The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, minced no words in his recent diatribe against his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron. “Macron needs mental treatment,” Erdoğan said. This blast from Ankara came in response to Macron’s announcement of a series of measures intended to “reform” the practice of Islam in France and end “Islamist separatism” – proof, to Erdoğan, that Macron had “a problem with Islam”.
Then, just five days later, on 29 October, a newly arrived Tunisian immigrant killed three Christians at prayer in Nice. France had yet again been the victim of “an Islamist terrorist attack,” Macron proclaimed. He did not need to remind his countrymen of the beheading of schoolteacher Samuel Paty by another immigrant, this one of Chechen descent, in broad daylight two weeks earlier, or of the prior stabbing of two people outside the former offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. The execution of Paty, the murders in Nice, and the Paris stabbings are just the latest in a series of attacks that have claimed the lives of 260 French citizens since 2012. No one can deny that France has a terrorism problem.
Erdoğan, keen to distract from Turkey’s economic difficulties, chose to characterise France’s defensive response as an attack on “millions of members from different faith groups.” But Erdoğan is hardly the only critic of France in the Islamic world. Demonstrations against France’s supposed “anti-Islamic” stance, as well as boycotts of French products, erupted in Bangladesh, Qatar, Lebanon, and other majority-Muslim countries.
For quite different reasons Macron is taking criticism from inside France as well. His critics on the right are portraying him as soft on terror. Christian Estrosi, the mayor of Nice, called for “changes to the constitution” to facilitate “waging war” on terror. With characteristic hyperbole, Éric Ciotti of the Republicans declared that “for the first time since the occupation, France is no longer free! Our country is at war! … We must annihilate the Islamists!”
Calls for a suspension of civil liberties, as in wartime, are growing louder by the day, despite the fact that sweeping powers accorded to the authorities in previous “temporary” states of emergency remain in effect. Yet such measures can do little to ferret out lone-wolf jihadists with no known connection to organised radical groups.
Meanwhile, critics on the left, such as Clémentine Autain, charge the French president with “trampling liberty and democracy underfoot”. But the left is hardly united in this view: the former Socialist prime ministers Bernard Cazeneuve and Manuel Valls believe that the far left, besotted by multiculturalism, blithely underestimates the Islamist threat. More strident critics accuse Autain and her allies in Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Unbowed party of “Islamo-leftism” and even “complicity” with jihadists.
On the far right, Marine Le Pen has gleefully congratulated Macron for accepting her “common sense” view of “Islamism” as the implacable enemy while accusing him of “mistaking saying for doing”. Cynics on all sides insist that Macron was aping Le Pen’s stance so as to steal her thunder should she mount another presidential challenge in 2022.
Yet Macron’s early October speech on “Islamist separatism” can hardly be characterised as Le Pen-inspired. He tried to trace a careful path through the ideological minefield, but emotions unleashed by the ensuing atrocities soon wrested control of the debate from his hands.
In truth, however, his attempt to frame the issue narrowly, as simply a matter of redrawing the line traced between religion and state by the French law of 1905, was never likely to succeed. As Jean Birnbaum explained in Le Monde: “It is impossible to understand jihadism without reasoning, as the jihadists do, on an international scale.” Macron did briefly evoke the global context of the struggle, but only to shift all responsibility to the Muslim side, describing Islam as a religion “in crisis”: “Tensions between fundamentalisms, between truly religious and political projects” were to blame, he argued, while saying nothing about the long history of conflict between the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds.
If Erdoğan was later able to grotesquely twist the French president’s words into an attack on Muslims generally, he was aided by the ambiguities of Macron’s all-too-cursory diagnosis. The disparity between the lofty rhetoric of Macron the political thinker and the more martial tones of the commander-in-chief also helped. The president exhorted his “defence council” that “Islamists must not be allowed to sleep tranquilly in this country.”
True, this change in tone came after Paty’s barbarous beheading, when emotions were running high, but Macron’s pugnacity tended to erase any goodwill he had previously earned with his frank recognition in the October speech that the Republic was not blameless in creating the dilemma it has been dealing with for decades: “We have constructed our own separatism,” he said, “in our neighbourhoods, creating ghettos, at the outset with the best intentions in the world – but we let it happen … We concentrated misery and difficulties, and we know it.”
When it came to proposing remedies, however, Macron played down France’s responsibility, perhaps because he had already rejected an ambitious approach that he himself had once advocated. Early in his presidency he had assigned Jean-Louis Borloo to look into the problems of France’s suburban ghettos only to dismiss the report submitted in 2018. He did briefly acknowledge one key element of the Borloo report, conceding that “radical change” was needed in France’s social housing.
He devoted much more attention, however, to the alleged shortcomings of Muslim schools and mosques, sports clubs, and fraternal circles, emphasising the kind of minutiae that the administrative state excels at regulating: foreign funding of Islamic schools would be cut off, French universities would train and license imams and teachers of Arabic, halal meals would be banned from school cafeterias, no municipality would be allowed to offer separate swim times for men and women in its pools, and home schooling would be prohibited.
Yet regardless of what such small-bore regulatory measures may accomplish, it is hard to believe that they will do much to advance the other aspects of Macron’s five-point programme, namely, to create an “enlightened Islam” in France and “to make the Republic once again beloved” by its citizens.
What Macron has failed to notice is that these two tenets stand in opposition to each other. To “enlighten” religion is to quench the passions of faith with cool reason, while inflaming patriotic passions with talk of war achieves precisely the opposite. The best way to defeat impassioned jihadists might just be to demonstrate by example that cooler heads can indeed prevail, even in the face of repeated provocation and jingoistic reaction.
The disjunction between the president’s philosophical flights and his more mundane regulatory agenda unfortunately leaves him defenceless against those who, like Ciotti, see no alternative to “annihilating” the enemy. But then again, with the passionate declaration écrasez l’infâme!, the enlightenment extolled by Macron had its own anti-religious war cry: “crush the vile thing”.
Arthur Goldhammer is a writer, translator, and senior affiliate of the Center for European Studies at Harvard University