Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. World
27 October 2020updated 28 Jul 2021 12:55pm

What Macron’s clash with Islamism means for his presidency

After the murder of a history teacher for alleged blasphemy, the French president’s rhetoric on terrorism and security is hardening.

By Ido Vock

The French government recalled its ambassador to Turkey this week, as a feud grows between Emmanuel Macron and leaders from across the Muslim world.

The argument was sparked by Macron’s steadfast defence of the right to blaspheme and offend after the murder of Samuel Paty, a history teacher who was brutally beheaded by a Chechen refugee in a Paris suburb this month. The savage killing – reportedly in retaliation for Paty showing his students a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad during a lesson covering the freedom of expression – reignited France’s contentious debate about Islamism and freedom of speech, which had been simmering since the Charlie Hebdo attacks five years ago.

The response across France has been rapid and wide-ranging. Several French cities have projected caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad on city halls in symbolic displays of defiance. Gérald Darmanin, the interior minister, contentiously claimed in a TV interview that he has always felt uncomfortable seeing shelves of “foreign cuisines” in supermarkets (a response perhaps intended to evoke national pride, but which instead seems rather more to conjure an image of Daumarin cowering at the sight of soy sauce and korma paste).

[See also: A racist cartoon highlights an ugly truth about France’s media]

Macron, more soberly, declared that: “we will not give up caricatures” during a ceremony last week in which he posthumously awarded Paty the Légion d’honneur, France’s highest civilian honour. The government has closed a mosque accused of spreading extremist material and announced the dissolution of Muslim organisations deemed “extremist”.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

In response, several governments of Muslim-majority nations have called for boycotts of French products, including Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who accused the French president of being responsible for a “campaign of hatred”.

The latest feud is likely to peter out sooner rather than later, if the French government’s previous defence of secularism – and the uproar it’s provoked – is anything to go by. Still, a hardening of rhetoric following Paty’s killing is likely to set the tone for the upcoming presidential election, due in 18 months.

Content from our partners
How do we secure the hybrid office?
How materials innovation can help achieve net zero and level-up the UK
Fantastic mental well-being strategies and where to find them

As I have written before, Macron has over the course of his term in office shifted to the right, a trend which was highlighted by his appointment of Darmanin this year. He has in 2020 also become more forceful on matters of identity, making a speech in early October warning of “Islamist separatism,” a line of argument which just weeks ago seemed hyperbolic but in the wake of the attack appears prescient. Paty’s murder seems likely to accelerate the hardline drift.

Macron is still mostly associated in many voters’ minds with cutting red tape and liberalising the economy. In contrast, identity issues are the bread and butter of his strongest opponent, the far-right leader Marine Le Pen. She appears most comfortable when she is targeting Islamism and has called for a “moratorium” on immigration in response to the killing.

With the next election likely to feature Islamism as a key theme, an issue on which the far-right usually performs strongly, Macron will probably continue his efforts to shore up his credentials on terrorism and security. Expect the rhetoric to significantly harden in the months ahead.