In the wake of recent terrorist attacks and with barely a year until France elects a new president, the country is fiercely debating a new law that seeks to rein in Islamic extremism, which critics say only further stigmatizes Muslims.
(CN) — France’s politics are shifting to the right — some worry to the far right — in the run-up to next year’s presidential elections and French Muslims are bearing the brunt of this turn as they come under attack as enemies of the nation’s founding republican values.
The signs of this right-ward shift are mushrooming as France mends deep scars inflicted on it by a series of terrorist attacks carried out by Islamic extremists in the past six years that have left more than 250 killed and over 900 wounded.
The latest attacks occurred last fall when a middle school teacher was beheaded after he showed his class controversial cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed and subsequently three Catholic worshippers were stabbed to death in a church in Nice.
The series of attacks have turned many French against Muslims, opinion polls show. A Pew Research Center survey in spring 2016 found only about 29% of French respondents saying they had a negative view of Muslims. By October 2020, an IFOP poll found 79% of those questioned believed Islamic extremists had declared war on France and its values.
Amid this atmosphere and a collapse of France’s left-wing parties, far-right leader Marine Le Pen is gaining momentum and polls show her only narrowly losing to French President Emmanuel Macron if a presidential election were held today. A Le Pen victory remains highly unlikely, but not completely unthinkable, in the actual elections, with a first round of voting set for April 2022 and runoffs in May.
Macron, once seen as Europe’s liberal champion, is a driving force behind this rightward drift: In speeches, he’s declared Islam a troubled religion around the world and that France’s core values are being undermined by “Islamic separatism.”
“What we must tackle is Islamist separatism,” he said in an October speech where he proposed a new law against this perceived threat. In the speech, he laid out steps to rein in Islamic extremism, such as crackdowns on radical groups and cutting off their financing from abroad and training imams in France rather than allow them to be brought in from the wider Muslim world. He said he wants to “forge an Enlightenment Islam in France.”
“It’s indoctrination and, through this, the negation of our principles, gender equality and human dignity,” he said in describing a France where a “counter-society” of Muslims refuse to join French life and demand France adapt to their beliefs by serving halal food at school cafeterias and separating men and women at public swimming pools.
“We aren’t a society of individuals. We’re a nation of citizens,” Macron said.
In effect, Macron’s rhetoric mimics those on the far right who claim Muslim radicals are proliferating due to the growth of a parallel society within France where French Muslim children are taught to despise the republic’s founding principles: la liberté, l’égalité, la fraternité, l’éducation, la laïcité.
The last of these five principles — laïcité, or in English secularism — is at the heart of this heated debate over French Muslims and their place in French society.
In France, perhaps unlike anywhere else in the world, secularism carries with it a deep, powerful and complicated symbolic meaning. It’s more than the separation of religion and state: Laïcité is a central pillar in French society and it rests on the idea that every citizen — regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, gender — is equal.
In pursuit of a “color-blind republic,” France does not recognize ethnic and racial differences. It is actually illegal for the government to gather information about a person’s ethnicity or religion. This policy was written into the post-World War II constitution in response to the Vichy regime’s role in identifying and deporting Jews to Nazi concentration camps.
For this reason, it is also impossible to know with any exactitude how many…