond these geopolitical games, Macron’s statement has hurt and disappointed many Muslims in France who do not want to be associated with Islamist fanatics. “This murder of the teacher is a nightmare,” I was told by Belaid, the owner of my local grocery, referring to the death of Paty. Belaid’s business is going under as a result of the Covid crisis and he is retraining as a security guard “just in case”. He describes himself as non-political. But he was wounded by Macron’s speech. “We are all human beings and different and we cannot be treated all in the same way just because we are Muslims.”

[see also: What Macron’s clash with Islamism means for his presidency]

This was the opinion, too, of my friend and colleague Imen Yacoubi, a former academic from the University of Jendouba in Tunisia. Imen would describe herself as both a moderate and a feminist, and she has a shrewd take on the politics of Islam; she was in Tunis during the country’s revolution in 2011. After several years in the UK, she is a newcomer to France, where she is a researcher at the University of Reims.

She deemed Macron’s speech after the murder of Paty too emotional and divisive. “There was a typical ‘us vs them’ discourse but by ‘them’ I do not mean extremists, because I think moderate Muslims in France felt a bit targeted. What I saw in the media the next day confirmed this: there was a pervasive discourse conflating Muslims with Islamists, sometimes even with radical Islamism.”

Imen accepts that Islam has many contradictions. “Part of the doctrine of Islam is that it does not believe in a separation between religion and state and if you ask me, I do sincerely think it needs to be revised and modernised.”

She does not think, however, that modernisation is irreconcilable with French republicanism. “France’s discourse on civic engagement and belonging is a bit dry, stiff and stuck in the mid-20th century. I know this because the civic engagement education I received in Tunisia [under former president Ben Ali] was modelled on France’s, and for 60 years, it remained irrelevant and out of touch with reality.” If there is a way forward, she says, it has to be based on mutual respect, and isolating extremists from the majority of the Muslim population.

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This is not necessarily a popular view among French intellectuals. It is considered by many of them to be too close to Anglo-American notions of multiculturalism, which they believe have destroyed and degraded the intellectual values and rigour of British and American universities, and stand against the unifying model of education which, from the 19th century onwards, was supposed to bind the Republic of France together. This much was argued in a recent polemic published in Le Monde on 2 November, denouncing the Islamo-leftism and communautarisme (or politics of identity) supposedly being imported into French universities. The text was signed by 100 leading university academics and writers, including eminent figures such as the Islamist expert Gilles Kepel, the historian Pierre Nora and the former education minister Luc Ferry.

Perhaps the simplest, if the most cynical, explanation for Macron’s hard line on radical Islam is that it is a ploy to attract votes that could otherwise go to the far right. But this may well backfire. Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Rassemblement National (National Rally), has denounced Macron’s comments as nothing more than empty rhetoric, while her supporters are keen to use the language of war when they talk about Islamist politics. With his recent emotive language, Macron could also risk losing potential supporters from the left.

Even more puzzling is that Macron knows and understands French history. It is worth remembering that the French republic is not inherently anti-Muslim, and nor indeed is the concept of laïcité. It was, in fact, introduced into French law to rein in the power of the Catholic church at the height of the Dreyfus affair. This was a battle between pro-republican, anti-clerical politicians and intellectuals, the so-called Dreyfusards, who argued that Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army, had been falsely accused of treason, and the anti-Dreyfusards, mostly pro-military Catholics who, whatever the truth of the evidence, refused to accept the accusations against Dreyfus were false. They believed that if Dreyfus was found to be innocent it would undermine the French nation. One of the consequences of the Dreyfus affair was that it helped to fuel anti-Semitism on the right, while at the same time aggressive secularism became an article of left-wing faith.

What is happening in France today is not quite the same, but as recent events have shown, the divisions between religion and secularism are equally bitter. It may well be that the safer course for Emmanuel Macron is to talk less about “reinforcing” the republic, and to think more imaginatively instead about how it might be reshaped to fit the needs of pluralist 21st-century France. 

Andrew Hussey is a professor of cultural history at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. His latest book is “The French Intifada” (Granta)

This article appears in the 13 November 2020 issue of the New Statesman, America after Trump