There was a rally in Paris on Sunday at which a couple of hundred protestors vented their anger at the French government's 'anti-separatist bill' which was passed by the National Assembly on Tuesday. It was a disparate but predictable gathering of what one broadcaster described as ‘anti-racism, left-wing, pro-Palestinian and other activist groups’.
The demonstrators were repeating the claims made by some left-wing politicians that the bill will stigmatise the country's Muslims. On the contrary, retort the government, who define the bill as a 'Respect for Republican values'. They say it will protect the majority of Muslims from the minority of extremists whose objective is to create a separate society in France in which Islamist values take precedence. The bill will put an end to polygamy, forced marriage and the issuing of virginity certificates, and it will also compel children over three to attend school, curtailing the growing practice of home-schooling. Finally, the bill will give the government far greater control over the funding of mosques and the recruitment of imams, thereby reducing the influence of countries such as Qatar, Turkey and Algeria.
One of those present on Sunday told reporters that ‘it's not worth attacking a whole community because one person did a horrible act’. This was a reference to the murder of the history teacher Samuel Paty outside his school gates last October, but that was just one of many brutal acts that have scarred France in the last decade.
An Islamic terror campaign began in 2012, when Mohammed Merah went on the rampage across southern France, shooting dead soldiers and three Jewish schoolchildren. Nine years later hundreds of men, women and children have been murdered.
Those are the incidents that make global headlines, which leave police officers standing outside churches and soldiers patrolling the transport network. The extremists that commit such attacks are few. More prevalent — and arguably more dangerous — are those engaged in an insidious intellectual assault on Republican values. A poll in January revealed that 53 per cent of secondary school teachers have been challenged in class by a pupil for ‘religious reasons’ and 55 per cent have self-censored to ‘avoid an incident’.
One can but sympathise with French teachers. In the four months since Paty was beheaded, a number of pupils have threatened their teachers with a similar fate, and last week it was reported that a school was taking action against a father who was reportedly aggressive towards a teacher at his daughter’s school. The reason? He allegedly didn't like the fact she sat next to a boy in class or participated in PE, which was ‘incompatible with his religion.’
While some teachers self-censor, others speak out, such as Didier Lemaire, a philosophy teacher in a school in Trappes, a town south of Paris, once known for its communism and now for its extremism. Earlier this month he revealed to the media that since November he has required a police escort to and from his work because of an open letter he had published in a magazine calling on France to do more to combat Islamic extremism. Blaming 'salafists' for his situation, Lemaire claimed that the extremists were winning the ideological battle in Trappes, saying: ‘All the Jews have left Trappes since the burning of the synagogue on 10 October 2000, then the Portuguese… and now moderate middle-class Muslims.’
Lemaire's revelations drew an angry reaction from some on the French left. The mayor of Trappes, Ali Rabeh, a member of the far-left Generation S, turned up at the school last week to distribute leaflets to pupils repudiating the teacher's claims
Those on the right offer unqualified support to Lemaire, and this divergence was encapsulated in a headline in one current affairs magazine last week: Didier Lemaire, mytho ou héros?
The polarisation will widen in the months ahead as campaigning for the 2022 presidential election intensifies. The economy, Islam, immigration and the environment are the key issues. Marine Le Pen of the National Rally has little to say on the economy and the environment but she believes enough people share her concerns about Islam and immigration to vote her into the Elysée. To counter this, the government hopes its anti-separatist bill will prove its determination to eradicate Islamic extremism, and Emmanuel Macron had ordered his Interior Minister, Gérald Darmanin, to harden his rhetoric. He did just that in a televised debate with Le Pen last week, in which he chided her for appearing to be too 'soft' on Islamism.
The left are appalled. In a TV interview on Tuesday, Adrien Quatennens, an MP from the far-left La France Insoumise, claimed that ‘the difference is thinner and thinner’ between Macron and Le Pen. That will be music to the ears of the President, who knows he has nothing to fear electorally from the left.
It's taken Macron four years to draft his 'anti-separatism bill' but its timing is not accidental. It's part of his election manifesto, the part he believes will neutralise the threat from Le Pen.
The irony won't be lost on Le Pen who in the lead-up to the 2017 election embarked on a strategy of 'de-demonisation' in the hope of making her party more presentable. Now she's talking tough again but she's been outmanoeuvred by Macron, who in the eyes of the left is re-demonising in order to hold onto power.