France’s War on Islamism Isn’t Populism. It’s Reality.
Liberal critics of Emmanuel Macron’s campaign against radicalism misunderstand the crisis his country faces.
Last Thursday, three French citizens were brutally killed in a church in Nice, one of them a woman whose throat was slit. This gruesome act, coming barely two weeks after the beheading of Samuel Paty, a history teacher who showed his class cartoons from the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo to illustrate the concept of freedom of speech, has reawakened France to the reality of Islamist terrorism. Since 2012, more than 260 people of all backgrounds have died in terrorist attacks: in a Jewish school, at the Charlie Hebdo headquarters, in a concert hall, in the streets of Nice, in churches, and in police street patrols.
Yet when looking at some of the coverage of the most recent attacks in the United States, and the reaction from leaders like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the culprit is France itself. French President Emmanuel Macron’s vow to fight “Islamist separatism” has been treated as its own act of barbarism. Most French citizens, however, aware of the reality on the ground, recognize this fight as necessary and overdue.
In the latest of a series of personal attacks against the French president, Erdogan claimed that “Macron needed mental treatment” for his response to the attack. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan asserted on Twitter that Macron’s words encouraged “Islamophobia,” while Mahathir Mohamad, the former prime minister of Malaysia, upped the ante by commenting that Muslims have a right to “kill millions of French people” in reaction to the “disrespect” they suffered. Some of the U.S. media coverage seems to take at face value the opportunistic accusations of illiberal leaders such as Erdogan. One article spoke grandiloquently of a “crackdown on Islam,” and the initial headline on a New York Times piece about Paty’s killing was “French Police Shoot and Kill Man After a Fatal Knife Attack on the Street.”
As France mourns its victims, its fight against terrorism and radicalism deserves more understanding and solidarity.
The coverage has puzzled if not angered French observers. An op-ed in Le Monde denounced a “disconcerting American blindness when it comes to jihadism in France.” Macron’s measures have frequently been analyzed through the prism of domestic electoral politics as allegedly trying to co-opt the far-right. But this analysis represents a gross misunderstanding of the French political reality. A recent poll on the upcoming French presidential election in 2022 shows a situation eerily similar to the one that prevailed in 2017, when Macron roundly defeated Marine Le Pen in the second round. The vast majority of French citizens feel deep concern over the situation. According to a IFOP survey last month, 89 percent of respondents considered the terrorist threat to be “high,” 87 percent that “secularism is in danger,” and 79 percent that “Islamism has declared war on the nation and the Republic.” Are these all National Rally voters?
While pointing to a “crisis” within Islam, Macron was careful to distinguish the majority of French Muslims living and observing peacefully from the radical minority that poses a threat. The comparisons with far-right rhetoric, which precisely refuses to make such distinctions, thus completely miss the point. For many French liberals, this fight is not easily separable from the one against the far-right—both are a defense of liberal democratic values against illiberal ideologies. French Justice Minister Éric Dupond-Moretti thus dismissed calls for emergency measures coming from the National Rally, insisting that the rule of law was the only possible solution.
Outsiders also misunderstand the situation on the ground in France as it deals with radical Islamism. After the recent attacks, the government chose to close a mosque and an NGO suspected of ties with radical groups. But more consequential legislative action was initiated this fall, when the French government proposed a bill seeking to fight “separatism.” Building on months of dialogue with religious organizations like the French Council of the Muslim Faith, Macron suggested stemming foreign funding for mosques and the training of imams, aiming to instead privilege domestic training of religious scholars in accordance with democratic values.
The term “separatism” was chosen concertedly. Scholars such as Gilles Kepel, who has been influential in Macron’s thinking, have documented that France faces a struggle with Islamism that extends beyond terrorism. The deeper societal challenge involves the growing influence of radical groups in certain neighborhoods that exist outside the state’s purview, a countersociety that operates at the expense of women, LGBT people, Jews, and many others. Kepel’s book Terror in France recounts the trajectory of figures like Mohammed Merah, the terrorist who killed seven people, including three Jewish children, in Toulouse in 2012. At the time, Merah was seen as the ultimate “lone wolf,” a former petty criminal-turned-radical, acting on his own, without receiving orders from an organized terrorist network such as al Qaeda or the Islamic State. But years of investigations showed a different picture from the convenient lone-wolf narrative. Merah was socialized in a radical ideology that was the norm in his direct environment. From his family to his friends to his mosque (that Islamic State leaders Fabien and Jean-Michel Clain also attended), Merah’s ideological surroundings laid the groundwork for his radicalism. Rather than look at individual profiles and the psychological underpinnings of radicalism, the French government wants to tackle the ecosystems that have allowed them to prosper.
All this adds to many reports over the years of growing pressure on teachers trying to teach about the Holocaust, sex education, or even basic biology. In 2002, a book written by a collective of high school professors, The Lost Territories of the Republic, warned of alarming sexism and anti-Semitism in the French banlieues. A female professor interviewed by the Financial Times last month reported: “I don’t feel safe. If I have to show a film with a nude scene or a couple embracing, there’d be shouting, and not just the normal teenage stuff, real aggression, kids saying, ‘This is not OK. It’s not allowed.’” Male physicians have been put under pressure to avoid attending to female patients alone. Mayors have come under criticism for acceding to demands from religious groups for separate hours for women in public swimming pools. More recently, a group of Sorbonne scholars (a university not known for its far-right activism to say the least) led by Bernard Rougier published a series of empirical studies titled Territories Conquered by Islamism, warning that “Islamist networks have managed to build enclaves at the heart of popular neighborhoods.” Jews, who represent 1 percent of the French population but are disproportionally targeted by hate crimes (about 40 percent of attacks most years), have largely deserted these areas in the last decade.
According to the jihadism scholar Hugo Micheron, currently at Princeton University, about 2,000 French individuals are considered to represent a direct jihadi threat; another 20,000 are monitored by French intelligence as potential accomplices; and a third, much larger group is influenced by Salafi ideals and is at threat of breaking away from French society. This third group is the one targeted by the new policy on separatism. Micheron quotes an influential 2016 study by Hakim El Karoui at the centrist think tank Institut Montaigne, estimating that 28 percent of self-declared French Muslims are seen as “secessionist,” according to which Islam becomes a means of self-assertion against French society. Similarly, according to the respected pollster Jérôme Fourquet, the author of the bestselling book French Archipelago, around 750,000 individuals show sympathy for radical ideology.
Could France do a better job at integrating its largest minority and dealing with issues of racism and discrimination? Yes, it certainly could. Discrimination in the job and housing markets, as well as hate speech against Muslims, is a serious problem that French society must address. And as Macron noted in his speech several weeks ago: “We built a concentration of misery and difficulties. We concentrated populations according to origin and social milieu. …We created neighborhoods where the promise of the Republic was never kept and where these most radical forms [of Islamism] became sources of hope.” Some of the rhetoric from Macron’s own government hasn’t been helpful either. Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, himself of North African heritage, criticized large corporations for acceding to identity politics by having separate kosher and halal aisles.
But blaming the French state for the attacks and the rise of radicalism shows a dangerous moral confusion. Nor is secularism to blame here. While French secularism laws prohibit “ostentatious” religious signs (such as hijabs, kippas, or large crosses) in schools and state buildings, Paty’s killing and the new wave of attacks are linked to the Charlie Hebdo cartoons and most recently to the trials of the accomplices of the 2015 attacks. Whatever one thinks of the magazine—which regularly mocks all religions, the far-right, or any politician for that matter—its staff is entitled, in a liberal democracy, to draw cartoons without being murdered. Besides, secularism or not, France is not alone in this fight. While France harbors the largest Muslim population in Europe, Belgium, Denmark, and Sweden, none of them harbingers of laïcité, have sent higher proportions of foreign fighters to Syria. Terrorist attacks have struck Germany, the United Kingdom, Belgium, and others. France is at the forefront of a deeper battle striking major European societies.
A key fact often overlooked in this context is the diversity of France’s 5 million Muslims, of their political opinions, and of their religious practice. In public service, in the business community, in journalism, and in politics, a new generation of French citizens of multiple religious, ethnic, and social backgrounds are making a name for themselves. They often don’t want their public or political identities to be conferred by their religion. Other French people carry their religious identity more visibly, and that’s their full right, even if it is not always well received in a deeply secular, even atheist society. It is paradoxical that so many news outlets in the world claim to care for Muslims in France without giving a voice to the different opinions they have or even speaking with them. It is up to them, not Erdogan or Khan, to speak for their identity. Meanwhile, denouncing policies targeting Islamists as “Islamophobia” bundles all Muslims together with the radical minority that is precisely attempting to prevent their integration with society as a whole. It’s a trap.
To name things wrongly is to add to the world’s misery, Albert Camus said. In 2017, after Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, after two years of terrorist attacks and structural economic difficulties, the French electorate chose to resoundingly defeat the far-right and opt for a centrist, pro-European government. Today France is the front line of another fight against illiberalism, and it is leading that fight with the same values. It deserves better than denial and accusations from its friends.