Emmanuel Macron Doesn’t Understand Secularism, Or Islam13 Nov 2020
In recent weeks, France’s Muslim communities have once again found themselves in President Emmanuel Macron’s crosshairs.
The controversy – for lack of a better word – started when Macron made several declarations on Islam. Calling Islam “a religion that is in crisis all over the world,” Macron called for tougher measures against what he called “extremist separatism”, pushing for a plan to “heal social divisions” caused by violent extremism.
The solutions he pushed forward, however, seemed to focus on Muslims as a whole, once again pathologising an entire people and stigmatising Muslims further – ironically creating social divisions.
Indeed, a statement by 100 Muslim academics warned that the measures Macron pushes are nothing new. “The governments change, but the obsessions remain,” said the statement. Others have warned that despite rallying again extremism and separatism of all strands, the President’s words almost entirely focused on Islam and Muslims.
What started as a national debate took an international dimension with many Muslim-majority countries began boycotting French products. Even the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, waded into the controversy, poking at Macron’s mental health for his recent ignorant remarks.
France’s Muslim minority, representing the largest in the EU, largely remains economically disadvantaged, marginalised and neglected. It certainly doesn’t help when disturbed individuals, who falsely claim to be acting in the name of Islam, behead a teacher or elderly church-goers.
Of course, nobody – Muslims included – wants their youth to be poisoned by extremism, violence and radicalisation. However, Macron’s answers to these issues merely rethreads the same old lines that we’ve seen in the years following 9/11 and similar major events. Macron’s approach will not help France’s vaunted secularism to survive. Instead, this “hard secularism” espoused by him and the French far-right is merely militant nationalism in disguise.
Far from helping French Muslims, the tact taken will only securitise French Muslim lives, marginalising them even more, while emboldening the racists and the extremists. Macron is also dismissing – if not outright erasing – the contributions that French Muslims have made, and continue to make, to the Republic. Another opportunity his Government missed during Armistice Day commemorations.
A “Militant Secularism”
France’s hardline secular model has always been somewhat controversial with the country’s Muslim population. In the past, whether the state should intervene when someone is in public buildings with visible articles of faith is one such example.
Muslims, as has often been the case, get the short end of the stick out of these national conversations. The tone shifted after the tumultuous year of 2015 when France was hit with successive terrorist attacks, which serves as a watershed moment when the language of secularism turned increasingly militant. No longer was there a concept that the state should stay out of people’s personal lives when practicing their faith. Rather, this new secularism treated any expression of faith that didn’t fit in with “Frenchness” with arrogant hostility.
This is best evident in the editorial piece the Charlie Hebdo Magazine published after the horrific massacre.
Titled “How did we end up here?” the editorial painted a picture of the 2015 attacks as a tip of a very large iceberg that would see “fundamentalist Islam” and “Sharia Law” being enforced across the country.
It suggested that France’s passive application of laïcité had paved the way for extremists. The editorial gave an example of a Muslim baker, depicted as fully integrated and in no love of extremists but nevertheless is devout and therefore avoids selling pork products.
The magazine suggested that this baker is just as big a threat as the gunmen who murdered dozens at Charlie Hebdo or Bataclan, for the baker normalises Islam, and therefore opens the path to extremists.
In Charlie Hebdo’s view, the terrorists, the baker, or a child who would prefer to wear a veil to school, are all equal threats to French society and to secularism.
It is not unreasonable for these comments to be deemed racist, Islamophobic and opening the gates to more extreme interpretations – as is espoused by the far-right National Rally party led by Marine Le Pen. However, it is an attitude that has become increasingly normalised and mainstreamed in French current events.
Just look at the case of Maryam Pougetoux, whose visit to the Parliament as an elected student leader drew hysterical reactions from Macron’s En Marche! Party.
It seems that for all the clamouring about integration – or assimilation – a visibly Muslim person who is well-integrated with social and political life in France and living normally, peacefully, lawfully is treated as a threat.
The idea that any immigrant who assimilated to “Frenchness” and French ways would be accepted as equals had already been on the rocks by the country’s own record on racism. For all its self-praising for being colour-blind France’s record on how racial minorities, no matter how French-speaking or Catholic, have been marginalised has been rather dismal.
It is hard to see how a Muslim, even if assimilated and not dressed as visibly Muslim, would be treated any differently. Many observers and experts have pointed to and warned about the toxic convergence of secularism and nationalism.
What is taking place is militant nationalism in disguise. For all the talk about secularism as an equalising force, what France has been espousing is far from secularism. Rather, in defining and rallying against an “other”, Macron and his government are resorting to the crassest type of nationalism that he claimed to rally against when he was elected.
The Path Macron Takes Could Spell the End of Secularism
So why has Macron, who appealed to Muslim voters in support of a “tolerant” secularism in the past, changed his tone so drastically?
It has little to do with Muslims and everything to do with Macron’s re-election prospects. It is no secret that the President who came to power at a time of economic insecurity, as well as other challenges such as Brexit, the refugee crisis and the rising far-right, had a difficult task ahead.
However, despite being popular at the time of election, Macron started losing support over his handling of the economy. Meanwhile, his opponent, Marine Le Pen, has been gaining popularity.
It is truly shameful to see a democratic leader using a tactic honed so well by autocrats. It is an approach that will only play into the hands of the far-right National Rally party.
Furthermore, many observers are fearful that Macron’s approach, far from buffeting secularism against the forces of extremism, could end up damaging the cause of secularism itself. After all, intervening in the private affairs of a religious community in the name of “Frenchness” and the enforcing of secularism could set the precedence for further state intervention of faith groups. That’s simply not secularism.
Indeed, back in 2015, members of the National Rally (back then called National Front) already pushed to ban halal and kosher lunch options in school, potentially depriving French Muslims and Jews in a way that would not imperil the rights of Catholic or Protestant students.
It once again highlights that French secularism is not one that views all faith on equal legal grounds but one that pushes a nationalist agenda that equates “Frenchness” with Christianity.
For that reason alone, secularism has already been facing many detractors, particularly from young people among poorer minorities who viewed the it as a means to keep their communities marginalised and justify legalised discrimination against them.
Now imagine how French Muslims who are looking to integrate and live within the “system” will feel when they see how an elected student leader like Maryam Pougetoux was met with hysterical opposition for simply practicing her right as a French citizen by visiting the Parliament.
How will they view the stabling of two French Muslim women by attackers who shouted racial slurs who were undoubtedly emboldened by the rhetoric pushed by both major French parties?
Some of them may feel that integrating will be pointless. After all, if even a hypothetical fully-integrated baker can be equated with mass-murdering terrorists for being a practicing Muslim, why bother?
Do you see how Macron is not the saviour of tolerance and social healing as he so arrogantly claims to be?
Macron’s approach is even more shameful given that many French Muslim subjects and citizens who gave their lives for France in the World Wars, despite France’s many crimes against Muslim populations of its former colonies.
It’s a real shame this recognition was missed again this Armistice Day. Nevertheless, we should remember and remind the racists and nationalists across Europe of the millions of Muslim soldiers and labourers who gave their lives in the two world wars, some of whom are buried at the Notre Dame de Lorette cemetery.
Charlie Hebdo would have you believe that they are a threat to the French nation too.
Real secularism allows for all communities to live together and practice their faith, freely and fairly, without infringing on each other’s rights and practices.
However, what we’re seeing being espoused by Macron in France is not secularism, it is an embrace of racist, arrogant nationalism disguised as secularism, by someone desperate to be re-elected, exclusively at the expense of Muslim citizens. The path that Macron is taking will erode what is left of France’s secular model.