Emmanuel Macron making a speech. Photo: Amaury Laporte / Flickr / cropped from original / licensed under CC 2.0, links at the bottom of article Emmanuel Macron making a speech. Photo: Amaury Laporte / Flickr / cropped from original / licensed under CC 2.0, links at the bottom of article

As a second wave of Covid-19 powers through France, a beleaguered president bent on re-election invokes a familiar Islamophobic trope, says Susan Ram

On October 2, French President Emmanuel Macron, together with a posse of senior ministers, travelled to Les Mureaux, a Seine-side suburban community about 35 kilometres north-east of Paris, to deliver a speech. What was its content? Did it address the fresh wave of coronavirus now spreading exponentially through France? Did it set out a clear strategy to bear down on the virus as winter and the annual flu season draw near? Did it engage in any way with the pandemic’s catastrophic economic and social fall-out, with the misery of millions of citizens confronting job losses, health risks at work and looming nationwide economic meltdown?

Well, no. The ‘problem’ Macron was minded to bring to the nation’s attention was of a different order of magnitude (at least from the perspective of one whose gimlet eye is already fixed on the 2022 presidential elections). What really ought to be troubling French citizens at this time, said Macron with his familiar blend of gravitas and sanctimony, was the threat to the nation posed by ‘Islamic separatism’.

‘Separatism’ in the French context

In France, ’separatism’ is a loaded term, rich in negative connotations and with a specific application to French citizens who are Muslim by religious practice, heritage and/or culture. It thus carries a particular freight of meanings even when not prefixed by ‘Muslim’ or ‘Islamic’. Placing this word at the centre of a much-heralded, nationally televised discourse, therefore, sends out unambiguous signals.

As applied in France, ‘separatism’ is also a slippery concept whose point of reference is amenable to subtle shifts. One of its Janus faces is directed at the putative home-grown ‘threat’: France’s six million or so Muslim citizens, many of them living in poverty and misery in suburban banlieues (sink estates): the result of decades of neglect and discrimination in the context of uneven capitalist development. Here, ‘separatism’ becomes a key part of the vocabulary used to stand this reality on its head, a means to portray French Muslims as actively hiving themselves off from mainstream society. Specific cultural practices, particularly those relating to dress and food preferences, are then cited as evidence of Muslims’ unwillingness or refusal to integrate.

‘At other times, ‘separatism’ switches direction to train its sights on the ‘threat without’ – the lurking external presence of radical Islam. Here, the term is invoked to describe a burrowing process, the pursuit of a long-term agenda by which extreme forms of Islam (Wahhabism, Salafism) are insinuating their way into France, in preparation for seizing power and crushing the French way of life. Proponents of this theory readily draw on recent history, in particular the horrific sequence of terrorist attacks across France in 2015 (Charlie Hebdo in January; the attacks in Paris in November which left 130 dead) and 2016 (the July truck attack in Nice, which killed 86 people out for an evening stroll along the promenade).  

But note the way in which a sliding together is effected here, a subtle linguistic reinforcement of the notion that Muslim equals separatist equals Islamist equals terrorist. A much-overlooked fact is that many of those killed on the Nice seafront were Muslims. Statements issued by Islamic organisations deploring terrorist violence routinely attract scant attention in the mainstream media: here, the terms of debate on all things Muslim-related tend to be set by a gaggle of far-right ‘intellectuals’ (Éric Zemmour, Alain Finkielkraut, Michel Houellebecq) who sport their Islamophobia, racism and sexism as badges of honour.  

‘Separatism’ à la Macron

Both faces of ‘separatism’ – one beamed on the ‘danger within’, the other on the external menace with French civilisation in its sights – received a fresh airing in Macron’s speech.  

The ‘danger without’: wherever radicalised Muslim clerics were on the move – either entering the country or travelling overseas for training — they must be stopped or at the very least tightly regulated. Ditto the funding of French mosques and Muslim cultural associations. And why stop there? Why not bring the whole edifice of Muslim organisation and practice within the purview of the state?

As the Financial Times journalist Mehreen Khan quipped:

“Macron wants to centralise Islam with state-approved imams, institutions, and texts. If he succeeds, it would make France the rightful heir to the Ottoman Empire and the first Caliphate in western Europe. He will succeed where the Muslim Brotherhood failed. I’m living for it tbh.” 

The ‘danger within’: here, Macron flagged up the home-schooling of children, involving perhaps 20,000 out of France’s more than 12 million children of school age,  as a threat demanding priority action. Henceforth, he vowed, the home-schooling option would be available solely on health grounds. As for public sector workers (those in transport, airports and other high-visibility roles came in for special mention), the new legislation would absolutely prohibit them from conducting prayers at their places of work or in other ways compromising their ‘duty of neutrality.’ All outward displays of religious affiliation would be banned in schools and the public service (wearing the hijab is already banned in both locations). 

Timing and political context

The plan is to bundle these and other proposals into a bill to be presented to the Council of Ministers in December. Discussion of the bill will then pass to parliament in early 2021, enabling its enactment in time for next year’s regional elections and — crucially — well ahead of the start of the 2022 presidential election campaign. 

This timetable says a great deal about the purposes of Macron’s new ‘anti-separatism’ law.

A familiar pattern is evident here: that of a beleaguered French president resorting to the dangerous game of seeking to out-flank the far right.

Macron’s problems are growing by the day, in tandem with his manifest inability to address them. Whether it’s the pandemic regathering force in the context of an inadequate governmental response focused on getting people back to work, or the intransigent, yellow-jacketed opposition amassed on the streets, or centrist dreams of a shiny neoliberal future fading fast, nothing seems to be going to ‘Manu’ Macron’s plan.

As for the president’s standing in the country, polls consistently place his level of support at well below 40 per cent of voters; a recent poll for the newspaper Le Figaro reported a calamitous 6 percentage point drop in the past month, with only 29 per cent of those sampled now registering approval for the nation’s leader.

There is a risible, theatre of the absurd quality to the actions the French state has resorted to over recent years to marginalise, stigmatise and punish its Muslim citizens. Back in 2004, small girls across France were banned from wearing headscarves at school. In 2011, France stole a march on the rest of Europe by being the first state to outlaw the niqab (the full face veil) in public places, making its wearing illegal virtually anywhere outside the home. Then swimming pools became the focus of a national panic, with both leading candidates in 2012 presidential election campaign (François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy) attacking the decision of a municipal swimming pool in Lille to allow a group of women (some of them Muslim) to hold a separate aqua gym class. And in the summer of 2016, beaches along the Côte d’Azur became effective no-go zones for Muslim women opting to keep their bodies covered when swimming or enjoying the sun.

Waiting in the wings, ready to abet this grotesque show by adding its own contributions to the mix, is the French far right, specifically the Rassemblement National (the restyled Front National) and its savvy leader, Marine le Pen. Waiting and watching as election time comes round again, and Emmanuel Macron, incapable of learning from history, prepares the ground for their advance.

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Susan Ram

Susan Ram is a writer, editor and journalist based in south-west France. She's currently at work on a book about the French Left, for publication in India, where she lived for many years.