More than a week after the gruesome murder of French teacher Samuel Paty by a Chechen refugee, France remains gripped by shock, hatred and despair. The terrorist attack that followed Paty’s decision to display the controversial Charlie Hebdo caricatures of Prophet Muhammad in class has heightened anti-Muslim sentiments.
Once again, the Muslim citizens of France are at the center of a debate that despises their religion and symbols and smears and slander them in the political arena, mainstream media and social networks. And again, the ruling elite and much of French society deny the real roots of radicalization.
But this time around, the head of state seems particularly keen to ignite the flames of Islamophobia. President Emmanuel Macron believes his constituents are leaving him and believes the only thing he can do to save his political career is to take a page out of the far right’s playbook.
Macron’s staggering support
It should be noted that the attack comes as France is suffering from a long-term social crisis made worse by the failed policies of the Macron government. The anger of the population has reached the boiling point and has manifested itself in street protests. Major public sector strikes took place in the spring of 2018, followed by the protests of Gilets Jaunes (yellow vests) in the fall.
Throughout 2019 there were large demonstrations against pension reforms, price increases, police violence and unemployment. The year ended with one of the longest public transport strikes in French history that crippled the country.
This shift brought Macron’s ratings from about 60 percent in his election in May 2017 to 23 percent in December 2018. Before the pandemic mobilized French society earlier this year, the French president had the approval of about 33 percent of the population.
The slight gains Macron made at the start of the COVID-19 crisis did not help his party in the local elections in June when it suffered a crushing defeat for the Green movement in several major French cities.
The presidential elections are slated for April 2022 and the French president seems to have run out of time to think of anything that can secure his re-election. His most recent desperate attempt to gain political ground – especially at the expense of the far right – appears to be his decision to follow suit in France’s Muslim community. He knows that anything to do with the attack on Muslims gets the far right and its racist and anti-Muslim agenda, and perhaps a good part of the French left, on their toes.
At the beginning of October, Macron gave a special address to the nation in which he insisted that Islam was “in crisis” and would “liberate” it from foreign influences.
When Paty’s murder took place less than two weeks later, the French president quickly seized the moment and said he would take measures to eradicate “Islamist extremism” in France.
A knee-jerk reaction
After the attack, Macron and his government took action against Muslim civil society – or what they called “extremists”. The measures they have taken include “several dozen concrete measures … against organizations, associations or individuals who carry out a radical Islamic project”.
As a result, more than 50 charities – including the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF), a mainstream anti-Islamophobia organization – referred to as “enemies of the republic” by Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, could be disbanded.
Throughout the process, Macron and his administration have maintained their anti-Islamic rhetoric and set the tone for the public debate over the terrorist attack.
A chorus of media experts and politicians from across the political spectrum have apparently joined the conviction that French “values” are threatened and that the general population must mobilize for a fight. “It’s wartime!” declared a magazine on the front page. “To arms, citizens,” tweeted MP Meyer Habib, deputy chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National Assembly, with a sentence from the French national anthem.
The “weapons” some have suggested that they should be used in this “war” include revocation of citizenship, compulsory use of French first names, reinstatement of the death penalty, etc.
This warlike rhetoric did not spare the public figures who campaigned to defend the French Muslim community. In a televised debate, the writer Pascal Bruckner accused the journalist Rokhaya Diallo, whom he identified as a “black Muslim woman”, of having “led to the death of Charlie Hebdos 12 cartoonists” with her words.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the France Insoumise (Unbowed France) party, has also faced a smear campaign as he warned against the stigmatization of Muslims. He has been accused by the political establishment of being an Islamic leftist in order to undermine the left by associating it with “Islamism” which has a very negative connotation in the minds of the French majority.
Coincidental or not, Mélenchon had emerged as a potential challenger for Macron in the next presidential election. If this character assassination campaign against him is successful, Macron may find it easier to secure re-election.
The actual problem
Amid this cacophony of Islamophobia and the election roster, the crux of the matter was not really addressed.
For well over two decades, the French state has been in a vicious circle in its relationship with its Muslim citizens.
The state still does not recognize the fact that Islam is a religion of France, that it is inadvisable to systematically remind or refer to French Muslims of their racial or geographic origins, and that French Muslim themes are inherently Muslim French themes are.
The state does not want to recognize that there is no empirical evidence that religion is a major motive for violent extremism and that radicalization is a social phenomenon.
She continues to use terrorist incidents as a distraction from her own failed policies towards French Muslim citizens that have marginalized and alienated an entire community.
The state has done little to combat discrimination in the workplace and in accommodation, police brutality, poverty and everyday racism, yet still accuses the French Muslim community of failing to “integrate” or even “separate”.
It relied on a security-oriented approach that systematically viewed Islam as an evil that society should face and Muslims as a threat to the way of life and fundamental rights such as freedom of expression.
For the majority of Muslims, the most obvious tendency is that the establishment’s definition of freedom of expression is universal, absolute, and indisputable when it comes to criticizing or mocking Islam and its symbols. While they insist that Muslims accept criticism and ridicule of what is sacred to them, they hardly tolerate criticism of Israel, Israeli politics, and Zionism.
If anything, it seems that the state, rather than Muslim citizens, is more likely to “separate” from part of society and insist on treating it as outsiders. It clearly does not want to recognize that multiculturalism is an integral part of French society and should be included as such.
Unfortunately, as long as the French state regards its Muslim citizens as a “fifth column” and excludes them from its fight against extremism; and as long as the political establishment uses heinous terrorist attacks to gain political gain before the elections, we will continue to be light years away from the core principles of the republic: social cohesion, civil peace and dialogue.
The views expressed in this article are from the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of Al Jazeera.