PARIS – On October 16, Samuel Paty, professor of French history, was walking home after a day at school in the Paris suburb of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine when he was assaulted by an 18-year-old, who beheaded him in broad daylight and posted a photo of his body online.
The attacker, Abdullakh Anzarov, a Chechen who had lived in France for more than 10 years, had traveled to the city in search of Paty after hearing about him online. The teacher had shown his 13-year-old students a cartoon mocking the Prophet Muhammad, angering some Muslim parents who denounced him in an online video.
The theme of the class was freedom of speech.
His assassination, alongside two more attacks on militant Islamists in just over a month, has reignited a fierce debate over the country’s secularism laws and sparked a brutal response from President Emmanuel Macron, sparking criticism in the country and abroad.
Macron was once seen as one of the few remaining liberal leaders in Europe who, along with his German counterpart Angela Merkel, could stem the tide of populism rising elsewhere on the continent and in the United States.
“It’s crazy that we wake up debates on Islam every time there is a terrorist attack,” Macron told the French newspaper. Mediapart during his election campaign in 2016. “Those who use secularism to fight Islam are fundamentally wrong: they exclude from the Republic those who identify as Muslims.”
Kaoutar Harchi, researcher at the French CERLIS center on social cohesion, explained: “Emmanuel Macron, at the start of his mandate, had a classic liberal vision of secularism and religion: people can do whatever they want, secularism is important, but we have to focus on the economy. “
Four years later, his position has radically changed.
A staunch defender of the European Union against his detractors in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, he now plans to double the police and military presence at France’s borders and proposes to recast the Schengen area to strengthen security.
“There is a problem of terrorism but it is above all a competition between the right and the far right that shapes the debate.“
– Amel Boubekeur, School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences
He announced new policies to fight “Islamist separatism,” which will restrict home education and ensure the training of imams in France.
“Islam is in crisis,” he said, announcing the new measures. “The problem is an ideology that claims that its own laws should be superior to those of the Republic.”
His comments, and his persistence in defending the right to publish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that offended many Muslims, sparked a violent backlash.
Tens of thousands of conservative Muslims have taken to the streets from Bangladesh to Lebanon and Pakistan and called for a boycott of French products.
Asked about the right to publish such cartoons, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in opposition to the French position, said: “We will always defend freedom of expression. But freedom of expression has limits. We must be Aware of the impact of our words, our actions have on others, especially on communities that experience discrimination. “
According to a survey published in September, 59% of French people support the publication of the cartoons in the name of freedom of expression, but only 19% of Muslims agree. Almost three-quarters of Muslims surveyed said newspapers were wrong to publish the cartoons because it was an unnecessary provocation.
In France, three terrorist attacks linked to Islamist militants in the space of a month have reignited a long-standing debate on the meaning of secularism, or secularism, as embodied in a 1905 law which affirms strict separation. of the state and secularism. the church to guarantee religious freedom.
“What the government is promoting now is not the 1905 law on secularism, it is something much more violent,” said Rokhaya Diallo, French journalist, director and commentator on social issues.
“Instead of bringing people together, [Macron] created a climate of fear. The consequence is that it dehumanizes people who are considered Muslims and gives them the impression that they are not seen as trusted citizens, ”she added.
The increasingly tense public debate has left many Muslims in France, an extremely moderate and highly heterogeneous bloc of nearly six million people, feeling alienated. France has the largest Muslim population in Europe, largely due to immigration from its former colonies in North and West Africa in the 1960s and 1970s.
In response to Samuel Paty’s murder, recently appointed Home Secretary Gerald Darmanin ordered the closure of a mosque, disbanded several Muslim aid groups and police raided the homes of dozens of suspected Islamist militants.
Many interviewees had nothing to do with the attacks, but the government wanted to send a strong message, said the former conservative politician who joined Macron’s centrist government in July.
“Not a minute’s respite for the enemies of the Republic,” he tweeted at the time.
Last week four schoolchildren, all aged 10, were taken from their homes and interrogated for hours after allegedly praising the murder of the teacher at the school.
He also blamed ethnic food aisles in supermarkets for contributing to the division between French communities, causing a mixture of outrage and mockery. “It always shocked me to go to a supermarket and see that when you walk in there would be one type of ethnic food selection here and another next to it,” Darmanin Told BFMTV.
Eighteen months before the presidential election, Macron’s turn to the right could seek to appeal to far-right voters. In 2017, he won in the second round in a landslide against Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front, beating her with 66% of the vote.
Yet Le Pen’s party has had a growing influence on French politics since 2000, and she recently called for expanding legislative powers “to attack Islamism.”
“Of course, there is the question of terrorism, and it is a real problem in France, but it is above all a competition between the right and the extreme right which shapes the debate”, declared Amel Boubekeur, sociologist at the Higher School Studies in social sciences and specialist in Islam in Europe.
“France’s universalist model has been endangered by its inability to fight discrimination and make terrorism a matter of security and not of ideology. The race against the far right played a big role in it, ”she added.
Seeking to calm the situation, the government launched a communications offensive. Macron has sought to clarify on several occasions that he is cracking down on radical Islamism, not Islam, including in the international press. After anti-French demonstrations across the Middle East, Asia and Africa, he notably gave a rare interview to the Qatari channel Al Jazeera to dispel what he called “misunderstandings”.
“What I would like to clarify, contrary to what I have heard about in recent days, is that our country is the one that has no problem with any of the world’s religions, because they are all practiced freely in our country. . country, ”Macron said.
“To all French people of Muslim faith, and even to citizens from all over the world whose religion is Islam, I would like to tell them that France is a country in which this religion is also freely practiced.
French Muslims surveyed in 2017 seemed to largely agree with him. The Ipsos Institute found that 81% of those questioned had a positive view of French secularism, but 44% of French Muslims believe that the rest of society considers them little. This figure rose to 61% among those earning less than the minimum wage.
If the president wants the world to believe that France has no religious problems, he has even more to convince.
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