What Macron’s clash with Islam reveals about France
“Liberté, égalité, fraternité” – Liberty, equality, fraternity. These were the values which inspired the French Revolution of 1789. It’s a compelling idea: regardless of background, anyone who chooses to be part of France is French and has access to these values. Although it has been a long climb towards equality, until recently these ideals remained the goal, a bulwark which provided inspiration to peoples across the globe and were the basis of French pride.
However, if you are a French Muslim, you would be justified in wondering if these values applied to you. This past November, the President of France, Emmanuel Macron, gave an ultimatum to the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM). He said they had 15 days to co-operate with the Interior Ministry. The Council capitulated. They agreed to set up a system of accreditation, whereby imams must be “certified”. Macron also asked (in the sternest sense of the term) Muslim leaders to agree to a “charter of republican values”.
This has been accompanied by other measures targeted at Muslims over the past year, such as restrictions on home schooling. Previously, France had banned the wearing of the hijab in schools and by public servants in their place of work.
Additionally, French Muslims have been subject to harsh police measures: for example, their homes and organisations have been raided by law enforcement to “send a message”, as the Minister of Interior stated. On October 14, 2020, the French authorities violently raided the home of Idriss Sihamedi, chairman and founder of BarakaCity, one of France’s largest Muslim charities. BarakaCity delivered aid to 2 million people in 26 countries for a decade; the French government has since dissolved the organisation.
During the raid, Sihamedi was the victim of police brutality which was witnessed by his children. He was detained for 24 hours. Sihamedi was recently acquitted by French courts for alleged cyber harassment of French journalists. The journalists have a consistent history of anti-Muslim sentiment. However, Sihamedi no longer feels safe in France and has asked the President of Turkey for asylum. During that same weekend, the French Minister of Interior, Gérald Darmanin, announced that 9 mosques have been closed.
Macron’s rhetoric has hardened over time. In 2019, he urged French citizens to stand together regardless of their faith. This was after a French Muslim woman and her son were verbally abused during a school trip to a regional Parliament. At that time, Macron was concerned that stigmatising Muslims would engender hostility; nevertheless, his Education Minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer stated wearing a headscarf, in his opinion, was “not desirable”.
What is Macron’s self-interest in this? It’s possible that Macron is looking to the next French Presidential election, which will take place in 2022. He may be concerned that he is vulnerable to criticism from the National Rally party, which is overtly Islamophobic. Macron may think that by being harsh towards the Muslim community he will deprive the National Rally of a campaign issue.
But what is the cost of expediency? There is a bitter irony in France proclaiming liberty and equality as core values yet saying that an entire religion has to submit to the authority of the state. Secularism is a two-sided coin: religion should not be involved in the state, but the state also cannot be involved with religion. Macron has interfered with French Muslim institutions, beliefs and daily experience. By singling out a single faith like this, he echoes the most brutal regimes in Europe’s history.
Macron complains about “political Islam” and says Muslims have a “separatism” problem. However, the French far right espouses little but a “separate” political creed. Given the defeat of Trump and the far right in retreat elsewhere, it appears that modern democracies are ready to move on from bigotry. Why is France still indulging in politics of the mob rather than being true to its values, honed over centuries of thought and struggle?
By going down this route, Macron is not just a threat to French secularism and democracy but is undermining other Western nations too. No doubt other Islamophobic parties and groups in Europe will see Macron’s policies as a template for escalation should they wish to do so.
Fortunately, the allies of French Muslims are taking a stand. A complaint has been filed into the United Nations Human Rights Commission, stating clearly that France isn’t living up to its obligations to protect individual liberty. This complaint has support from organisations from America to Belgium to South Africa.
Among signatories of this UN complaint is the Muslim Public Affairs Committee UK. Imran Shah, spokesperson for MPACUK, stated:
“The state sanctioned Islamophobia that Macron and his administration are enforcing on French Muslim citizens can only be described as draconian and unprecedented. This will undoubtedly embolden Islamophobes across Europe and deepen the persecution of communities that has faced the brunt of 20 years of Islamophobia.
It is for this reason that we, as a signatory to this complaint, are calling for the UN and the World to take action and demand France and Macron adhere to their Human Rights obligations.”
Another signatory, Muhammad Rabbani, Managing Director of CAGE said:
“France has seen shocking levels of state-sanctioned Islamophobia in recent months. This has precipitated the closure of mosques, Muslim schools, Muslim-led charities and civil society organisations. As a signatory to the UN, France cannot be allowed to infringe upon its international rights obligations so openly, and yet present itself as the land of ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’.”
It is incumbent on every Muslim and anyone who cares about freedom of conscience to be aware of this complaint. The UN must demand that France live up to the virtues it first proclaimed in 1789. There cannot be “liberté, égalité, fraternité” unless one can pray to one’s God in the manner dictated by the individual’s conscience. Otherwise, one is not free, not equal, and the fraternal bonds, which should unite, lay in ruins.