When Emmanuel Macron defeated Marine Le Pen and her far-right party in 2017, his victory was held up as an exemplary centrist bulwark against the rise of xenophobic, anti-immigrant and racist forces in France and across Europe. For many, Macron was a political fantasy come to life, a fresh-faced former private banker committed to upholding and defending the neoliberal global order.
Macron inherited a France struggling against the threat of radical Islam and a rising far-right illiberal movement. After the mass killings at the Charlie Hebdo satirical newspaper, #JeSuisCharlie became a global rallying cry and France became a warrior for press freedom.
Now the recent shocking decapitation of schoolteacher Samuel Paty has reignited antagonisms between the French state and France’s Muslim population. The attack was a national trauma, for a non-Muslim population that fears Islam. On the other hand, many Muslims find themselves on the receiving end of discrimination and Islamophobia. But after the latest attacks, there have been no overwhelming expressions of international sympathy and solidarity like in years past. We did not change our Facebook profiles to the tricolor flag, or post “En Solidarité” on our social media.
Instead, in the year of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, France’s response to these horrible attacks is facing more scrutiny. And the once-upon-a-time liberal hero Macron has come under deserved fire for his political pas de deux with the far right, his pandering to Islamophobic sentiment and his flirtation with political authoritarianism.
“What today, in our society, endangers our Republic, our ability to live together?” Macron asked during a speech in October. It was a rhetorical question. In a stroke of deep irony, the champion of state neutrality in religious affairs blamed Islamist separatism as the main threat. Channeling Le Pen, the French president said that “everywhere there’s a crisis of Islam,” with radical impulses and "the desire for a reinvented jihad.”
But the recent attacks were carried out by deeply disturbed individuals, lone wolves with no ties to international terrorist networks. That’s not the what the Macron government wants to tackle. It is waging what it calls war against internal “Islamist separatism.” Islamic religious leaders in France are being pressured to sign a "republican values” charter. The government proposed to cancel a schooling program with teachers from Turkey, Morocco and Algeria. It also wants to impose restrictions on homeschooling.
Macron wants to forge an “Enlightenment" Islam in France. He says he wants to “help this religion to structure itself in our country.” It’s bad enough that such a hypocritical idea goes against the French value of “laïcité,” or state neutrality in religious affairs. But the president’s patronizing promises to reform an entire religion are reminiscent of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s pledge in 2017 to “rein in” extremist factions in the kingdom and return it to a “moderate Islam.” Given that Macron sees nothing wrong with striking weapons deals with the very same Arab dictator who bombs Yemen and commits egregious human rights abuses against Muslims in his own country, perhaps it makes sense Macron would get some cheap tips on how to make life miserable for innocent Muslims.
Macron’s cosplay as a benevolent authoritarian reformer was complete when he warned that "we may have to make people fear the Republic by imposing its rules in an uncompromising manner and by rebuilding the strength of the law, and we may have to regain control in these key areas that I mentioned, but we also have to get people to love the Republic again by demonstrating that it can enable everyone to build their own lives.”
France, a former colonial power that committed countless atrocities in the name of imperialism all over the world, still refuses to see or admit is that Blacks, Arabs and Muslims still have plenty of reasons to fear the Republic. Islamic face coverings have been banned for women. Black and Arab people in France are much more likely to be the targets of police discrimination and brutality in normal times. Muslims are reported to make up anywhere from 60 to 70 percent of France’s prison population. And even if citizens wanted to protect themselves against abuses, the French government tried to restrict filming the police last month. After backlash from media and human rights groups, the government says it is reviewing the controversial bill.
Instead of responding with moral clarity and dignity to the international spotlight on France’s race relations, discrimination and state violence, Macron and the French media establishment have responded with a feverish fragility. French media lashes out viciously against commentators who speak about racism and France’s blotted past. Recently, Black and Arab francophone women in media (I was also viciously attacked after making an inaccurate statement that I soon publicly corrected) were digitally assaulted by French members of the press and other prominent figures. Some got death threats and were accused of posing a threat to French people around the world by pointing out France’s treatment of Muslims. It is as if France, the aging colonial grande dame, cannot believe that her former African and Muslim subjects are talking back to her. But in the age of global media and increasing awareness of white supremacy and colonial legacies, France can’t simply expect to control the global conversation about its past and present.
In the West, racial and religious minorities are always the canaries in the coal mine. The world should be paying attention to France’s Black, African, Arab, Muslim and immigrant voices who are warning that under Macron, France, the country of Enlightenment, is taking a very dark turn.
Karen Attiah is The Washington Post's Global Opinions editor. She writes on international affairs and social issues. Previously, she reported from Curacao, Ghana and Nigeria.