How attacking so-called Islamic separatism without admitting to creating institutional exclusion of minorities has only deepened France’s social faultlines.
France was thrown into an uproar following the beheading of Samuel Paty, a middle school teacher who showed his students mocking caricatures of Prophet Muhammad. The educator was quickly transformed into a national symbol, making him one of more than 260 French citizens killed in similar attacks since 2012.
Portrayed as an attack on the very soul of France, French President Emmanuel Macron described him as “the face of the republic.”
Even in grief however, the attack provided Macron and his presidency the political ammunition necessary to unfold a dramatic plan of action that would see Islam “reformed.”
“Will he succeed in changing a 1400-year religion by insulting its worshippers? Probably not,” says Mohammed Laarbi, a disenfranchised Algerian young man who grew up in Department 93, one of France’s ‘separatist' ghettoes.
“But it will probably get him re-elected,” adds Mohammed.
In September 2020, Macron’s time seemed like it was up. In one public poll, an overwhelming majority of French respondents felt like the country was in decline, with nearly a third considering it as an irreversible downturn.
When asked what their primary concerns were, respondents cited Covid-19, declining purchasing power, and the uncertain future of their social security system.
With Samuel’s tragic death, Macron’s anti-Islam rhetoric went into overdrive, building on previous plans to pass a ‘separatism’ bill.
The long-anticipated bill has been teasingly touted as the solution to France’s 'Muslim problem', facing delays as the Elysée took it’s time to resolve ‘unconstitutional’ elements in the bill.
But in a nut-shell, the ‘Separatism’ bill would grant Macron’s government powers to ensure that groups do not adhere to an alternative French identity, tethered to religious or ethnic affiliation, according to Le Figaro.
While Macron has previously described his efforts as a move to build “an Islam in France that can be an Islam of the Enlightenment,” the new wave of popular support he enjoys is directly linked to the desire to end violence.
For Macron, and much of French society, that’s only the packaging on a much more complex endeavour.
Not the first, or the last
The talk of separatism seems to want to resolve a different problem than violence. Instead of directly addressing the alienation, systemic racism and Islamophobia faced by French Muslims which experts agree is the root cause of radicalization and violence, France’s government seeks to change a 1,400 year old religion practiced peacefully by more than 2 billion followers around the world.
It’s a roundabout manner of addressing deep flaws in French society. More dangerously, it maintains a blind-eye to France’s biggest taboo: the deep systemic racism plaguing not only 5 million of its Muslim French citizens, but the deprivations and brutality it once brought to its former colonies around the world.
In many respects, Macron is guided by the same spirit that led Napoleon to regulate Judaism after the French Republic’s birth. Napoleon granted Jews full citizenship, and repealed laws that confined them to life in Ghettos. But he also instituted a series of policies that eroded their identity, intentionally. He restricted the regions to which Jews were allowed to migrate, forcibly implemented formal naming conventions, restricted the Jewish practice of money-lending, and set up consistories to regulate everyday Jewish life.
Much as Napoleon had difficulty understanding the deeply racist and condescending nature of his policies, Macron and some of French society’s largest public intellectuals are unable to recognize that the systemic discrimination they create can only yield more of the separatism they seek to fight.
In keeping with the times, French citizens turned on the largest visible minority, adopting the party line espoused by pundits, politicians and columnists alike: Islam was incompatible with secularism, and given that secularism is a French value, Islam was fundamentally unwelcome in France.
With this new mindset, the veil, or hijab, quickly came under attack.
A French law in 2004, building on the public need to liberate Muslim women from religious oppression, banned the wearing of hijabs in schools. In quick succession, a 2010 law banned the face-cover or niqab (burqa) for reasons of ‘national security’.
For Muslim women who wear the hijab in France, even legally, their veil is often the subject of derision, scorn or racism.
“Supposedly, it’s about liberating us, yes? This major obsession with what we wear, or how we look. Have you ever heard of someone who was liberated after someone told them you’re backwards, oppressed, or a slave to religion?,” asks Laarbi.
“But there’s no issue with what we don’t wear, if you understand my meaning. If my sister wears next to nothing to the beach, she’s ‘French’. She’s done well. I think there’s a deep ‘dépravation’ at the heart of their racism,” he muses.
Laarbi isn’t far off the mark.
Frantz Fanon, one of France’s most famous decolonial thinkers who spent his life unearthing systemic racism wrote extensively about Laarbi’s ironic point.
He details efforts by the French administration in Algeria as early as the 1930s who embarked on an active mission of “cultural destruction” which targeted the hijab, after “analyses carried out by sociologists and ethnologists.”
“Let’s win over the women, and the rest will follow,” was the described formula, recognizing the woman’s role in shaping families, and according to Fanon in preserving cultural resistance.
The highest status was conferred on those able to ‘convert’ women into taking off the veil, he details. Failure was not an option.
In his work with French soldiers who regularly pillaged Algerian villages and raped women, he noted a deep sadistic theme present in their dreams and desires.
“The rape of the Algerian woman in the dream of the European is always preceded by removing her veil... The European faced with an Algerian woman wants to see. He reacts in an aggressive way before this limitation of his perception,” details Fanon.
This carries well into the present. The world’s largest pornographic website which regularly publishes data regarding its users revealed that one of the most widely used search terms from French users was “beurette”. In French slang, a ‘beur’ is an Arab, making a ‘beurette’ a ‘young Arab woman’.
Secularism or Whiteness?
At the heart of it all is unprocessed trauma, says Dr Hamid Benseddik, a professor of Decolonial Studies who spoke to TRT World.
“For all their talk of liberty and fraternity, France is still stuck in the pre-colonial Republican era when most of France was culturally and ethnically homogenous,” says Benssedik.
“When the sons of its devastated former colonies migrated to France, many of whom were already part of France’s downtrodden lower classes, they became a visible minority. A clash arose between the former colonial superiority France felt as a master and civilizer, and the secular, tolerant principles its republic was based on,” he adds.
“For the French, who couldn’t admit to being openly racist just as they couldn’t admit to the crimes they carried out against people of color throughout history, this was a problem. To fix it, they would need to look at themselves in the mirror, which to a large extent, they failed to do.”
Admitting complicity would mean recognizing France’s actual role in the death and torture of millions around the world, alongside the steady plunder of resources from its colonies which made it the modern nation state it is today.
It would also mean recognizing that its status as a nuclear force in the world was made possible through over 200 nuclear tests in its former colonies, often without the knowledge of suddenly irradiated locals who continue to see mutated childbirth and higher incidences of cancer to this day.
But in classic transference, the name of the game is not addressing the taboo; but rather finding a greater fault in the other to justify deep-rooted systemic racism, complicity, and the absence of multicultural tolerance.
French secularism as enshrined by a 1905 law meant a neutral state when it came to religion, neither supporting or attacking any faith. Unlike the United States, which saw the separation of church and state as a freedom to choose any belief; France’s troubled past with Catholicism meant that all religion was suspect, with secularism being the means to freedom from oppressive religious tradition.
Faced with demographic turbulence, an internalized “saviour’s complex,” according to Dr. Benseddik, and a pre-existing culture of promoting systemic racism in employment, housing, media and government; a new form of secularism was needed.
No murder in paradise
For emigrants and French citizens living under the allegedly ‘colour-blind’ eye of the republic, the surreal reality of systemic racism is a fact of life, and has been for as long as they can remember. In other words, it’s structural.
According to Macron’s ‘separatism’ discourse, Muslims choose to live ‘separately’, instead of adopting the French way of life. But since colonial times, immigrants of all denominations and colours have invariably found themselves crowded in state housing projects, struggling to achieve the social mobility promised by the republic.
Little has changed. Job applications and housing can still require pictures, often giving rise to bias, even if unintentional. For Muslims exercising their right to free speech to criticize the establishment, this can mean accusations of radicalism, being dismissed or labelled.
In a recent television debate for instant, French author Pascal Bruckner criticized a renowned journalist, calling her a “Muslim and black woman” on live television. He went on to claim she supported the violent attack on Charlie Hebdo in 2015 because she signed an open letter against the paper’s controversy-seeking practices.
It’s not just immigrants or people of colour though. Even French liberal voices are readily dismissed on the issue.
Former French Justice Minister Jacques Toubon’s NGO recently published a report which delivered a clear ultimatum: "People with foreign origins, or perceived as having them, are disadvantaged in terms of access to jobs or housing," said the report published by Défenseur des Droits (Rights Defender).
"They are more exposed to joblessness, poverty, poor housing, police ID checks, poor health and educational inequality," it said.
It cited surveys from 2016, the most recent, that found that 11 percent of respondents reported incidents of discrimination because of their skin colour over the previous five years, up from six percent in 2008.
But even clear proof of systemic racism may not be enough to warrant change, or even talk of the need for change. That’s because French law makes it hard to prove discrimination even exists.
Since 1978, French law forbids collecting data pertaining to race, religion or ethnicity, even academically or privately. In true French fashion the law was implemented to atone for a wrong; namely France’s classification of Jews in World War II, which made it easy for Vichy France to arrest them and deliver them into German hands, or deport them.
Preventing legal recognition of race however, hasn’t prevented racism. With a systematic legal barrier preventing clear data collection on race or religion, reports of discrimination and Islamophobia are limited to the number of racist incidents local NGO’s address.
Ironically, it was the Soviet Union that faced the dilemma of being unable to investigate serial killers because of what it would mean for the ideal communist society they upheld. In an apocryphal, likely fictional statement, Joseph Stalin allegedly declared, “there is no murder in paradise.” In a similar catch-22, racism doesn’t exist and can’t be investigated or admitted to, because race itself is not recognized.
In the wave of raw feeling that rose after Paty’s killing, mass hysteria ensued. In the hard-line rhetoric that followed, little sympathy was found for the two Muslim women repeatedly stabbed under the Eiffel tower in headscarves to cries of “dirty Arabs”. For the modern French Republic, there’s nothing questionable about this disparity, and therein lies the problem.