Here is what is not happening in France. France is not ‘at war with its Muslims’. Muslims are not being treated like Jews in Nazi Germany. Emmanuel Macron has not ‘strongly boosted the legitimacy of all kind of obsessive Islamophobes’, nor is he contributing to ‘the Islamophobic swamp into which France has sunk’. The French president is not ‘attacking Islam’ and he has not ‘chosen to deliberately provoke Muslims’.
What is happening in France is a world away from these libels. A liberal, secular republic is grappling with the long-gestating menace of radical Islam, a reactionary separatism that has taken grip in the banlieues. While it has brought blood to French streets, the primary target of this extremism is the Muslim mind, especially the young Muslim mind, in which it encourages the belief that Muslims are not participants in the republican ideal but victims of it.
President Macron, a centrist, wishes to root out this insurrectionism, a sentiment shared by many on his left and right, and is proposing a law to combat ‘foreign interference’ in French Islam. Measures will reportedly include more stringent regulation of the financing of mosques, reducing the influx of non-French imams and all but ending the practice of home-schooling.
Debate over the legislation has coincided with the trial of 14 people accused of assisting the 2015 terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo. To mark the beginning of the proceedings, the magazine republished its Mohammed cartoons; France’s refusal to censor its satirists has brought calls for Muslim boycotts of French products. Six weeks ago, a Pakistan-born teenager allegedly stabbed two people while trying to attack Hebdo’s old headquarters; three weeks ago, a Chechen-born teenager beheaded Samuel Paty, a Parisian teacher who showed his pupils cartoons of Mohammed; a week ago, a 21-year-old Tunisian allegedly stabbed a sacristan and two parishioners to death in a Catholic church in Nice.
This is a complex story with frequent, often sanguinary, developments. There are also libertarian grounds on which to object to some of the prescriptions favoured by president Macron. But neither of these considerations justifies the torrent of dishonesty, defamation and disinformation we are witnessing. This is to be expected from those ageing matinee idols of Islamist demagoguery, Erdoğan and Imran Khan, but it is damnable that they have found allies in the Western media. The reporting on France’s struggle, outrageous in its tone and its insinuations, is a marker of the transition of several once-respected news outlets from liberalism to progressivism.
Chief among the vandals of the record is the New York Times. An op-ed asks: ‘Is France Fueling Muslim Terrorism by Trying to Prevent It?’ A report frets over ‘the fury of the response’ to Paty’s murder, which it says has ‘unleashed a broad crackdown on Muslims accused of extremism’, but helpfully puts the blame where it belongs by quoting not one but two academics critical of Paty for showing his students the cartoons. ‘[I]t doesn’t conform to his obligation to be neutral,’ pronounces one of these moral philosophers de nos jours.
One news article, under the impressive headline ‘After Terror Attacks, Muslims Wonder About Their Place in France’, says the French government has left Muslims ‘questioning whether they will ever fully be accepted’. The same piece blames ‘France’s convoluted relationship with its Muslim citizens’ on ‘the authorities’ vow to defend those who publish caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad’, despite the ‘unease’ they cause many Muslims. France’s commitment to free expression, which you might consider a hallmark of liberalism, is in fact ‘part of its strict laws on secularism that allow blasphemy’, ten perfectly good words but perhaps the first time anyone thought to arrange them in that order.
Another report says Macron’s counter-extremism policies ‘have opened France to criticism that its relationship with its Muslim citizens has taken an ugly turn’ and tuts that the president ‘went as far as to suggest that Islam was in need of an Enlightenment’. Went as far.
Politico published then later withdrew an opinion piece on ‘France’s dangerous religion of secularism’. The author — an academic, naturally — identified ‘France’s extreme form of secularism and its embrace of blasphemy’ as the reason for its frequent targeting by terrorists. ‘As French secularism has become radicalised,’ he observed, ‘the number of jihadist attacks in the country has multiplied’. This radicalisation of laïcité included ‘the promotion of religious blasphemy’ and the ‘unequivocal defense of the right to free expression’ by politicians and intellectuals.
The problem, you see, was ‘the immoderate use of caricatures’ and an ‘obsessive focus on Islam’, which ‘stigmatises and humiliates’ the religion’s followers. Blasphemy, he proposed, ‘should be used, at best, with moderation in a country where between six per cent and eight per cent of the population is Muslim’. ‘France,’ the author concluded, ‘is paying a heavy price for its fundamentalist secularism.’ I remain of the view that, square inch for square inch, the average Western humanities department is home to more radicals than any province of Afghanistan.
The Associated Press, a progressive activist organisation that runs a newswire on the side, says Macron stands ‘accused of spreading anti-Muslim sentiment…by defending the French right to caricaturise Islam’s Prophet Muhammad’. The AP also offers an informative explainer on ‘why France sparks such anger in Muslim world’. The feature asks why the republic is ‘so often the target of deadly violence’, and answers: ‘Its brutal colonial past, staunch secular policies and tough-talking president who is seen as insensitive toward the Muslim faith all play a role’.
This is not moral relativism. That sentence is not ambivalent. It plainly lays the blame for the murder of French citizens at the feet of the French, along with the deposited heads of their teachers and church wardens.
On Monday, French Muslim leaders released a joint statement condemning ‘all forms of violence in the name of our religion’, branding boycotts ‘unjustified’ and charging their instigators with ‘using Islam for political gain’. They pointed out that French law ‘gives a lot of space to freedom of expression’ and includes the freedom ‘to believe or not believe’. Would that the New York Times, Politico or the AP had an ounce of their moral clarity.
The new American progressivism is to liberalism as Donald Trump’s ‘American carnage’ is to conservatism and, like America First, the left’s sectarian turn is sacrificing US global leadership. Macron’s policies are not beyond reproach but the thinking behind them, and the terms in which he explicates them, display the kind of confidence and courage we used to hear from American presidents. As America falters, France steps up.
In a very fine essay, Liam Duffy invites us not to force Anglosphere frames onto la crise de la république but surely the greater temptation is to look at the United States through the prism of France. Neither the Republican nor the Democrat party can bring themselves to confront the rise of competing authoritarianisms and more often than not are complicit. There is a crise in the république but it’s not the French one, where adversity is bringing forth braver souls. Let us hear no more of ‘cheese-munching surrender monkeys’. They don’t board up Boulevard Haussmann when the French go to vote.
I’m not much of a Francophile. I prefer Israeli wine, Italian cheese, Spanish Catholicism and British industrial relations. But if we are choosing sides — and, mes amis, we are — I choose France. The France of Jean Seberg sauntering along the Champs-Élysées trilling ‘New York Herald Tribune’ and of the Cahiers du Cinéma nibbled at with my lousy high-school French. The France of Montesquieu and Olympe de Gouges, of Zola and Jean Moulin, of Charb and Ahmed Merabet. The France of freedom and equality and always fraternity. That France does not need our permission to defend itself but it deserves our solidarity. Liberté, liberté chérie, combats avec tes défenseurs.