Macron Wants to Start an Islamic Revolution
The French president is planning to curb the influence of extremist clerics—but his critics see something more sinister.
On Friday, French President Emmanuel Macron unveiled his plan to tackle what he termed Islamist separatism, with the dual objectives of healing social divisions and fighting violent extremism. He is not the first French president to promise a new French Islam; successive governments have done so since the 1980s. But Macron, who took office in 2017 following two years of bloody terror attacks in France and is now heading into a 2022 election campaign, wants to succeed where his predecessors have failed.
In a country that holds a strict vision of secularism, or laïcité, at the heart of its national identity, and where controversies over Islam are a fixture of daily life—from interminable controversies over the hijab to a recent fixation on alleged polygamy—top-down attempts to manage religion are a tough sell. Critics say Macron’s proposed law, which French parliament will begin debating in December, will alienate some of France’s estimated 6 million Muslims; others point to thorny legal issues that will complicate its implementation.
Macron’s plan focuses on limiting foreign influence and investing in a new generation of French imams, with a certification process based in France. Because laïcité bars the state from interfering with religious affairs, France has relied on what’s known as “consular Islam” to manage Muslim institutions. Algeria finances the Grand Mosque of Paris, for example, which distributes funds to affiliated mosques across the country. Turkey, Algeria, and Morocco have exported imams to France; in 2015, then-President François Hollande signed a deal with the Moroccan monarchy to train French imams at a center in Rabat. Turkey, in particular, has invested in religious and cultural organizations across France, particularly under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
These foreign entanglements have created a crisis of both representation and legitimacy. France’s Islamic institutions do not reflect its diverse Muslim communities, which make up nearly 9 percent of the population. And Macron’s government argues that external influence has opened the doors to radical ideas that have led to repeated terror attacks. The president’s vision, then, is largely ideological: His project, he said, would foster an “Islam of the Enlightenment” that is “compatible with the values of the Republic”—without exactly defining what that would entail.
Although Macron stressed that his focus was on “radical Islamism,” not the faith in general, he went on to call Islam “a religion that is in crisis all over the world,” angering some French Muslims. “The governments change, but the obsessions remain,” read a statement signed by 100 Muslim academics, activists, and others in the left-leaning news site Médiapart. “More than the necessity to fight terrorism as a criminal phenomenon, President Macron is today participating, with his speech, in constructing a Muslim problem, targeting all believers and their faith.”
“Macron was supposed to talk about separatisms, plural, but he only focused on Islam,” said Rim-Sarah Alouane, a PhD candidate focusing on religious freedom and civil liberties in France and North Africa. The very idea of “separatist behavior,” she added, risks to “open up a Pandora’s box of bigotry,” particularly in a society that is often divided over what constitutes a display of radicalism. “My question is, where do we draw the line?” Alouane asked. “If a Muslim woman wears a hijab, is it a form of separatism? For some, it is.”
But Tareq Oubrou, the Grand Imam of Bordeaux, whom the president has consulted in recent years, disagreed that Macron used stigmatizing rhetoric. “He avoided any amalgam between radical Islamism and the Muslim population,” Oubrou said, though noted that the notion of radicalism is “not very well defined” and can be difficult to distinguish from “orthodox practices of the religion.”
The centerpiece of Macron’s proposal is to certify and train imams in France. The proposed measures also included offering Arabic instruction in public schools, tightening control on private religious education, limiting home schooling, and cracking down on speech or activities that contradict so-called Republican values such as gender-segregated hours at municipal swimming pools. Taken together, Macron’s ideas raised eyebrows. “It’s a comprehensive institutional framework to control and regulate Islam, with a clear repressive drive,” said Marwan Muhammad, a prominent Muslim activist and the former president of an anti-discrimination group called the Collective Against Islamophobia in France.
Alouane echoed that sentiment. “The vast majority of Muslims here live their lives and pay their taxes, and where is their say in this? It’s very funny for a country that isn’t supposed to interfere with religion to find so many different ways to control it.”
The speech, she added, seemed like an attempt to distract the public. “Macron was letting us know he wants the presidential election to be about security, immigration, and Islam, when it should be about the economy, the dismantlement of public services, and the poor management of the COVID-19 crisis.” Indeed, France saw a record number of Covid-19 cases last week, and this week imposed new lockdown measures across the country.
Beyond the rhetorical implications of Macron’s plan, much of what he envisions will be difficult to implement, precisely because of the secular values he repeatedly defended throughout his speech. The 1905 Separation of Church and State law that underpins laïcité explicitly bars the state from interfering with private religious affairs.
“That’s the paradox: to defend secularism with a plan based on the state’s intervention in religion,” said Olivier Roy, a scholar of religion and a professor at the European University Institute in Florence. “That’s why, for so many years, nothing has been done.”
Because the state itself can’t certify imams, for example, Macron would likely empower the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM)—created by then-Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy in 2003—to do so.
But empowering the CFCM would go against Macron’s stated objective of creating a French Islam in the place of a foreign-influenced one. Only a third of French Muslims have even heard of the CFCM, according to a 2016 survey; those who have criticize its opaque leadership structure and close ties to foreign powers. “The CFCM was a forced institution that created a foreign Islam in France—a Turkish-Maghrebi Islam,” Oubrou said last year. For Muhammad, the problem runs deeper: “The main criticism isn’t that the CFCM represents foreign countries, it’s that they’ve failed French Muslims altogether,” notably in failing to criticize laws and policies that he says discriminate against Islam.
“The state can’t create the ‘good’ Islam, so the CFCM will have to do it,” Roy explained. “The CFCM will be perceived as an extension of the state—even more than it has always been.”
“What’s absent from this project,” he added, “is the basic Muslim citizen, who goes to mosque, and we’re not giving them the choice—we’re not letting them choose their own imam. We don’t impose a certain rabbi on Jews, or a certain pastor on Christians.”
On top of the credibility issue comes an implementation problem: The state cannot force Muslims to exclusively attend sermons by “certified” imams. “That would be anti-constitutional, and it’d be shut down immediately at the European Court of Human Rights,” said Roy.
Although Macron’s entire plan focuses on Islam exclusively, any eventual legislation would need to apply to all religions; the 1905 law stipulates that all religions have equal footing before the law.
“The law needs to address all forms of separatism, and be rational and universal, not against one community,” Oubrou said, even if, in application, “its primary focus is on radical Islamism.”
But if French Muslims find that, in practice, the law is used to disproportionately target Muslims, that could also lead to court battles. When it comes to monitoring private religious education, for example, any scrutiny applied to Muslim schools—on gender segregation, respect of the national curriculum, or hate speech—would have to apply to Catholic and Jewish schools, too, in order to be consistent with the text and spirit of the 1905 law.
That Macron’s law would restrict all religions, and not just Islam, hasn’t been lost on his political rivals. In a communiqué released after his speech, the far-right National Rally called it “regrettable that in the name of the fight against radical Islamism, the French will be obligated to curb their freedoms, notably those of parents,” referring to the measures on home schooling and private religious instruction. The center-right Republicans, praising some of the plan, argued it didn’t go far enough, and called for a crackdown on immigration. The left, in contrast, attacked Macron’s focus on Islam as the only form of “separatism” plaguing French society.
The political reactions to Macron’s plans are another example that his touted radical centrism—marked by a habit of making divergent promises “en même temps,” or at the same time—has failed to expand his electoral reach.
“For 20 years, presidents have tried to take votes from the Front National,” said Roy, referring to the far-right party that in 2018 changed its name to the National Rally. “And it’s been 20 years that they’ve failed.” In the past few months, Macron has doubled down on security and identity issues, hoping to attract right-leaning voters ahead of the 2022 vote, where he is expected to face far-right leader Marine Le Pen. (The two are neck-to-neck in a recent survey).
“The problem is, Macron’s attempts at centrism are rejected by all sides,” Roy said.
That dynamic was on display in Macron’s nod to France’s own role in contemporary divisions—an olive branch to progressives. (In turn, Macron’s past recognitions of France’s colonial legacy, first on the campaign trail in 2017, and repeatedly throughout his presidency, have generated outcry from the right). “We have built this separatism ourselves, it’s in our communities and their ghettoization,” he said on Friday, highlighting enduring tensions around France’s colonial past. “We have built concentrations of poverty and problems,” and “created areas where the promises of the Republic have not been fulfilled.”
Few dispute the massive disparities in wealth and opportunity that plague French immigrant communities—and nowhere are they more present than in the banlieues, the suburbs of major cities, where unemployment is often double the national average, and social services are sparse. But in attempting to win over progressives, Macron unintentionally drew attention to what many on the left say is a primary failing of his presidency: social policy. Early on, Macron earned the moniker “president of the rich” thanks to his pro-business agenda and decision to scrap a wealth tax. For the banlieues in particular, he has done little to reduce residential segregation or improve economic prospects.
“Words don’t cost much, as Macron has consistently given up on the banlieues,” Muhammad said. “He never acknowledged police violence” and “constantly opted for corporate interests, at the expense of social initiatives, whether it be education, health and housing plans. His policies contradict his words.”
But Macron is far more concerned with attracting voters on the right than on the left in the lead-up to 2022. In a Cabinet reshuffle in July, he appointed a conservative, tough-on-crime interior minister; in recent months his government has continued to denounce rising insecurity, even as crime rates remain stable, or even in decline, across the country.
Macron also gave his speech against the backdrop of the ongoing trial over the 2015 attack at Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine where extremists opened fire in retaliation for cartoonists’ depiction of the Prophet Muhammad. And it followed an attack late last month, when a young Pakistani migrant stabbed passersby near the magazine’s offices, purportedly for the same reason.
Although Macron sees his Islam of the Enlightenment, divorced from foreign influence, as a bulwark against Islamic extremism, France’s recent experiences with terrorism challenge that assumption. The perpetrators of the vast majority of attacks weren’t foreign infiltrators but French nationals, and more often had a history of petty crime than religious zealotry. Many would-be terrorists are radicalized online or outside of religious settings; experts have consistently pointed to a home-grown violent Salafism that shutting France’s borders to foreign imams will do little to solve. “Often the most radical imams are born in France,” Oubrou said, describing a phenomenon of “self-proclaimed imams who, in perfect French, diffuse fanatical ideas.”
Roy, who has long argued that social policy—not theological battles—are needed to fight extremism, argued that Macron’s plan stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of religion.
“We’re acting as if religion is a passive receptacle, and all we have to do is change the preacher to change the religion, and to change the believer,” he said. “But that’s not how it works.”