Recent events in France have reinforced developments outlined in my article on Marine Le Pen and have further intensified the level of Islamophobia in French society.1 In October President Emmanuel Macron announced new legislation that will further demonise Muslims in France, signalling his strategy for the 2022 presidential election—to compete with Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (National Rally, RN) through a racist agenda.
Days after his speech a schoolteacher, Samuel Paty, was murdered in a horrific attack in the street after showing racist images from the Charlie Hebdo magazine in a class on “freedom of expression”. His killer, an 18 year old Chechen immigrant, was later shot dead by police. This attack was followed by another in Nice when three people were killed in a church by a refugee from Tunisia. The fact that both attackers were Muslim was seized upon by politicians and the media.
Macron has not only targeted Muslims in France but also provoked an international furore by claiming that Islam is “a religion in crisis all over the world”. Muslim leaders and politicians in Turkey, Iran, Qatar, Jordan, Kuwait and Pakistan denounced him, threatened boycotts of French goods, and tens of thousands took part in street protests. Of course Islamophobic views can be found within governments across Europe, including that of Britain’s prime minister, Boris Johnson. However, the French government is promoting the most extreme forms of Islamophobia in a country in which it is already deeply entrenched.
Macron is now using the shock after Paty’s murder and the events in Nice to ramp up his proposed legislation against France’s Muslims in the name of defending “French values” of freedom and laïcité (secularism). The government has launched a vicious crackdown on a wide range of Muslim groups, including mosques and other mainstream organisations. When Macron announced details of his bill in November he embedded the perception of Muslims as a suspect community. As part of shocking set of measures, Muslim leaders were told they must sign up to a “charter of republican values”. They will have to, for example, specify that Islam in France is a religion and not a political movement.2 Another section of the bill requires all school children to have ID numbers to control the level of home schooling, which Macron claims is a problem when carried out by Muslim families.
The events leading to Paty’s death unfolded after some Muslim parents complained about his use of racist caricatures from the magazine Charlie Hebdo as part of a civics class to show what was allowed in France. These images include cartoons of the prophet of Islam naked, on all fours and with a bomb tucked in his turban. The narrative that the promotion of “freedom of expression” and laïcité requires the use of images that gratuitously insult and dehumanise Muslims is so completely normalised that, despite the fact that it is not compulsory to use the Charlie Hebdo images in such classes, many do:
France’s national curriculum sets out the framework and directs teachers towards websites that suggest teaching materials and lesson plans. For lessons on freedom of expression for 13 year olds, the same class Paty had taught, the Charlie Hebdo cartoons are a common suggestion.3
Far from being a progressive policy associated with the separation of church and state, the defence of laïcité has become code for an Islamophobic agenda that gives license for attacks on Muslims. The result is that an already oppressed minority becomes even more victimised. Paty felt it was not only acceptable but necessary to show his class these images and defend them, despite knowing this would be deeply offensive to Muslim students, who he suggested could leave the classroom or look away. This is not to blame Paty for this state of affairs—the Charlie Hebdo images and the willingness to defend and display them have been elevated to become emblematic of “French values” and proof of your commitment to laïcité. Macron has declared, “We will not give up cartoons”, as if this is a courageous defence of high principles. After Paty’s death, leaders of 13 different regions in France announced they would publish them as booklets to circulate to high school students.4 The images were carried at gatherings to remember Paty and they were even projected onto town halls in the cities of Montpellier and Toulouse.
Socialists and anti-racists need to address the fact that the widespread use of such images and the smokescreen of progressive values that is spun around them means the demonisation of Islam and “othering” of Muslims is reaching new depths and Macron’s actions are pushing this agenda even further. Where is the outcry at Muslim students being forced to tolerate being taught to accept the promotion of racist caricatures in classes where they learn about what it means to be a French citizen? Macron expresses mistrust of the education Muslim children will have if they are home schooled, but is it surprising that some Muslim families would prefer their children did not have to attend school where the hijab is banned and their religion is singled out as a threat?
It is welcome that Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of La France Insoumise (France Unbowed), expressed opposition to use of laïcité to justify attacking Muslims when he announced his own bid for the presidential election. In a TV interview he said: “There is hatred toward Muslims under the guise of secularism in this country. Secularism does not mean to hate a religion.” However, this positive message was undermined by the fact that he had fed the racist reaction in the aftermath of Paty’s murder, stating: “I think there is a problem with the Chechen community in France.” This was a major concession to those seeking to push through the Islamophobic agenda and gaining in confidence. Despite this equivocation, Melanchon and others in his party and beyond who have spoken out against the stigmatising of Muslims have been attacked by the right and labelled “Islamogauchiste” (Islamoleftist), in an attempt to conflate the left with Islamists and with terrorism. French Minister of Education, Jean-Michel Blanquer, claimed anti-racist teaching was responsible for “conditioning” Paty’s killer, blaming “very powerful Islamoleftist currents in the sectors of higher education that are damaging people’s minds”. In a sign of the polarisation within education, 100 academics signed a “manifesto” supporting the minister’s attack on educators.5 In response anti-racist academics worldwide have drawn up an open letter in solidarity with anti-racist teachers in France, defending their right to educate students about racism and France’s colonial past.6
As I stated in my article in autumn’s issue of International Socialism, if the ruling class racist offensive goes unopposed it will be a gift to Marine Le Pen and the RN. It both legitimises her racism and allows her to push the agenda even further to the right. In the wake of the recent terror attacks, she demanded an end to immigration from countries that saw demonstrations against France “in the name of national security” and called for a nationwide ban on the wearing of Muslim headscarves in all public spaces. Macron’s interior minister Gérald Darmanin stated: “We’re at war, against an enemy who is both inside and outside”.7 Le Pen agrees but says the government is not being tough enough on Muslims: “The situation calls for a strategy of re-conquest”.8 Once again it is clear that pandering to the politics of Le Pen is a dangerous game, Macron may be motivated by trying to undercut Le Pen and her party for his own electoral gain, but his actions only succeed in giving her racist project even greater momentum.
Macron faces multiple problems, not least those resulting from France’s response to the pandemic and the state of the economy. He opened up a new front in November, which exposed his sheer hypocrisy about upholding freedom of speech. This much lauded “principle” only goes so far: his government has now proposed banning the use of “malicious” images of police officers. This move provoked demonstrations in Paris and other French cities, with protesters rightly pointing to how such a law could prevent the exposure of police violence and racism.9
Such mobilisations point to some of the social forces that have the potential to push back against Macron and Le Pen. They, alongside recent strikes and protests by health workers and teachers demanding better protection against Covid-19, reflect the deep tensions in French society. Macron’s strategy is to deflect this anger by demonising the Muslim population. The danger is that Le Pen will always outflank him on this political terrain, which only succeeds in dragging mainstream politics even further to the right. The only way to challenge these threats is for the left to stand shoulder to shoulder with Muslims facing racism and expose the sham that attacking Islam is in some way part of any progressive agenda, putting unequivocal opposition to Islamophobia at the centre of resistance.
Judith Orr is the author of Abortion Wars: The Fight for Reproductive Rights and Marxism and Women’s Liberation.
BBC News, 2020, “France’s Macron Asks Muslim Leaders to Back ‘Republican Values’ Charter” (20 November), https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-55001167
Corbet, Sylvie, 2020, “France: Bill on Publishing Police Images Sparks Protests” (21 November), https://apnews.com/article/paris-freedom-of-information-united-nations-france-c2459057a35984a81896b2d8f4db7530
Le Monde, 2020, “Une centaine d’universitaires alertent: Sur l’islamisme, ce qui nous menace, c’est la persistance du déni” (31 October), www.lemonde.fr/idees/article/2020/10/31/une-centaine-d-universitaires-alertent-sur-l-islamisme-ce-qui-nous-menace-c-est-la-persistance-du-deni_6057989_3232.html
Lentin, Alana, and others, 2020, “Open Letter: The Threat of Academic Authoritarianism—International Solidarity with Antiracist Academics in France” (5 November), www.opendemocracy.net/en/can-europe-make-it/open-letter-the-threat-of-academic-authoritarianism-international-solidarity-with-antiracist-academics-in-france
Onishi, Norimitsu and Constant Méheut, 2020, “France’s Hardening Defense of Cartoons of Muhammad Could Lead to ‘a Trap”, New York Times (30 October), www.nytimes.com/2020/10/30/world/europe/France-Muhammad-cartoons.html?auth=login-email&login=email&login=email&auth=login-email&login=smartlock&auth=login-smartlock
Orr, Judith, 2020, “The Many Faces of Marine Le Pen”, International Socialism 168 (autumn), https://isj.org.uk/many-faces-of-marine-le-pen
Pailliez, Caroline, 2020, “Beheading of Teacher Exposes Secular Divide in French Classrooms”, Reuters (22 October), https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-france-security-teachers/beheading-of-teacher-exposes-secular-divide-in-french-classrooms-idUKKBN2772LG
Vinocur, Nicholas, 2020, “Marine Le Pen Seeks Political Opening After Teacher’s Beheading in France”, Politico (19 October), www.politico.eu/article/marine-le-pen-sees-political-opening-after-teacher-beheading-in-france