French President Emmanuel Macron does not shy away from confrontations or controversies. His sometimes brutal exchanges with US President Donald Trump, among others, have been testimony to a man who often says what he thinks without equivocation.
Such words have sometimes got him into trouble, however, as for example when he described the NATO alliance as “brain dead”. Many Western leaders called on him to use his words more carefully, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a staunch ally, said that she disagreed with the French president.
Macron was also attacked by political opponents for describing French people as “Gauls who are resistant to change” during a trip to Denmark. Addressing a gathering of French expatriates, Macron expressed his admiration for Denmark’s economic model before lamenting France’s resistance to it.
The Nordic system, which combines a welfare state with a flexible labour market where it is easier to hire and fire, has in part inspired Macron’s loosening of French labour laws. But the French president said cultural differences between the “Lutheran” Danes and the French “Gauls” had made it difficult to adopt the Nordic system in France.
Macron now finds himself in the eye of another storm after he declared Islam to be “a religion that is in crisis all over the world” during a speech last week whose primary goal was to send a message to the Muslims of France that greater integration was the answer to their problems and announcing plans to promote integration to end social and cultural Muslim “ghettos” in the country.
Macron’s speech was designed to address a deep-rooted problem in French society: its difficulty integrating significant parts of its large, non-white, Muslim population of immigrants and their descendants.
Many French Muslims agreed with Macron’s plans, even if they criticised some of his words. In remarks delivered in the Paris suburb of Les Mureaux, Macron said Islam was a religion in crisis worldwide, even in countries where it was the majority religion, because of “tensions between fundamentalism and political projects… that lead to very strong radicalisation.”
He said that in France there was a “parallel society” of radical Muslims outside the values of the French nation. Macron used the term “separatism” to describe an underworld in some neighbourhoods in France where Muslims with a radical vision of their religion allegedly take control of the local population to inculcate their beliefs.
Macron also stressed in his speech that stigmatising French Muslims would be falling into a “trap” laid by radicals. He emphasised that the French state shared in the blame for this so-called “separatism”, saying that “we ourselves have built our own separatism, that of our neighbourhoods. This is the ghettoisation that our republic, initially with the best intentions in the world, allowed to take place.”
He noted that France’s concentration of populations into districts according to their origins and religion also concentrated educational and economic difficulties. Macron said that where France’s secular society had failed Muslim youth, radicals had stepped in.
He stressed the importance of schools in instilling secular values in young people and said that his government would require private schools to agree to teach them. Beginning next year, with few exceptions, the 50,000 French children currently being educated at home would be required to attend school with their fellow students, he said.
The government would present legislation in December to “reinforce secularism and consolidate republican principles”, Macron said.
The proposed bill, which would go before parliament early next year, would require all children from the age of three to attend school and allow home-schooling only for medical reasons. NGOs that receive state funding would be made more accountable for their spending and their personnel, and they would be forced to reimburse any misused funds.
Macron called France’s schools “the heart of secularism [where] children become citizens”. The bill will include additional educational funding.
The proposed measures also address France’s mosques, which Macron said were sometimes subject to “hostile takeovers”, as well as imams, with the aim of keeping places of prayer and preachers out of the control of people who use religion for their own ends.
“In a few days, you may see radical Islamists... take control of associations [running mosques] and all their finances. That won’t happen again,” the French president said. “We’re going to install an anti-putsch system, very robust, in the law,” Macron said without elaborating.
The bill, which is to be sent to religious leaders in France for review this month, also includes putting an end to the long-standing French practice of importing imams from other countries, notably Turkey, Algeria, and Morocco, instead of training them in France. A French Muslim organisation that serves as an interlocutor to France’s political leaders is to take part in the project.
For Macron, a “perverse version” of the Muslim religion has penetrated French society, including public services like the transport system. He said that some bus drivers in France had been known to bar women with short skirts from getting aboard.
The proposed law would also ban “certificates of virginity” provided by doctors to some Muslim women ahead of marriage. Macron, who has made gender equality a priority of his presidency, said the documents were “offensive to women’s dignity”.
He said the fight would be long because “what took decades to build won’t be put down in a day.” But some in France’s Muslim community, Europe’s largest with up to five million members in a country where Islam is the second religion, worry that the new law could deepen anti-Islamic sentiments.
Many also criticised the use of the word “separatism”, warning that this could increase abuse against them. The rector of the Paris Mosque, Chems-Eddine Hafiz, said there was a danger of a slippery slope in using a word like “separatism” since it could mix all Muslims in France with the “separatism question”.
“For those who let it be believed that Islam is Islamism, and the reverse, there is indeed a distinction between the Muslim religion and the Islamist ideology,” he wrote in the French newspaper Le Monde. However, he also put his support behind the initiative, on condition that it was not used as a publicity gimmick to boost Macron’s political fortunes.
Macron has been pushing for a “French Islam” for years, and the proposed law may give him the powers to see it happen. But he will need more than legal powers if he is to succeed in bringing French Muslims with him.
Muslims in France are not characterised by religion only, as there are also economic and educational gaps, cultural isolation, and a lack of opportunities for social mobility.
There is little doubt that in many Muslim neighbourhoods in France, religion may play a role in promoting a discourse of victimisation, but the exploitation of religion by some radicals should not diminish the impact of economic and social conditions in promoting the phenomenon of ghettos and the lack of civil and political participation.
In 2019, research conducted for the German Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Religion Monitor confirmed widespread mistrust towards Muslims across Europe. In Germany and Switzerland, every second respondent in the survey said they perceived Islam to be a “threat”.
In the UK, two in five people share this perception. In Spain and France, about 60 per cent of those surveyed thought Islam was incompatible with the “West”. In Austria, one in three did not want to have Muslim neighbours.
As a result, few people would disagree with Macron that there is a “Muslim problem” in Europe that needs to be solved, though that problem may be with European attitudes rather than with Muslims themselves. The solution also cannot be new legislation alone, and there must be provision made for honest talk.
For years, many European Muslims have called for replacing the term “Islamophobia” with “racism against Muslims”. The logic has been that because there is no specific legal definition of “Islamophobia”, many forms of hatred of Islam and racism against Muslims go without legal challenge.
As a result, Macron’s ambitious plans can only solve part of the problem. The other part lies in combating European hostility towards Islam and Muslims.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly