President Emmanuel Macron has stirred controversy even beyond the Muslim world with a staunch defence of the French model for secularism and integration of minorities in the wake of a string of attacks blamed on Islamist radicals.
The approach of Macron to the integration of Europe’s largest Muslim community and his combative rhetoric towards radical Islam have been called into question not just in angry protests in Islamic countries but by English-language newspapers and even international political allies.
“Is France fuelling Muslim terrorism by trying to prevent it?” read the headline in a recent column in the New York Times. The Washington Post newspaper advised him to fight racism rather than try to “reform Islam”.
Analysts say his stance and the response has highlighted how the French approach to the integration of immigrants contrasts to that of countries like Britain and Canada that try to accommodate minorities by allowing them to retain a separate identity.
“The French model is based on assimilation, although in practise it doesn’t always work so well,” said Francois Heisbourg, special adviser at the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research.
“There is just one France, not a group of Muslims, a group of Sikhs and so forth, like in Canada,” he added.
Domestic support for a firm line on the need for immigrants to embrace French values is stronger than ever since the grisly beheading last month of schoolteacher Samuel Paty, who showed his pupils cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in a lesson on free speech.
Paying tribute to the slain teacher, Macron defended France’s strict brand of secularism and its long tradition of satire. “We will not give up cartoons,” he vowed.
These comments came on the heels of a speech in early October in which he described Islam as being “in crisis” and assailed “Islamist separatism” in parts of France.
His approach did win some applause in Western media, with the Economist publishing a piece entitled “Voltaire’s heirs — France is right to defend free speech.”
Raja Ben Slama, a Tunisian professor of humanities and Arab civilisations, defended his comments on cartoons last month, saying he spoke as the “president of a democratic country — with a tradition of secularism and freedom to blaspheme.”
She stressed however that the French “must respect others’ particularities and stop stigmatising veiled women, for example.”
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, with whom Macron enjoys close ties, took a reproving tone on the cartoons, warning that “freedom of expression is not unlimited” and urging everyone to “be aware of the impact of our words and actions on others.”
The Financial Times, a paper usually enthusiastic in its support for Macron, published a piece by a correspondent entitled “Macron’s war on ‘Islamic separatism’ only divides France further”.
The paper later took down the column, citing factual errors, but shortly after published a piece by French scholar Olivier Roy with the headline “French battle against Islamist ‘separatism’ is at odds with commitment to liberty.”
Defending France’s stance in a letter to the FT in which he denied stigmatising Muslims, Macron wrote “France — we are attacked for this — is as secular for Muslims as for Christians, Jews, Buddhists and all believers.”
The notion that newcomers should blend seamlessly into French society dates to colonial times when adopting French customs, including Western-style dress, were among the “civilising factors” assessed in determining who should be awarded citizenship.
The idea of assimilation regained popularity during the 2007-2012 presidency of right-wing leader Nicolas Sarkozy when support for France’s secularist principles, or “laicite”, became a litmus test of integration into French society.
Rooted in the anticlericalism that drove the French Revolution, secularism has been repeatedly invoked to combat the rise of radical Islam based on a 1905 law on the separation of church and state.
It drove the 2004 ban on the wearing of the Muslim headscarf and other religious symbols in state schools and it has also been brandished in defence of the Mohammed cartoons and the right to blaspheme.
While the majority of French Muslims support secularism, surveys also show most oppose the publication of Mohammed cartoons, seeing them as a provocation.
“Under cover of a debate on values, what we have is a debate on identity,” Christophe Bertossi, director of the Centre for Migration and Citizenship of the French Institute for International Relations, told AFP.
He argued that France should drop the tough rhetoric and take inspiration from Britain to halt radicalisation, “by working closely with communities on the ground, building relationships and solidarity and fighting against all forms of spatial, racial and religious discrimination and segregation.”
For Heisbourg, the battle against radicalisation will be fought and won in public schools.
“The challenge for France is how to create a sense of shared citizenship from a very early age,” he said, calling for a much greater emphasis on civic instruction in the classroom.
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