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France: State Islamophobia under President Emmanuel Macron

Published on 24 Jan 2024

Emmanuel Macron was elected in May 2017 for the first of his two terms on an electoral platform promising an inclusive, open and modern liberal society where multiculturalism—which had been a negative term in French media and politics—was refreshingly presented as an asset for the country.

Such a positive and affirming understanding of multiculturalism was, and remains, very much against the grain of France’s “universalist and indivisible” Republic, where dominant media and politics systematically depict multiculturalism in vilifying terms. In France’s mainstream including its media and politicians, if imported to France, multiculturalism would fragment the nation, “balkanize” its population, and endanger France’s le vivre-ensemble. This latter popular expression is largely a fantasized national “togetherness” that is paradoxically invoked, along with other ideological fetishes like “French Universalism” and “laïcité,” to reject diversity and stigmatize, “otherize”  and exclude certain groups, first and foremost veiled Muslim women

But not for Macron, the 2017 candidate. 

The pluralism and diversity of France including its new ethnic and religious diversity had to be embraced as a considerable comparative advantage and a chance for France, he proclaimed on the campaign trail. His apparent sincerity was reinforced by his young age, natural charisma, lack of perceivable prejudices against any minority, and strong international orientation as both a passionate Europeanist and a fervent Atlantiste

Such was Macron’s discourse on the campaign trail. But his practice of power once in the Élysée Palace turned out to be not just different, but the exact opposite of his  promises. French Muslims’ hopes that Macron would help bring about a new, more open and accepting France, at least one less hostile to their religion, never materialized, far from it.

During his years in office, Macron I and II and his various governments have consistently worked to take state and societal Islamophobia to unprecedented levels. To summarize the consequences of his discourse, actions, and policies, they have not just aggravated an already severe rejection of Islam and the discriminations that accompany it, they have taken it to the level of a veritable persecution of Muslims. 

In all fairness, President Macron certainly did not create French Islamophobia nor is he the main cause of it. It long predates his first election or the 5th Republic itself.  From the Medieval Crusades initiated by Pope Urban II in 1095 to Macron’s current “war-on-Islamism”, along with the crucial centuries of imperial conquest, colonization, and racist Civilizing Missions of Muslim-majority countries like Algeria, Islam and Muslims have always been viewed through the largely medieval/colonial prism of anti-Muslim tropes. Namely with fear, resentment, lack of understanding (always), and often hatred, as a dangerous foreign religion that needs to be securitized

Like his predecessors, Macron inherited that richly layered Islamophobic edifice with its many different, uneven or overlapping, temporalities within which it is inscribed. But since 2017, he has steadfastly and creatively worked to enrich, expand, and solidify France’s Republic of Islamophobia.  

It is under Macron and as a result of his policies that French Islamophobia has undergone a dramatic transformative process of extreme, never before-seen (in the 5th Republic) radicalization that combines five dynamics: 1) horizontal expansion 2) vertical penetration 3) legalization and judicialization 4) methodical, quasi scientific systematization at governmental, state, and societal levels 5) weaponization of the entire state apparatus for Islamophobic purposes.

The combination of those trends, which have been steady and deliberate—a matter of public policy—has transformed for the worse the nature of French Islamophobia and taken it to a whole qualitatively new level. In the process, it has changed not only the lives of French and foreign Muslims in that country, making it increasingly unbearable and unlivable while leading to a veritable, quiet but real Muslim brain drain, but it has also profoundly damaged France itself. 

France  can no longer credibly present itself to the world as a Republic of liberté, égalité, fraternité given none of those three fundamental principles of the nation are granted to its Muslim population or, increasingly, to those non-Muslims perceived as their “treacherous” allies. Those now find themselves equally stigmatized, vilified, and nominally slandered as “Islamo-leftists”, “Islamo-fascists”, “Fréristes”, etc.—“Enemies of the State”—by France’s own top officials, media, and certain academics. That latter group, a mere few scholars, always the same, are mediatized to the exclusion of far better ones because they willingly serve as the academic alibis and purveyors of Islamophobic ideologies to an increasingly anti-Muslim state. For example, Gilles Kepel’s latest conceptual gadget of “atmospheric Jihadism” is now commonly invoked by state officials and ministers each time a new repressive measure is passed

But it is first of all Muslims and perceived Muslims who are no longer living in a free democratic and egalitarian Republic, if they ever were. 

The horizontal expansion of state Islamophobia refers to the process by which more and more individuals, groups, and institutions from the civil society and private sector—Muslim parents of public school children, Islamic human rights associations, sports clubs, etc.—are forcefully incorporated in and subjected to a falsified and perverted form of authoritarian, Islamophobic and repressive laicism. This deformed, pseudo laicité is light years away from France’s secularism principles as incarnated in the democratic, generous, egalitarian and open spirit and text of the original 1905 Law on the Separation of Churches and the State.

On the other hand, vertical penetration describes the dynamic by which state control, coercion, restrictions, and repression of religious and other liberties penetrate deeper and deeper, in an ever-more intrusive and controlling manner into the private lives of Muslims. This includes family life, educational choices especially private Islamic schools and homeschooling, freedom to dress as one wants, freedom of consciousness, freedom of thought including theological beliefs, creed, dogma, and articles of faith.

In its relation between the State and Islam, France has now crossed the red line of the criminalization of thought and religious beliefs. Abundant evidence of this can be found easily by any observer of the French scene.  

For example, the Charter of Islamic Principles, which Macron himself pressured France’s Muslim religious authorities to sign under explicit threat of repression if they refused, seeks to force Muslims to formally recognize the superiority of the French Republic over their own faith and religion. Some of the articles of the charter specifically declare that “state racism does not exist,” that mosques cannot have any political agenda or engage in any political or ideological activity or discourse, and that they must ban a more-than-vaguely defined “political Islam.” Spearheaded by Macron’s hardline Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, who once declared in a high-profile prime-time television debate that he was shocked by the sight of halal food items in the supermarkets, this blatant attack on the freedom of Muslims to define even the theological parameters of their own religion as well as to engage in political and civic activism, clearly constitutes a massive violation of freedom of consciousness and religion. 

The most outrageous example of the criminalization of thought and increasingly of any Muslim-led criticism of governmental policy has been the dissolution, of the Collective Against Islamophobia (CCIF), France’s largest organization of legal defense of Muslim victims of discrimination and of the Coordination Against Racism and Islamophobia (CRI). The “evidence” Darmanin provided of “incitement to hatred and violence” as grounds for shutting down those organizations included the following: “cultivating the suspicion that Islamophobia exists in French society”; “using the expression ‘institutionalized Islamophobia’”; “comparing the French military interventions in Mali, Libya and Somalia to the terrorist attacks that took place on French soil,” and more. 

The Macron government and France’s parliamentary majority have deployed an intense legislative activity that has further entrenched state Islamophobia in France’s legal and judicial system itself. This includes the August 2021 law against “Islamist Separatism” (later renamed Law to Strengthen Respect for the Principles of the Republic), almost all of whose many articles are targeting Muslims. Even associations are now forced to take an oath of “loyalty to the Republic”, a sort of nationalism test, if they want the support of the State through subsidies, permission to use a public building, etc. What is here being eradicated, one space at a time, one activity at a time, is the very possibility for Muslims, but also for non-Muslims, to organize themselves or even just live autonomously from the State’s creeping and hostile authoritarianism.

Two pivotal moments can be identified when all those dynamics coalesced and took on new impetus. The first was  the October 8, 2019 speech against the “Islamist Hydra.” In this speech, Macron declared that all the forces of the State will not be enough to defeat that multi-headed monster but that it’s up to the entire nation, which needs to unite, mobilize and be ready to act,” in order to develop a “society of vigilance” where in perfect Orwellian logic everyone must be looking out for any signs of people at risk of being influenced by “Islamist networks.” The second is the infamous October 2, 2020  Mureaux speech against “Islamist separatism,” which would soon lead to the seminal law against separatism on August 24, 2021.

This pivotal sequence took French state Islamo-paranoia to a new radical level and qualitatively changed the nature of the War on Terror, though as explained earlier, the seeds of that mutation had been planted long before Macron, especially through former Prime Minister Manuel Vall’s fight against “political Islam”. This has been aided by the fraudulent yet immensely influential “continuum theory” (also referred to as “conveyor belt theory” of radicalization), according to which non-violent “extremist” views lead to violent Jihadist extremism in a seamless continuum between religious orthopraxy, conservative rigorism (such as Salafism), “radicalism”, “extremism”, and terrorism. What started as a war against terrorism has thus morphed and expanded vertiginously into a war against “Islamism” or simply “political Islam”. In this context, any sign of Islamic religiosity and faith including simply praying, fasting during Ramadan, or wearing a hijab, any civic engagement on the part of Muslims is immediately perceived, defined, and treated by state powers as part of that ominous and ubiquitous “Islamist” existential threat.

More than mere words or dramatic speeches, since 2019, Macron has been patiently and methodically weaponizing the entire state apparatus including its core ideological principles such as laïcité to Islamophobic consequences, if not intention. 

This project, which largely goes under the radar and to this day remains mostly unknown even to the French, named Systematic Obstruction Policy (SOP), was revealed and analyzed for the first time by the remarkable report of CAGE-UK, entitled “’We Are Beginning to Spread Terror’. The State-Sponsored Persecution of Muslims in France.” The report documents how in a mere four years, thousands of Islamic institutions of all sorts—mosques, schools, associations, clubs, bookstores, charities, human rights organizations, private businesses etc.— have been targeted and often shut down through simple executive or administrative decrees under the sole accusation they were “Islamist” or “separatist”. This has now become routine.

A veritable grid of control now covers the entire territory, penetrating and monitoring the entire French society through a nationwide, intricately connected network of local, regional, and national surveillance & repression institutions. Macron’s Systematic Obstruction Policy has multiple goals: it seeks to pacify Muslims perceived as threats; to criminalize as “radical,” “Islamist,” and “separatist” any type of Islamic practice, behavior, discourse (especially the critical dissenting one), creed, doctrine, and civic activity not fully sanctioned and controlled by the State itself; thus, to prevent any possibility for Muslims to organize themselves autonomously; and to “reform,” reshape, reeducate, and normatize the entire religion of Islam strictly and exclusively according to the norms, ideologies, and principles of France’s secular Republic.     

More than just surveillance and policing, Macron’s SOP can thus be described as a systematic, aggressive, and hostile takeover of an entire religion in all its dimensions including practice, internal organization, and theological doctrine, by paranoid and deeply Islamophobic state elites.  

The five dynamics listed and explained above have found their purest (so far) institutional incarnation and implementation in Macron’s Systematic Obstruction Policy, which partakes of an ever-worsening and expanding repressive securitization of a religion and its practitioners perceived as a threat to the nation. For that reason, Islam and its practitioners are more than ever perceived and treated as being in need of control, surveillance, change, and if not, suppression.

In conclusion, it can be said that under Macron, Muslims in France have moved from distrust and discrimination (an old story) to a veritable situation of active and methodical persecution by the State itself, which now even seeks to change and regulate their religious beliefs, while reorganizing the entire French society (school, associative life etc.) around that imperative. And that is something new, even for an old colonial state like France with centuries of practices of domination over Muslims.

Dr Alain Gabon is Associate Professor of French Studies and chair of the Department of Foreign Languages & Literatures at Virginia Wesleyan University in Virginia Beach, USA. He has written and lectured widely in the US, Europe and beyond on contemporary French culture, politics, literature and the arts and more recently on Islam and Muslims. His works have been published in several countries in academic journals, think tanks, and mainstream and specialized media such as Saphirnews, Milestones. Commentaries on the Islamic World, and Les Cahiers de l’Islam. His recent essay entitled “The Twin Myths of the Western ‘Jihadist Threat’ and ‘Islamic Radicalisation ‘” is available in French and English on the site of the UK Cordoba Foundation.