French Secularism: A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

By Dorien Julia Rijkens

Laïcité, the well-loved term referring to secularism in France, has been under excruciating pressure after the recent string of attacks in France, including the brutal beheading of schoolteacher Samuel Paty, performed by a handful of fundamentalist members of the Muslim community. French President Emmanuel Macron declared Paty’s murder to be “a typical Islamist terrorist attack” and claimed the need for France, and the rest of the world, to “fight Islamist separatism,” as Islam is an ideology which claims that “its own law should be superior to those of the Republic.” Macron’s rhetoric and actions stirred outrage all over the Islamic World, from Turkey to Tunisia, from Malaysia to Saudi Arabia, as these statements, justified by French secularism according to Macron, are positioned on the fine line between secularism and islamophobia. In this article, I will argue that President Macron’s rhetoric and actions cannot be justified solely on the basis of secularism because they challenge the established relationship between the “West” and the “East.”

Firstly, President Macron’s use of extreme language demonstrates an underlying Islamophobic fear of “the Oriental Other.” Describing the incident as “a typical Islamist terrorist attack” is extremely problematic for a plethora of reasons: it does not clearly denote the distinction between the implications of the words “Islamic” (followers of Islam) and “Islamist” (a fundamentalist ideology)—a tricky nuanced distinction the wider public does not particularly know which could lead to a generalised interpretation regarding Islam,—it implies a correlation between Islam and terrorism, and last but not least, it feeds into the Orientalist stereotypical perception of “the Oriental other,” where the “Middle Eastern” is characterized as backwards, brutal and chaotic in contrast to the modern, civilized, organised “European.” Macron attempts to justify these restrictions by feeding into these stereotypical representations. His rhetoric borders on Islamophobia and, therefore, is not based on the religiously-neutral principle of Laïcité, which states that the government, or President, may not be biased towards any religion. Hence, Macron has made the conscious decision to single out the supposedly “Islamic” quality of the attack even though he had the opportunity to centre his approach around terrorism or fundamentalism—which would have conformed to Laïcité. 

Secondly, President Macron’s rhetoric and actions in response to the attack do not align with the position of Muslims within modern day France. In the direct aftermath of the murder, sixteen people were taken into custody (including the perpetrator’s grandparents, parents. and 17-year old brother). The Grande Mosque de Pantin, the religious home to 1500 Muslims, was forced to close its doors for the upcoming six months. 231 foreign Muslim citizens were deported, and two Islamic NGOs, CCIF (Collective against Islamophobia in France) and BarakaCity, were forced to dissolve

President Macron justifies these dire restrictions by claiming they are necessary to “fight Islamist separatism” and avoid that the “ideology” of Islam dominates the values of the French Republic. With this particular statement, Macron alludes to the possibility of Islamic domination and evokes the irrational fear of the “other” which most likely furthers the marginalisation among French citizens. Macron, however, fails to address the actual problem that France is facing: the unattainability of the well-loved ideal of Laïcité. 

By shifting the focus on tackling fundamentalism, Macron distracts the public from the actual issue that he simply does not want to tackle. Instead, Macron’s rhetoric targets the French Muslim population which are not, in any shape, way or form, the threat that Macron paints them to be. According to Pew Research Centre, in 2016, only 8.8% of the French population identifies as Muslim, equal to 5.7 million citizens. Compared to the 51.1% of the population who identify as Christian, the Muslim population in France can be categorized as a religious minority. Taking these statistics into consideration, Macron’s statements and actions are not based on substantial evidence that can be generalised for the entire French Muslim population. Macron’s rhetoric, therefore, is counterproductive and only contributes to the growing tension and dissatisfaction between (French) Muslims and the rest of French society. 

Thirdly, President Macron’s actions as a response to the attack are not proportionate and cannot solely be justified by the principle of Laïcité. As previously mentioned, the implemented measures on the practising of Islam, that affect a significant number of Muslims in France, are being justified by Laïcité based on the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which has equal legal standing as the French Constitution. In the declaration, it is stated that: 

“The law has the right to ward [i.e., forbid] only actions [which are] harmful to society. Anything which is not warded [i.e., forbidden] by the law cannot be impeded, and no one can be constrained to do what it [i.e., the law] does not order.” 

On the basis of this principle, Macron is allowed to implement measures to avoid harm to society. One should, however, ask whether these measures are proportionate. All measures implemented limit practitioners of Islam despite the fundamental right to freedom of religion. It could even be argued that Macron’s measures discriminate against Muslims in the name of ‘state security’ and therefore disregard another French core value: égalité. By implementing measures based on the common denominator of Islam, Macron’s harsh measures, furthermore, vilify and generalise the French Muslim population and Islam. Therefore, Macron’s rhetoric and actions only seem to widen the gap between the Muslim community and the French community instead of uniting both parties to collectively tackle the issue. 

Based on this analysis, it is not particularly surprising that Macron’s rhetoric and actions caused outrage in predominantly Islamic countries, where people were called to action to boycott products of French origin. Due to France’s colonial past and longstanding ties with these countries, the boycott could have a significant impact on France’s economy. This makes room for an interesting change in the perceived West/East binary: the “East” mobilises against the “West” which aligns with Lau’s (2007) identified of “Re-Orientalism.” 

It could be argued that President Macron cannot be faulted or held accountable for simply complying with the French Enlightened ideal of secularism, as well as using the principle as justification. One should, however, consider that Macron’s rhetoric and actions reveal that his choices are not “neutral.”


Picture Credits: Fredrik Rubensson, Flickr.

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