Over the last years, France has faced criticism for its perceived stance against Islam. In this commentary for commonspace.eu, Camille Victor suggests that this stems from a misunderstanding of France's unique interpretation of secularism, arguing that the preservation of the French secular model requires finding ways to appease rising tensions whilst simultaneously acting against very real threats to the country's core republican values.
“Liberty, equality, fraternity”. Together, these three words form France’s national motto with its origins in the French Revolution. Apart, they are at the centre of contemporary debate in French politics and under great international scrutiny, especially regarding the issue of French secularism.
All three terms have a particular importance in legitimising France’s unique approach towards secularism. “Liberty” points to one of its three pillars: the freedom of conscience – being free to believe in something or not – and to express one’s belief. “Equality” underlines a second pillar of secularism, which is the equality of all before the law regardless of one’s beliefs or convictions, as well as the equality of opportunity. Finally, “fraternity” is possibly the most contested today by multiculturalist states such as the United Kingdom and the United States, as it promotes French unity and integrity. It is also particularly relevant in justifying French secularism and the fight against any form of separatism, which represents a key and contested issue in France and the Muslim world today.
In an interview last November with The New York Times, President Emmanuel Macron said that France is “universalist and not multiculturalist”. By this, he meant that someone’s ethnicity and beliefs do not matter to him, because they are a citizen before anything else. This emphasis on French citizenship as outweighing any other attribute someone has highlights once again the French drive for unity and integrity. All citizens are French, and the state does not perceive ethnic or religious difference as important; what matters is having a united, “fraternal” society. Thus, no exceptions are made to local, historic, ethnic or religious particularism, and any threat to the unity of the state needs to be intercepted.
Although this may seem like a pretty extreme approach to have in the 21st century – and is for this reason often frowned upon outside of the hexagon’s borders – France’s attitude towards secularism has its roots in the state’s own troubled history, rather than the contemporary situation. It was born from a political struggle of the republican camp – formed by the united political left – to emancipate the society from the tutelage of clericalism. Indeed, until the late 19th century, a political conflict existed between the state and a dominant Church, Catholicism. This conflict was finally resolved at the initiative of the state by an act of separation, ambiguous enough for both sides to be able to live with it.
Thus, the roots of secularism in France greatly contrast with its origins in other secular countries such as the United States. Since the men who founded New England in the 17th century were often Puritan Protestants persecuted at home for their belief, they wanted to establish a state which guaranteed the freedom of conscience and the pluralism of faiths. This can be reflected in the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, which states that “Congress shall not pass any law intended to establish a religion or to prohibit the free exercise of it”. Nonetheless, the US national motto is “in God we trust”, and references to God are omnipresent in American politics. Therefore, unlike France’s case, the US never fought established clericalism to become a secular state, which can explain why although public institutions and religious organisations are separate in both countries, France is much more cautious towards religion and its intervention in both political and public institutions.
However, French secularism has been under attack for years, threatened by the rise of radicalisation and terrorism in the country. According to Emmanuel Macron, in a column published in November in the British daily Financial Times, Islamist separatism is the “breeding ground for terrorist vocations”, enabled by radicalisation. "In some neighbourhoods, groups linked to radical Islam are teaching children in France to hate the Republic, calling for disrespecting the laws”, the president added. "This is what France intends to fight today" but "never against Islam. […] Against obscurantism, fanaticism, violent extremism. Never against a religion.”
This fight is embodied in the executive’s bill against separatism. It contains measures on the neutrality of the public service, the supervision of family education, but also the reinforced control of associations, better transparency of religious cults and their funding, or the fight against virginity certificates, polygamy or forced marriages. It also includes the fight against online hatred, added after the Islamist terrorist attack perpetrated on 16 October 2020 against the French secondary school teacher, Samuel Paty.
The bill was presented to the Council of Ministers on 9 December 2020. It was adopted at first reading in the National Assembly on 16 February 2021, and in the Senate on 12 April, where the bill was hardened and renamed "confirming respect for the principles of the Republic and the fight against separatism” instead of “reinforcing republican principles”. Deputies and senators must now try to find an agreement on a common text.
Unsurprisingly, the content of the bill has created a lot of controversy over the past months. On the one hand, the right-wing criticises a law that it considers too weak because it does not address subjects such as the veil, radicalisation in prisons or immigration. On the other hand, the far-left party “La France Insoumise”, as well as several Anglo-Saxon journalists and numerous Muslim states have accused the bill of stigmatising the Muslim population.
A country which has been particularly vocal in attacking perceived French Islamophobia is Turkey. Following the beheading of secondary school teacher Samuel Paty in October 2020, Emmanuel Macron took the stance of defending freedom of speech, which he claims is a fundamental liberty and part of France’s core republican values. Indeed, Paty had been murdered for showing a caricature of the prophet Muhammad from the controversial journal Charlie Hebdo – which was also a victim of Islamist terrorism in 2015 – during a discussion on freedom of speech. As a response, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, questioned the "mental health" of Macron and accused him of "leading a campaign of hatred" against Muslims, comparing the treatment of the latter in Europe to that of the Jews before the Second World War. Erdogan also called for the boycott of French products, taking the lead in growing anger in the Muslim world against Macron.
Faced with Turkey’s critiques, the French president received support from his neighbours. Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesperson declared Erdogan's statements “defamatory” and “absolutely unacceptable”. The Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, expressed his support in a tweet saying that “The Netherlands resolutely upholds the common values of the EU alongside France. For freedom of speech and against extremism and radicalism”. Italy's then-prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, also supported Macron.
Nonetheless, Erdogan’s stance on Macron’s approach towards freedom of speech, and more broadly secularism, only exacerbated the rising tensions in France regarding its Muslim community. By condemning France in such a way and encouraging other Muslim states to follow his lead, Erdogan made himself the protector of Muslims in France, denouncing their stigmatisation. Ironically, this resembles a stance France took in the past towards Christian communities in the east. A notable example is the French protection of the Christian communities in the Ottoman Empire, which lasted almost 400 years until 1914. Through bilateral acts concluded between the French and Ottoman leaders, historically known as capitulations, French citizens in the empire were protected by France and granted individual and religious freedom.
The capitulations are now part of history, but this protective attitude somehow continues to reflect itself in France’s position on eastern countries such as Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Armenia, notably through the movements advocating for the “Christians of the Middle East”, or “Oriental Christians” (“Chrétiens d’Orient” in French). Since 2013, the wars in Iraq and Syria have revived in Europe the issue of the persecution of religious minorities, targeted by Islamist groups in the east. France’s case is particularly relevant in the emergence of NGOs – such as “SOS Chrétiens d’Orient” in 2013 – ideological and political movements, advocating for the persecuted Christians of the Middle East. Similar to the French reaction to the massacres of Christians in Mount-Lebanon and Damascus in 1860, this new wave of persecution strongly impacted French public opinion, prompting military intervention and a surge of humanitarianism. On the other hand, France maintains very close ties with eastern countries where the proportion of Christians makes up a great part or the majority of the population, this being the case as with Lebanon and Armenia. Thus, the historical tradition according to which France is purported to be the protector of Christians in the Middle East, albeit having evolved, remains very real.
It becomes fairly clear why the issue of the French desire to preserve its unique secularism is contested today. On one hand, the French model is misunderstood by the Anglo-Saxon world which praises multiculturalism, and whose history with secularism diverges greatly. On the other hand, although Macron’s claim of fighting Islamist separatism in the name of a united and secular France might be entirely honest, Erdogan’s new position as the protector of stigmatised Muslims in France adds oil to the fire in a country where tensions have been rising for years. By mirroring France’s historical involvement in the protection of Christians abroad, Erdogan projects a repression of Muslims carried out in the name of uncompromising secularism.
In order to successfully preserve its core Republican ideals, France must therefore focus on finding ways to appease the rising tensions in the country regarding Islam, whilst simultaneously acting against very real threats such as Islamist separatism. If hostilities continue to grow, it will become easier for people to denounce French policies aimed at Islamism as “Islamophobic”. This would represent falling into the trap set by a minority within the Muslim community, which is to prevent the integration of Muslims into French society.