Emmanual Macron doubles down and pressures newspapers abroad, and Muslims at home, to buy into his narrative of secularism.
The French government would have its critics believe that it is the victim of a serious misunderstanding, or worse, a vilification campaign led by the Anglo-American press “legitimising” violence in France following the brutal murder of Samuel Paty.
The confusion that pains French President Emmanual Macron is that France is being stigmatised, unfairly he believes, as being racist and Islamophobic.
At heart, Macron and many of his compatriots purportedly believe that the French notion of “universalism” which stipulates that in the public space there are no distinguishing features such as race, ethnicity, religion, sex, culture, or gender, immunises the country against racism.
How, the thinking goes, can the state be racist or Islamophobic if it doesn’t see race or religion?
In France, people are discouraged, some would say pressured, from displaying outward signs of belonging to a community along racial or religious lines since it apparently creates fissures in society resulting in what Macron has in the past called “separatism”.
Yet critics of France's social model of laicite, a version of rigid secularism practised in France, believe that the very notion of universalism has become a dogma inhibiting the country from dealing with systemic injustices which intersect with race and religion.
While in places like the UK and the US, visible signs of piety are protected and seen as part of a tapestry that strengthens the overall country, France takes the opposite approach. It bans expressions of faith from public buildings and in certain circumstances from the public space.
“There is the theory of France, universalism, and there is the reality,” says Yasser Louati, a French human rights activist leading the NGO ‘Committee for Justice & Liberties For All'.
“Yes, France preaches univeralism but in reality if you are a Black or Arab person you are 20 times more likely to face police racial profiling. If you wear a headscarf it impacts the chances of you getting a job,” says Louati speaking to TRT World.
Voices like that of Louati make for uncomfortable gesticulating in France. That its minorities evaluate the French reality through a different prism and speak to the international media, or worse to the English language press, is to invite opprobrium.
"French exceptionalism" says Louati, speaks to a "deep belief in the French imagination that the country is on a mission to civilise the rest of the world.”
“If you criticise France you criticise the grandeur of France,” he adds. There is a sense of “entitlement” that only French people understand and the rest of the world doesn’t get it, says Louati adding that only “white French people can criticise the rest of the world however when people hold a mirror to France they don’t accept it.”
France’s gripe with the coverage emanating from international news platforms has propelled the Elysee Palace onto a warpath.
Paris has been stunned that its secular model has come under the spotlight among the Angolo-American press, believing that they were on the same side in the war against "extremism". It has now resorted to cajoling the press in a bid to press its narrative.
On 2 November, the Financial Times (FT) published an op-ed by one of its staff writers, Mehreen Khan, who incidentally is also a Muslim. The general thrust of the article argued that Macron's war on "Islamic separatism" not only divides France but has created a moral panic towards its Muslim citizens.
The FT took down the article after it was pressured by Macron’s office over perceived inaccuracies. The French president, however, was allowed to respond to the offending article in a letter to the newspaper.
The insidious situation meant that readers were left to read Macron’s critique of an article that was no longer available. But the optics of Macron silencing a Muslim female writer didn’t help to sell the message that France is a fair actor when it comes to upholding values such as freedom of speech.
Days before the FT pulled the opinion piece, Politico, an online media outlet that also covers Europe, similarly withdrew its own article that was critical of France days after its publication.
Titled “The dangerous French religion of secularism,” and written in English by the French-Iranian sociologist, Professor Farhad Khosrokhavar, the article commissioned by Politico did not meet the “editorial standards” according to its editor in chief. No further explanation was forthcoming.
Khosrokhavar’s argument that “France’s extreme form of secularism and its adherence to blasphemy” has fuelled radicalism within its marginalised Muslim minority might have made for uncomfortable reading but given that at the heart of the whole debate was the notion of the “freedom of expression,” censoring the article may well have been counterproductive.
In a follow up article on a different platform, Khosrokhavar argued that France’s laicite has taken a religious turn and those questioning it face severe backlash, as demonstrated by the reactions to his article.
Politico, similar to the FT, allowed a French government official to respond to the offending article by Khosrokhavar without allowing its readers to understand the full context.
The French Minister of Education, Jean-Michel Blanquer, has pejoratively stigmatised academics like Khosrokhavar as “islamo-leftists” accusing them of spreading “intellectual radicalism” by importing dangerous American ideas such as ‘Critical Race Theory’ which aim to study society and culture as it intersects with categorisations of race, law, and power.
Underlining that academia in France is not always at the service of the public but sometimes also a surrogate of the state, more than 100 academics put their name to a letter stating that they “agree” with the minister’s observation and warning against the importing of dangerous “Anglo-Saxon” ideologies on French campuses.
France’s unwillingness to discuss the plight of its minorities against a convulsion of anti-racism protests that have swept the US and Europe over the summer, has struck foreign observers as strikingly tone deaf and out of step with the times.
Too often, France sounds as if it wants to be colour blind not as a means of implementing equality, but denying the changing face of France which is increasingly multi hued.
“Critical race theory is not accepted because the notion of French universalism actually shuts down all these discussions. Because universalism is seen as colour blind and that races do not exist,” says Louati.
For a country that operated one of the largest colonial enterprises the world has ever seen, many might view colour-blindness as another way to brush its racist history under the rug.
A battle for Islam or against?
In a speech delivered in early October, Macron set out his plan for an “enlightenment Islam” and a cultural revolution that would, among other things, see the state backing forces that want to “restructure Islam.”
Amongst many French Muslims and outside observers, it was seen as a veiled attempt to create a "French Islam" and interfere in the workings of the Muslim community. The problem wasn’t France's laicite model, said Macron, it was that Muslims, many who are third or fourth generation. They just didn’t get it.
“We must...make people love the Republic,” said Macron. And no sooner was the presidents speech over that many asked what a “French Islam” meant.
The Macron administration is battling on the one hand a stronger far-right narrative and on the other, a weakening economy and rising criticism of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I think that Macron is willing to send a message to the far right voters,” says Rokhaya Diallo, a French journalist and a powerful voice in fighting for racial, gender and religious equality.
“The government has chosen to openly target Muslims because it is easier to communicate with spectacular measures,” added Diallo speaking to TRT World.
When high school teacher Samuel Paty was killed for showing Charlie Hebdo caricatures of the Prophet Muhammed which Muslims view as offensive, Macron saw an opporunity to crack down on Muslim individuals and organisations it saw as extremist.
One such organisation was BarakaCity, one of the country's largest Muslim humanitarian organisations. Its founder’s house, Idriss Sihamedi, was raided in the middle of the night by security forces.
The government alleged the organisation had “radical Islamist ideas,” says Sihamedi speaking to TRT World who also denied the accusations leveled by the French state believing them to be politically motivated.
BarakaCity was investigated by the French state for three years and in 2019, it decided that there was no evidence that the organisation was committing any offences, said Sihamedi, reading directly from those documents to prove it when he spoke to TRT World over the phone.
Now suddenly an executive order has been issued without judicial oversight, shutting it down. Many Muslims in France saw it as the state lashing out in a bid to silence critical Muslim voices.
“I spoke out against the Interior Ministry’s attempt to create a new religion for Muslims, a new Islam,” says Sihamedi adding that “if we don’t agree to accept what the governments wants us to do then we could be considered extremisists or even terrorists."
“In a bid to appease the far-right, Macron, choose to break the largest Muslim organisations in France, the biggest of which was BarakaCity,” added Sihamedi.
Macron could have used the consecutive terrorist attacks in France to strike a tone of unity that sees its Muslim citizens as part of the solution and indivisibly part of the country as they are. The rancorous response, however, has created even greater schisms leaving France divided internally and defensive internationally.
“The public discourse on Islam and about Muslims has long been problematic [in France],” says Diallo. “There is a difference between how the principle of laicite is drafted in the law and how it’s manipulated by politicians in order to question any public expression of Islam.”
“France needs to remind itself that laicite means equality, freedom of belief and protection of all the religious expressions. It needs to include the Muslims in the counter terrorism narrative instead of pointing them out as suspicious.”