Between Macron's draconian policies on Islam and an ascendant far-right, France’s Muslim community fights for relevance and survival.

French President Emmanuel Macron is a man on a mission seeking to reshape Islam. And for a country that once presumed to hold the mantle of civilising the world, it is now relegated to the provincial goal of cornering its beleaguered Muslim community.

Macron's laser-like focus on the country's Muslim minority of 5.4 million, even as France continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic, has also had the unintended impact of amplifying French insecurities about its place in the world and sense of identity.

A summer of anti-racism protests highlighted the country's continued inability to tackle social issues and its colonial legacy.

Protests against police violence, insecurity over homegrown extremism and the smouldering aftermath of the Yellow Vest protests against economic inequality has created the impression of a country unmoored and rudderless.

France's far-right leader Marine Le Pen is ahead in the polls for the 2022 presidential elections, and almost 60 percent of French people disapprove of the job Macron is doing.

Against this bleak political backdrop, Macron has found a rallying cry which the academic Abdellali Hajjat has called the "consensual racism widely shared by French elites." It offers Macron a political lifeline that resonates widely in French society: the spectre of Islam.

Dr Farid Hafez, an Austrian political scientist at the Department of Political Science and Sociology at the University of Salzburg, describes French policies towards Muslims as an attempt at "domestication."

But by focusing on Muslims and Islam, Macron also seeks to achieve several political goals.

First and foremost, a means of distracting the electorate from unpopular domestic policies. Secondly, Macron seeks to outflank the far-right on the culture wars engulfing the country, and Islam has become its primary vehicle for doing so.

Muslim crescent moon and star over main door of Paris Great Mosque, France.
Muslim crescent moon and star over main door of Paris Great Mosque, France. (Getty Images)

A charter for Muslims

In October of last year in a significant speech, Macron spoke darkly about an "Islam in crisis" and the need to "restructure Islam."

His speech was widely interpreted as framing "Islam as the problem." Despite widespread criticism, Macron pressed on, introducing a controversial bill in December, which is currently making its way through parliament. The target? "Islamist separatism."

The government has failed to define the term. The Muslim community fears that it will be used as a catch-all legal mechanism to ostracise normative Muslim beliefs, close down mosques and civil society organisations.

Examples used to showcase so-called Islamist separatism veer into the banal. In an interview defending the bill, Prime Minister Jean Castex citied a high school student "reciting [Quranic] verses while closing their ears in music class," as the archetypal enemy that the French Republic is facing.

Now the Macron government is pushing for a "Charter of Imams," a set of principles which would define an Islam of France. The charter was published late last month, but with several Muslim organisations refusing to sign on - a crisis of legitimacy will likely cloud its implementation.

But for a state that touts its secular credentials, Macron's government hasn't been shy about involving his government in shaping Islam in the country.

"The French Charter of Imams signals to Muslims that they have to fully assimilate and have no right to be free human beings with dignity," says Hafez speaking to TRT World.

The body tasked with transcribing and publishing Macron's vision of a ‘French Islam’ is the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM).

Founded in 2003 by the then French Interior Minister Nicholas Sarkozy, the CFCM, from its inception has been a controversial body with no legal standing but acts as a conduit between the French state and the Muslim population. CFCM did not respond to questions submitted by TRT World.

The President of CFCM, Mohammed Moussaoui, surprised many recently when he declared that Muslims in the country don't face discrimination.

That's precisely the type of narrative the Elysee Palace wants Muslims to buy into and which the Charter of Imams now promotes.

In Article 9, the charter states that the "denunciation of alleged State racism" will be considered an act of "defamation." In an act of victim-blaming, the document even says that speaking about state racism "exacerbates both anti-Muslim hatred and anti-France hatred."

The document also seeks to ban mosques from engaging in "political speeches about foreign conflicts." Discussions about political injustices around the world, humanitarian crises in Palestine or Mali, places that France finds itself in a less than flattering position, could be deemed a form of extremism, or worse, separatism. Speeches in mosques "hostile to French foreign policy" will also be banned.

When Farid Slim, a former imam in Chambery, an Alpine town in southeast France, first heard about the Charter of Imams, surprise quickly gave way to "indignation." 

"It's clearly established that terrorists did not attend mosques, so why point the finger at imams?" he asked, speaking to TRT World.

France's principles of secularism "guarantee the neutrality of the state" towards religion, but this charter, says Slim, is an attempt at "interference in Muslim worship."

Slim is also concerned that the charter will "stigmatise" Muslims. By requiring Muslims and imams to adopt the French Republican principles, it assumes, says Slim, that Muslims were not already following them.

The charter is also "discriminatory" says Slim as it only applies to Muslims, adding that "it was not thought out by Muslims but imposed from above through the Ministry of the Interior without even consulting the base."

The irony, of course, is that while Muslims are required to be apolitical, the charter is itself a political imposition from Macron.

"As a French citizen, I owe it to myself to speak out" against the charter, and the government's policies towards Muslims says Slim, adding that anything less would be a "return to a colonial management of the Muslim religion by the state."

A street artist writes
A street artist writes "Laicite" during the inauguration of "Place de La Laicite" (Secularism Square) in Paris on December 9, 2015. (Getty Images)

'Imposing injustice through terror'

To some, like Houria Bouteldja, the daughter of Algerian immigrants and up until recently the spokesperson and founder of France's Party of Indigenes of the Republic (PIR), government policies towards Islam are about "dispossessing Muslims of all their capacities to act and protest against an unjust order which discriminates against them."

Bouteldja has been portrayed as somewhat of a villain by the country's political establishment for daring to challenge structural racism in the country.

When she recently said that the decolonial thoughts that her party has promoted over the last 15 years now "permeate throughout all the universities" the French academic and political elite called her and her party "Islamo-leftist."

Bouteldja's PIR political outfit recently closed its doors amidst immense pressure from the country's politicians, media and academia, which became too much to bear for its many members.

But Bouteldja’s sense of determination to speak out against France's treatment of Muslims remains unflinching.

She says that Muslims have no other solution but to "organise and resist" the country's "racist and authoritarian security policies."

But the constant drumbeat of agitation towards Islam and French Muslims are having an impact.

When TRT World reached out to imams to speak about state policies, several were worried about what it may mean for their mosques and even for their families. Many want to keep their heads down.

Elias d'Imzalene, a human rights defender, argues that anti-Muslim policies were present in many successive governments both on the left and the right. But the current separatism law going through parliament is nothing more than "legalisation of a de facto apartheid."

"In recent months schools, imams and mosques have suffered arbitrary searches, dissolutions and closures," says d'Imzalene speaking to TRT World. It's a policy of "imposing injustice through terror," he adds.

Macron's Imam Charter and Separatist Bill are not a choice, says d'Imzalene, "it's a diktat," and if Muslims don't sign up they could face arrest.

Source: TRT World