CN: Islamophobia, xenophobia
Don’t be misled by the French liberal outrage at Eric Zemmour. The foundations of his presidential campaign, swollen with the pus of supremacist yearnings and anti-Muslim intent, were laid long ago when a dangerous rhetoric was co-opted by the very voices now denouncing his campaign. The process of legitimising some of the most base impulses of Western society, including the orientalisation of Muslims as a backward people, was sanctioned by the uppermost echelons of Macron’s administration, as well as his supporters.
So while liberal feminists post topless photos in protest of Zemmour’s nauseating misogyny, and French government ministers frantically insist he be starved of media attention, one must remember that many of these voices have defended their own assortment of nationalist dog whistles in the past.
Macron’s political rhetoric, shifting ever rightward since his election in 2017, must be held responsible for the normalisation of the raw hatred for Islam embodied by Zemmour. Instead of zapping the spectre of Islamophobia that has haunted French politics since the second half of the twentieth century, Macron chose the ‘enlightened’ path of appeasement.
Et voilà, a short five years later and the top three presidential challengers are those whose manifestos contain explicitly anti-Islam policy.
Appeasing tyranny, or tyranny itself
Macron’s government has actively chosen the path of appeasement when it comes to Islamophobia. By now this fact should be no point of contention. After the 2020 government reshuffle, it became abundantly clear that Macron had decided to seize on the rightward shift in the electorate, a response to his party’s abysmal scoring in the municipal elections that summer.
Almost immediately, his new Minister Delegate for Citizenship (attached to the Minister of the Interior) Marlène Schiappa took to the press to laud a new set of policies aimed at protecting French women from foreign aggressors. The word ‘foreign’ was to be understood literally: any non-national arrested for violence against a (French) woman was to be expelled. If anyone doubted the increasing whiff of nationalism, they need only refer to Schiappa’s own remarks: this was a ‘reconquête républicaine’, a ‘republican recapture’.
Mais non, we could not possibly assume that an issue as pressing as women’s safety could be hijacked as a guise for nationalist dog whistles … could we?
The waft of nationalist discourse soon turned into a stench. By October that year, the President himself had taken the opportunity to announce to French Muslims that ‘Islam is a religion experiencing a crisis’. A just response to terrorist attacks, his supporters say. Not to be confused with an attack on Islam, Macron’s ministers and their supporters assured critics that government policy has only been concerned with one ever-elusive enemy: l’Islam politique.
‘Political Islam’. No matter how many times you repeat the term, it doesn’t become any less ambiguous. This hasn’t stopped Macron from exploiting its usage for his own political gain. He describes this phenomenon as an ‘endogenous terrorism’, taking ‘hybrid forms’ including ‘networks of a radical Islam [that] are financially organised in tandem with drugs, in concert with an economy that fuels them’. How curious, then, that among the measures introduced to combat this nefarious Islamic nexus that is miraculously both ‘imported’ and ‘endogenous’, Macron should include a crackdown on halal menus in public institutions.
Perhaps he was persuaded by his own Minister of Interior, Gérald Darmanin, who has publicly expressed his alarm at the sight of ‘halal and kosher aisles’ in supermarkets. Remember: this is a fight against ‘political Islam’.
The key tenet of the Macronist argument for such stringent measures has been the defence of France’s ‘laïcité’ – secularism. France’s sociopolitical institutions have been built on the back of multiple revolutions in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Over a hundred years following the revolution of 1789, a bitterly divided French political elite passed a law separating Church from State. This powerful fabric of France’s national identity is one that should be studied in seriousness. For understanding the roots of France’s secularism quickly exposes the untruths peddled by today’s mainstream politicians in its name.
The 1905 law: liberal and tolerant
By the 1890s, the Troisième République had already become a battleground between those who wanted to strip the Catholic Church of its stronghold on society, and those who believed in social order as it was. These two loosely-held factions (each themselves an amalgamation of groups, often consisting of various parties and political fissures) came into conflict when a French-Jewish officer, Alfred Dreyfus, was wrongly tried and sentenced for German espionage in 1894.
While Dreyfus was eventually pardoned and reinstated into the army in 1906, his ‘Affaires’ had significant political consequences for France. The debates that surrounded Dreyfus’ trials and initial sentences had further polarised the French political elite.
Within the pro-republican sector of French politics was a virulent strand of anticlericalism that saw its representation in the legislature increase dramatically in both the 1898 and 1902 elections. The lines of French politics had been redrawn: you either believed in the rule of law (and therefore that Dreyfus should get a fair trial, regardless of the consequences to the army’s reputation), or you believed in the supremacy of national institutions, including the army and the Church.
The rhetorical momentum was with the radical anticlericals, who were pushing for full separation of Church and State. In 1901 the radical leader Émile Combes would push through a law that banned religious schools and liquidated the Church’s assets.
However, by 1905, the year French would formally separate Church from State, the political pendulum had swung away from Combe’s radicals. With Combes stripped of his majority, a moderate administration began work on a bill that could formalise the inevitable shift to secularism whilst cauterising the wounds that Combe’s radical government had inflicted on religious communities.
The man in charge of the parliamentary commission was Aristide Briand. Though he had started out a fervent socialist, his politics by 1905 were far removed from his revolutionary beginnings. Indeed, French historian Jean Baubérot refers to the Briand of 1905 as ‘politically liberal’ and his 1905 bill as ‘tolerant’ of religion. So tolerant was the 1905 law of religion in public spaces, that a certain Abbé Pierre, a Catholic priest, was able to run for and win his election to both National Constituent Assemblies as the deputy for Meurthe-et-Moselle – cassock and all.
In this context, the law of 1905 was passed. It is a law that has been brandished by Macron’s administration (and countless others before him) as the backbone of French identity. It is this fabric that is apparently threatened by an omnipresent Islam politique which, we are told, seeks to impose incompatible ways of life onto an omnibenevolent French society. But the law of 1905 is a liberal law. It enshrines the citizen’s right to practice their faith – ‘Elle garantit le libre exercice des cultes’.
No greater proof of this can be found than in the government’s having to pass an additional law to sanction greater restrictions. If the ways in which (practising) French Muslims organise their community were really incompatible with the law of 1905, then this law alone would have sufficed.
The final, approved version of the 2021 law, largely targeting religious organisations, homeschooling and online hate speech, is worded in such a way that room for discrimination against religious organisations is very possible. The following remarks made on national television by the Minister of the Interior reveal the law’s intent: ‘this is not about closing down a place of worship because a priest or pastor is opposed to our bioethical law [which allows lesbian couples to access IVF]’.
Meanwhile, allegations of ‘softness’ vis-à-vis extremism can and are still made by the far right. In other words, if the purpose of the 2021 law had been to unify the French Republic, it has catastrophically failed.
From ‘reconquête’ to Reconquête
Ultimately, this debate no longer matters. It does not matter that the word ‘Muslim’ is never mentioned in the new law. It does not matter how the law is used by authorities henceforth. What matters is that Macron’s government decided to wage a battle against Muslim identity, in part or in whole. It decided to wage this offensive not, as it claims, in response to terrorism, but out of political expedience.
Some may call this issue a storm in a teacup, but they would be misguided in doing so. For the damage to French Muslims has been done. Indeed this damage goes far beyond the boundaries of the 2021 law. The moment the President of France stood at his podium in Yvelines and uttered his litany of accusations against ‘l’Islam politique’, he sanctioned a process whose ramifications have bled into the upcoming elections.
When the 2021 law was finally approved by the Constitutional Council, Gérald Darmanin tweeted it was excellent news for la République. The ‘reconquête républicaine’ announced by Marlène Schiappa had claimed its first victory.
Mais non … you cannot sanction the far right and simultaneously keep it under control.
This is a mistake Europe’s leaders seem bent on repeating not just at home but in foreign policy. The EU’s appeasement of ethnic-nationalist authoritarianism in the Western Balkans has led to the region’s worst security crisis since the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. Macron has been at the forefront of this appeasement, just as he has appeased far-right nationalists at home. For while he has denounced ‘political Islam’ in France, he has had no trouble in expressing support for senior figures of the Serbian Orthodox Church linked to convicted genocidaires in the Bosnian War.
Just as ethnic nationalists of South-East Europe have not been tamed through appeasement, neither have far-right Islamophobes in France. In the 2022 presidential election, Macron’s three main rivals are all singing from the hymn sheet he helped to write.
Anti-Muslim spectres, far from having their thirst quenched, have been further emboldened. Once considered a crazed extremist, Marine Le Pen has become the opponent to beat Macron in the polls, a sign of the normalisation of her far-right Rassemblement National in the French political imaginary. Valérie Pécresse, representing the resurgent Les Républicains, duly hardened her policy on ‘Islamism’ to see off hardliner competition that dominated the party’s primaries.
And Eric Zemmour, the polemist-cum-politician, took the presidential race by storm when he announced his candidacy earlier this month. His policies include a ban on giving your child a ‘foreign’ name. He also insists there is no difference between Islamism and Islam, and has called on French Muslims to renounce their faith. The name for this project? Reconquête.
Article Image Source: Wikimedia Commons