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.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

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”.

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.

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.

Ido Vock is international correspondent at the New Statesman.

Free trial CSS