BY MYRIAM FRANCOIS, who is a Franco-Irish journalist, senior fellow at the Centre for Global Policy, and research associate at the Centre of Islamic Studies, SOAS University of London. She is the founder of We Need To Talk About Whiteness website and podcast.
Since the 2015 terrorist attacks against the staff of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, France has faced a succession of such attacks by Muslim extremists, the most recent of which saw the October beheading of teacher Samuel Paty and the murder of three people at Notre Dame Basilica in Nice. The country has been left grappling with the question of why it has become such a target and how it ought to respond.
For President Macron, France is being targeted by terrorists because of its “freedom of expression, right to believe, or not, and its way of life.” He claims that a form of “Islamist separatism” has found find fertile ground for its ideals in some parts of the country – and to counter this, Macron announced his plan to create a “French Islam,” a practice of the faith which will be regulated by the state. For over four decades successive French presidents have sought to manage the state’s relationship with an ethnically and religiously diverse Muslim community, adherents of a faith without a formal leadership structure which might provide an obvious intermediary. All to little avail. State appointed leaders have struggled to gain community recognition, while attempts, like Macron’s, to delineate to Muslims the terms of their beliefs are unlikely to be well received. Not to mention the apparent irony of a secular leader defining terms of religious practice.
In France, the concept of laïcité(secularism) enjoins a strict delineation between the state and the private sphere of personal beliefs. Designed in origin to protect individuals from state intrusion, and the state from religious influence, it has in recent years been increasingly wielded to do the opposite: encroaching evermore into the private sphere of Muslim citizens: from dress codes, to dietary needs, via religious education, the state has sought to prohibit each of these in recent years, only to be confronted by the strength of a Republican framework which has ultimately seen courts uphold its principles.
While the president has been adamant that the problem isn’t Islam, but a rejection of Republican principles, his government’s rhetorical and political focus has caused many to feel otherwise. From incessant debates about the headscarf, to polemics around women only swimming class to the Interior Minister feigning shock at ‘ethnic aisles’ in supermarkets, mundane habits of Muslim life are touted as examples of a “separatism” the state links to terrorism.