The Elysee Palace is not the only place in France which views the reaction to the brutal Islamist attacks on French soil by countries such as Turkey, Iran and Pakistan as perverse and wounding. The majority of French people share the dismay of their president, including the many French citizens who are Muslim. Anger at what is widely seen as foreign interference in French affairs and the lack of appreciation in places such as Turkey of the shock of France having a teacher beheaded in the street is all the greater as many French people note that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has nothing to say about the brutal persecution of Muslim Uyghurs in China.
Accusing France of being systematically Islamophobic is wrong. Intermarriage between French citizens who are Muslim and who are not is frequent, increasing numbers of people of North African origin are joining the middle class and becoming senior managers, indeed ministers. Yet the level of unemployment among the unqualified category of the population is shocking. It equals 35% of those between the ages of 16 and 24 overall, a percentage that is multiplied by two among those whose parents are Muslim immigrants. Discrimination in employment gives the lie to the two last words “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité,” which are inscribed on the front of every town hall in France. People who are marginalised and discriminated against become petty criminals. Islamist terrorism is but the latest manifestation of what has become a parallel society. It is not for no reason that the poor suburbs of Paris are called “the lost territories of the republic.”
Until now, France has been largely united in its response to Islamist terrorism. That unity is beginning to fracture as a growing number of French people from all walks of life tire of “the war against radical Islamism” decreed by the government, which carries the risk of being interpreted as a war against Islam. Macron’s recent declaration that “fear will change sides” leaves many French people, including those on the moderate right, deeply apprehensive. This malaise is not reflected in the media, which is shamelessly hunting with the wolves.
In 2012, three years before the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo, the satirical paper which was the first in France to publish cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed, one of France’s most respected cartoonists, George Wolinski, who was Jewish and who died in the 2015 attack on the same paper, wondered if “we were unconscious and stupid and took an unnecessary risk. For years, for decades even, we have provoked and one day provocation would turn against us.”
The journalist Delfeil de Ton remarked that such cartoons played straight into “the stupid arguments of clash of civilisations” and sought to set the attacks in the broader framework of conflicts French troops engaged in across the Muslim world. “Why,” he asked, “was a republic so proud of being secular involved in conflicts where both sides ‘brandish the scimitar in one hand, the Coran on the other?”.
It is worth remembering that when the Danish daily Jyllands Posten became the first European newspaper to publish cartoons depicting the prophet, less than three months after the terrorist attacks on the London underground in 2005, French President Jacques Chirac and US President Bill Clinton condemned what they saw as an abuse of the freedom of speech and of the respect towards religious feelings. The French philosopher and former conservative education minister Luc Ferry was clear when he said that “one is not obliged to show cartons which are quasi-pornographic to teach freedom of expression.” How can the ministry of education consider such cartoons “pedagogical”?
That said, political cartoons have a historical pedigree in France that they do not have in other western democracies. Over the years, the Catholic church has not been spared. If the cartoons of the prophet were photographs, they would be considered pornographic. To portray Mohammed naked on all fours in the position his followers use to pray is calculated to shock millions of Muslim, irrespective of whether they are encouraged by populist leaders like Erdogan or not.
The question of whether it is judicious to treat these cartoons as the litmus test of freedom of expression is another matter. France has its own definition of secularism which differs markedly from that of most other Western countries, but the question worth asking is whether the militant spirit of “laicité” defended by many in the political class is in keeping with the 1905 law which separated church from state. Nowhere do we hear the voice of those French Muslims for whom the recent string of murders is abhorrent and have only contempt for the insults which the Turkish president hurls at Macron but feel insulted by the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. Extremist views confront each other in the media to the virtual exclusion of any expression of more nuanced debate. Some of France’s greatest academic thinkers on Islam and Middle East history are nowhere to be seen.
Macron defends freedom of speech and the right to blasphemy. But the 1881 law on press freedom is also very clear in its condemnation of defamation. The president describes Islam as “a religion which is undergoing a crisis everywhere in the world,” an uncomfortable truth many Muslims are not free to discuss because they live in countries where freedom of expression does not exist or where they have to abide by the undeclared rules of societies that are not comfortable questioning the status of the faith.
However well-intentioned, his remark begs a question. Do Western leaders hold the moral high ground which would allow them to make such pronouncements? Despite their lofty justifications, the military interventions of Western powers in the Middle East and North Africa, notably in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, have ended in abysmal failure. In the North African country where France took the lead, intervention has led to chaos. The ill-conceived Libya campaign has very much contributed to the destablisation of the Sahel, leading to further French military interventions. In such a context, Macron’s remarks sound clumsy.
Let us be clear: Islamophobia does not “characterise” French society. France treats its citizens infinitely better than countries such as Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. Its historians and politicians — notably Macron where France’s painful history in Algeria is concerned — are no longer shy to confront past colonial history. Can the same be said of Erdogan, who refuses to recognise the genocide of Armenians? The demagoguery of a man who puts tens of thousands of his own citizens behind bars and treats his Kurdish citizens with brutality is clear for all to see.
Navigating these treacherous waters is no easy matter. Macron knows full well that the political forces which applauded the cartoons of the prophet when they were first published were on the extreme right – led by Jean-Marie Le Pen, who has been succeeded by his daughter Marine. Something is seriously amiss, surely, when cartoonists who claim to be on the extreme left find themselves the darlings of the extreme right. The French president has his eye on the next presidential election but by endorsing some of the language of the extreme right, he risks losing his soul. Underestimating the treacherous echo chamber which thrives on the complex links which tie Islamist terrorist attacks on French soil to the unresolved issues of social integration in France and unresolved crisis in the Middle East risks bringing more grief to France.