Macron’s critics need to understand what France is fighting

Supporters pay homage to slain history teacher Samuel Paty in October outside the Bois d'Aulne secondary school in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, northwest of Paris. (Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty Images)
Supporters pay homage to slain history teacher Samuel Paty in October outside the Bois d'Aulne secondary school in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, northwest of Paris. (Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty Images)

On Dec. 9, after much debate and international press coverage, the French government proposed a bill to parliament designed to curb what it calls “Islamist separatism.” In January, lawmakers will debate and likely adopt a version close to the one submitted by the government. This new bill has sparked intense reaction abroad, where President Emmanuel Macron’s efforts to counter Islamist extremism has led to much hostile(and sometimes misinformed) commentary. A healthy debate must start with a few cold-headed realities.

Macron and the government made a clear distinction between the majority of Muslims, peacefully observing their faith, and an Islamist minority upholding a radical political project. The truth is that France, recently buffeted by a string of terrorist attacks, is trying to uphold its democratic and secular principles against an illiberal ideology that has already taken hold in parts of the country. This isn’t just some abstract fear. It’s a reaction to an everyday reality that French citizens, regardless of their political or religious affiliations, are experiencing in their own lives.

What does defending these principles in 2020 France mean? The fight against separatism entails reestablishing principles of equality and non-discrimination in neighborhoods — often on the outskirts of major cities — where French authorities and public services have failed for too long to assert their presence. Others stepped in. Islamist fundamentalism is making significant creeping inroads in daily life, making itself felt in concrete discrimination against women, LGBT and certain religious minorities (Jews in particular), including the majority of Muslims, many of whom are the first targets of extremists.

Educators, scholars and journalists have sounded the alarm for years. That’s why a poll showed recently that more than 80 percent of the French considered that “secularism is in danger” and that “Islamism has declared war on the nation and the Republic.” This isn’t some political maneuver by Macron — a move to co-opt the far right, for example, as some have argued. On the contrary, it is precisely the far right that refuses to acknowledge the distinction between Islam and these radical political manifestations.

Critics need to offer answers to the same concrete questions French citizens have been confronted with for decades. Should mayors accept separate hours for women in public swimming pools? Should students be allowed to refuse to attend classes on the Holocaust or biology? (The authorities cite tens of thousands of girls prevented from attending school altogether.) Should educators be threatened when teaching freedom of speech or sex education? And what about polygamy — should it be tolerated? Or forced marriages? Nongovernmental organizations estimate that 200,000 of them were organized in France in recent years.

The current law is designed to address precisely these issues. The government is responding to a radical form of Islamism, promoted by a minority and often encouraged online or through opaque foreign funding. A recent series of academic works by influential scholars has shown how this ideology has laid the groundwork for terrorism. The horrific beheading of Samuel Paty, a middle school teacher who was teaching a class on freedom of expression to his students illustrated by Charlie Hebdo cartoons , underlines the point. Angry parents shared Paty’s picture and address online. A 19-year-old terrorist, who had no connection to the school, then did the rest.

The bill, which never mentions Islam, toughens regulations on home schooling and cracks down on polygamy and forced marriages. Doctors willing to provide “virginity certificates” before weddings will be prosecuted. Those who make threats against civil servants in the name of religious fundamentalism face tougher punishments. The bill also attempts to tackle the growing issue of online harassment and imposes greater transparency on foreign funding of religious organizations.

This bill results from months of consultations with French Muslim representatives who share many of these concerns. In a recent statement, Mohammed Moussaoui, the head of France’s leading Muslim organization, deplored this separatism as “a reality that must be faced.”

In recent weeks, critics at home and abroad have pointed to the discrepancy between France’s universal principles and the reality on the ground felt by minorities. They see this bill as part of a culture of racism and Islamophobia. Gruesome police violence against a Black music producer, Michel Zecler, last month reminded many of the everyday discrimination that minorities face when dealing with law enforcement. Macron was right to say the images “shame us.”

The government has announced efforts to promote “equality of chances” in education in the coming months. More could be done to fight discrimination in the job and housing markets and to confront the legacy of colonialism (which Macron, as a candidate, had denounced as a “crime against humanity”). Just as in the United States, France’s principles of neutrality and universalism too often remain an unrealized ideal.

Yet, the government’s current efforts are precisely about making those principles a reality for those barred by an extremist minority. France hosts today the largest Muslim and Jewish communities in Europe. It has been a welcoming land of immigration for over a century for many (including my own family). In recent years, a new political, economic, cultural French elite has emerged from these generations of immigrants, some claiming their Muslim faith, others preferring to live without it. Some of them, especially women, have been the strongest voices in the current fight against separatism. It is their integration, their success, that extremists are trying to stop. Well-intentioned critics who care about integration and tolerance in the French Republic should celebrate those voices, not the ones who are trying to stifle them.

Benjamin Haddad is the director of the Future Europe Initiative at the Atlantic Council.

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