There are times when French secularism and jihadist violence seem locked in a struggle to the bitter end. Last autumn was one of them. In September, two people were stabbed outside the former offices of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo. In October, Samuel Paty, a 47-year-old teacher in the Conflans-Sainte-Honorine suburb of Paris, was beheaded after he showed two Charlie Hebdo cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad to pupils during a civics class on freedom of expression. A few days later, three people were murdered, and several injured, in a knife attack at the basilica of Notre-Dame in Nice. The attacks, all carried out in the name of Islam, took place nearly six years after the atrocities at Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in Paris, and five years after the Bataclan massacres: hundreds of enemy dead had already been notched up by jihadists operating on French territory.
In this high-stakes, low-intensity war of insult and injury, death is no measure of defeat. Like Paty, who was honoured by Macron at the Sorbonne last October, the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack in 2015 (twelve dead, eleven injured) are remembered in France as fallen warriors of secularism. The killers who have died along the way – including Paty’s murderer, Abdoullakh Anzorov, the 18-year-old son of Chechen refugees – are martyrs in the eyes of radical Islamists around the world. France, in their view, is an intolerant and profane country, still dreaming of its old ‘civilising mission’ in the colonies, fomenting atheism abroad and discouraging religion at home – especially Islam, a religion of the colonised peoples who would go on to supply France with large numbers of immigrants.
In France, unlike the US, there is no wealthy Christian evangelical movement with the power to hijack secular republican values. The Catholic Church in France, stripped of its properties and public funding, has stood its ground as a cultural redoubt, with roughly half of the population identifying as Catholics, and the vast majority respecting the principle of secularism. The 1905 law on the separation of church and state, far from discouraging religion, allows all faiths to prosper under the agnostic eye of the state. But radical Islamist doctrines are a source of anxiety for non-Muslim French, and for many French of Muslim origin. Jihadist terrorism lies at the root of this fear, but even non-violent Islamism is cast as an insidious enemy with a political agenda that might one day get the better of secular values, as it does in Michel Houellebecq’s novel Soumission (2015).
Last month a long-awaited ‘anti-separatism’ bill began its journey through parliament under a more anodyne title: it’s now a bill ‘strengthening respect for the principles of the Republic’. It is aimed chiefly at the activities of radical Islamists, whether they run private associations or wield influence in France’s mosques, of which there are roughly 2500. (In Britain the figure is closer to 1500.) But ‘Islamism’ is an imprecise definition, and there is no knowing how many French citizens the government suspects of disloyalty or outright anti-republican ideology, or indeed how many deeply devout Muslims, for whom faith takes precedence over worldly injunctions, have nonetheless learned to live with secular principles. Defending laïcité without turning it into a new authoritarianism has become an immense challenge, and it’s not made any easier by the fact that Charlie Hebdo, with its habit of ridiculing Islamic tradition and enraging Muslims, remains an emblem of secular values since the murders in its offices six years ago.
Terrorist acts committed by ‘Muslims’ in France and its former colonies are nothing new: the Algerian Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) was responsible for several in the 1950s and early 1960s. In the 1970s France saw several attacks by Palestinian terrorists, many of Muslim origin, acting in tandem with Christian Palestinians. But no terrorist groups with links to nationalist struggles in the Arab world gave Islam much thought in their propaganda until the mid-1980s, when a bombing campaign in and around Paris left thirteen dead and hundreds wounded. It was masterminded by Fouad Ali Saleh, who was of Tunisian origin and claimed to be acting in the name of God as well as in support of political detainees in Arab states: the second claim was even more disingenuous than the first. Saleh was a member of Hizbullah and a staunch supporter of Ayatollah Khomeini. During the Iran-Iraq War, France had fallen in behind Saddam Hussein, providing Exocets and fighter aircraft to Baghdad; French companies may even have supplied the regime with precursor elements for chemical weapons. Saleh had all the hallmarks of an undercover operator in the service of a foreign power, taking the fight to its enemies.
After ten years of relative calm, France was the target of fresh attacks in the 1990s, carried out by the Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA), an ultra-radical Algerian faction that had seen an Islamist electoral victory snatched away by the army in Algiers. In 1989, as calls for multi-party democracy rang out across Africa, the FLN, which had run Algeria for nearly thirty years, amended the constitution and set a date for parliamentary elections. But when a new religious party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), carried the first round, the regime shut down the process. Anticipating a new wave of immigration in flight from the Islamic state FIS proposed to create, François Mitterrand’s government was already drawing up contingency plans for refugee camps in the South of France when the second round was cancelled. Mitterrand made a show of dismay about the betrayal of democracy, but his administration sided with the Algerian military and security apparatus. A terrible civil war ensued. Most of the GIA’s activities were confined to Algeria, but in 1995 it was responsible for eight deaths and several hundred injuries in Paris. Once again, a belligerent in an armed conflict abroad had opened up a theatre of operations in France. And once again, France was far from being an innocent bystander. As the conflict in Algeria intensified, the French interior minister, Charles Pasqua, was openly supportive of the army’s repression. The GIA was well aware of this complicity when it launched its attacks in France. It could also invoke the humiliating experience of colonial rule in Algeria and the bitter war in the run-up to independence. As far as the GIA was concerned, there was no such thing as blood under the bridge: France had signed off on a stolen election, colonialism was alive and well.
The foot soldiers of jihad who appeared after the turn of the century were maverick figures, far harder for French intelligence to pinpoint than secular nationalists – the Palestinians, Corsican (and Basque) separatists – or even the radical Islamist opponents of foreign regimes who lit a fuse in France. But an early prototype, Khaled Kelkal, had already emerged during their investigation of the GIA’s cells in France. Kelkal had been raised in Lyon; he was a diligent pupil at school; he had dual citizenship, Algerian and French. During a stint in prison he came under the influence of Islamist inmates. He was released and inducted into the GIA in his early twenties and started running missions to Algeria, where he became fully radicalised. He was tracked down near Lyon and killed by the police in 1995.
There are murky areas in the Kelkal dossier, including the possibility that his recruiter, who was murdered in a hotel in Algiers a few years later, may have been working for the Algerian secret services. Nevertheless, Kelkal anticipates several of the jihadi terrorists who were about to appear on the scene in France. Most of them have at least two biographical details in common with him: raised in a difficult banlieue on the margins of a large French city; tolerable performance in class, useful in the workplace, well-behaved; a lapse into crime; religious radicalisation in jail; attendance at a local mosque; disappearance from the mosque; and somewhere along the line, travel in a Muslim-majority country. Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, the Charlie Hebdo killers, were raised by social services in an orphanage miles from a big conurbation, but aside from that, there were striking similarities with Kelkal; the same was true of their accomplice, Amedy Coulibaly, who shot a black policewoman and later four Jewish people in the kosher supermarket atrocity. As a young adult, Chérif Kouachi had come under the influence of Farid Benyettou, a radical preacher in Paris. Later, he and Coulibaly had been groomed in prison by Djamel Beghal, an inmate with links to the GIA.
The new generation of killers was shaped in the 2000s, after the al-Qaida attacks in the US. It was clear by then that there was not going to be a secular democratic transformation in the Maghreb or the Middle East. Secular democracy, with its promises of social justice and income stability, had been thwarted or simply failed; since the Oslo Accords in 1993 the Palestinian cause looked all but extinguished. New, impatient calls for change were increasingly identified with Islam. In this disaffected turn to religion, the Iranian revolution was a seductive model, even for people in Sunni majority states. The Algerian story – democracy betrayed – suggested that violence was the only path. Grand gestures like bin Laden’s, which could alter the course of history, exercised a sinister fascination.
Around the time of 9/11, Google had just begun selling keyword advertising at $0.05 a click. In 2006, a Facebook account was available to anyone who claimed to be over twelve years of age and could provide an email address. Internet cafés were a growing phenomenon and mobile data would soon be affordable for low-income users in most parts of the world. A free exchange of views and rival ideologies coincided with the rise of criminal networks in cyberspace. As the role of Western governments in armed adventures abroad was denounced on the internet, the seizure of computers by state prosecution services in the West became commonplace.
France had played a discreet, supportive role in the invasion of Afghanistan, but had refused to take part in the invasion of Iraq. Nonetheless, it faced growing problems at home as inequalities in terms of housing, jobs and social integration became more apparent, especially to immigrants of colour and their descendants. Macron is not the first French politician to invoke ‘ghettoisation’. ‘We ourselves,’ he said a few weeks before Paty’s murder, ‘have built our own separatism’ by concentrating ‘misery and hardship’ in urban areas, mainly the banlieues. At the same time, France is no less susceptible than other democracies to the appeal of the far right. The Le Pen family has reached the second round of presidential elections twice: in 2002 against Jacques Chirac and 2017 against Macron himself. The last ten years have also seen French nativist thinkers taken up by the European media, where they sound off about ‘the white race’ (Nadine Morano, a former minister, in 2015), its demographic ‘extinction’ by non-white ‘replacement’ (Renaud Camus, a disciple of Roland Barthes, in 2011), the ‘suicidal’ tendency of French people to marry foreigners (Éric Zemmour in 2014) and a growing sense that the ‘French’ are a ‘minority in their own country’ (Alain Finkielkraut in 2013).
Suspicion of Muslims and their faith has built a solid ideological path to the new, racialised, anti-Islamic, anti-immigrant secularism. It has also led to a profound lack of confidence among French Muslims in the republican principles they’re endlessly instructed to observe. In 2019 the findings of an Ifop (Institut français d’opinion publique) poll, commissioned by a government anti-discrimination committee, suggested a far higher incidence of ‘verbal aggression’ against Muslim than non-Muslim French (24 per cent to 9), and more than double the number of instances of physical violence motivated, in the victims’ view, by racism or religious prejudice. Among French Muslims the experience of being singled out goes back a long way, but to understand their suspicions that a new level of intolerance has set in, we have to take up the story again after Jean-Marie Le Pen’s success in round one of the 2002 elections.
Shortly after he was returned to office Chirac convened a commission on secularism. On the basis of its findings, the Islamic veil – including the traditional headscarf, which doesn’t cover the face – was banned in schools. The 2004 law against conspicuous religious signs applied to pupils of all faiths, but the vast majority of Muslim pupils and their parents saw the ban as a new, official form of discrimination. The following year two boys in the Paris banlieue of Clichy-sous-Bois were electrocuted when they fled from the police and hid in a power substation. Zyed Benna, aged 17, who was of Tunisian origin, and Bouna Traoré, aged 15, whose family came from Mauritania, were both Muslim French; they died during Ramadan. There were local skirmishes with security forces, and teargas was fired into the forecourt of a warehouse, which turned out to be a mosque; it was still Ramadan and there were dozens of worshippers inside. Gilles Kepel reports in Terreur dans l’Hexagone (2015) that the incident was widely understood by Muslim French communities as sacrilege. Spectacular rioting broke out in banlieues across France.
Then, early in 2006, France Soir and Charlie Hebdo reprinted cartoons of Muhammad from the Danish broadsheet Jyllands-Posten. The Dutch video maker Theo van Gogh had been murdered by an Islamist terrorist at the end of 2004. In 2005 the Danish writer Kåre Bluitgen was struggling to find an illustrator for his children’s book about the life of Muhammad: no one was willing to risk the consequences of depicting God or the Prophet. Jyllands-Posten published the cartoons as a defence of freedom of expression. Charlie Hebdo’s decision to reproduce them was flagged as a gesture of support for its Danish colleagues, who had come under fierce international criticism. On the cover was a new, innocuous cartoon by ‘Cabu’ (Jean Cabut, who was murdered in his office at Charlie Hebdo in 2015), showing the Prophet in tears, ‘overwhelmed by fundamentalists’. But the Jyllands-Posten cartoons were more aggressive and French Muslims were stunned by the reproductions. In the space of five months, they had been asked to put up with everything, in Kepel’s phrase, ‘from profanation to blasphemy’. But there is no anti-blasphemy law in France. In 2010, during Sarkozy’s presidency, France went on to ban face-covering in public spaces. The niqab – not the balaclava worn by violent Corsican separatists – was the target here.
In 2012, as François Hollande was running for the presidency, Mohammed Merah, a 23-year-old with dual French-Algerian citizenship, killed three French soldiers and four Jewish civilians, three of them young children, in the Midi. The murders threw a long shadow over the presidential race, but an impressive campaign for the socialist vote in the banlieues had been launched in the wake of the riots seven years earlier and there was no stopping it; there is no doubt that it helped Hollande into the Elysée. But Hollande had nothing to offer his Muslim voters in return: his showcase law approving same-sex marriage didn’t chime with their priorities and many Muslims sympathised with Catholics opposed to the law. As perplexity and disillusion set in, there were harsh words from Hollande’s prime minister, Manuel Valls, about Muslim dress codes on the beach: the burkini was ‘the expression of a political project’, Valls argued. The more of her body a woman could expose, the more republican she was. What was so inclusive, French Muslims were beginning to ask, about legalising same-sex marriage but posting a posse at the school gate in case a girl turned up in a headscarf, or hustling women out of seaside resorts and swimming pools for failing to undress? Why had Hollande rewarded some minorities and ignored others? Why did it feel as though France had been on the offensive against Muslims, at home and abroad, since the conquest of Algeria in 1830?
Merah’s rampage and the incidents that followed – in Paris in 2015, and on Bastille Day in Nice in 2016, when a terrorist ploughed a lorry into a dense crowd – are still painfully fresh in public memory. They are not the only deadly attacks since 2012: the total is close to twenty, most of them claimed by Islamic State or an al-Qaida franchise. Among the unclaimed attacks are the most recent, including Paty’s murder. In the same period, France and its European partners have faced an increase in migration after the Arab spring, the consequences of toppling Gaddafi, the ongoing war in Syria and the rise and fall of the IS caliphate. A year after the Nato intervention in Libya, migrants began heading north across the central Mediterranean in large numbers, while transfusions of arms from Gaddafi’s arsenal entered the Levant – fuelling the war in Syria – and West Africa, where jihadism was a promising livelihood for thousands of impoverished youngsters.
The French presence in Afghanistan, meanwhile, had become less secretive and more costly than at the time of France’s original deployments after 9/11: thousands of French soldiers had served in Afghanistan by the time Hollande took office. One of his election pledges was to bring the troops home. The last French combatants left Afghanistan in the first year of his presidency, but within a matter of months Hollande began supplying Syrian rebels: he was a sworn enemy of the regime in Damascus on ‘humanitarian’ grounds. He also approved the deployment of French troops in Mali to combat the spread of jihadism in the Sahel. In 2014, the French military presence in West Africa became a pro tem fixture, as hundreds of French Muslim citizens left for Syria and Iraq to fight for the caliphate. Eight months after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Hollande moved against jihadist opponents of Bashar al-Assad – his enemy’s enemies – and authorised air strikes against IS targets in Syria. Coulibaly, the hostage-taker in the kosher supermarket in January 2015, claimed allegiance to IS. As far as we can tell, the assailants at the Bataclan in Paris later that year were members of a cell guided from Raqqa, an IS stronghold in Syria, which had been hit by French bombing raids the previous month.
Nearly three hundred people have died in France at the hands of jihadists in the last eight or nine years. (By comparison, fewer than a hundred have died in the UK in the last fifteen years, 52 of them in the London attacks of July 2005.) Reasons for the rise of jihadist terrorism in France are fiercely contested. ‘Islamo-gauchistes’ – a vacuous term which their opponents use for those on the left who don’t wish to stigmatise a group defined by religion – tend to stress economic and social disadvantage, as well as Europe’s aggressive foreign policy in countries that supplied it with cheap labour during and after the colonial period. Those who disagree, from the far right to the centre left, worry that French Muslims are slowly but surely divorcing themselves from republican principles.
Thinkers and journalists accused of Islamo-gauchisme – including rugged secular intellectuals such as Emmanuel Todd, the author of Who Is Charlie?, and Edwy Plenel, the publishing director of Mediapart, who nonetheless reject dogmatic secularism – see terrorism as a symptom of exclusion, not an expression of wilful separatism. In the eyes of their opponents, the opposite is true. Another vexed issue is the extent to which French, and Western, interventions overseas produce terrorism at home. Hardline advocates of secular republican values dismiss this possibility out of hand. They invoke countries such as Germany, Denmark, Belgium – and recently Austria – which have not been involved in high-level military adventures but have been hit by jihadist terrorism all the same. France is a target, a group of strategy and policy intellectuals argued recently in L’Obs, ‘not for what it does, but for what it is’. In their view, the country’s crime is to embody ‘the Enlightenment heritage’; if France ended all foreign intervention tomorrow, its grand achievements would still leave it open to jihadist attacks. Islamo-gauchistes don’t share this narcissistic confidence.
‘Republican values’, ‘la laïcité’, ‘Islamo-gauchisme’, ‘Islamist separatism’: the descriptions are thin, the voices are hoarse, and much of this dead conversation is conducted solely between political figures and the media. From time to time, after an atrocity, jihadists supply a decadent counter-chorus. Merah invoked Palestine as a pretext for the murder of Jewish schoolchildren in Toulouse. In Disturbance, a superb memoir about what happened at Charlie Hebdo on the morning of the killings and his long recovery afterwards, the journalist Philippe Lançon remembers lying on the office floor with part of his jaw shot away, as the Kouachi brothers stalked around, surveying the carnage, firing rounds and repeating ‘the phrase Allahu Akhbar’.Crowing after the November 2015 attacks, IS denounced Paris as ‘the capital of abominations and perversion’.
Charlie Hebdo was at the centre of public attention again last September, when 14 defendants charged with complicity in the January 2015 atrocities – three in absentia, possibly dead – went on trial before a special assizes in Paris (Benyettou, Chérif Kouachi’s mentor, was one of the witnesses). On the day the court convened, Charlie Hebdo reproduced some of the original Danish cartoons on its cover, along with Cabu’s drawing of the Prophet in tears. At three times its normal run, the issue sold out. This ‘bring it on’ approach is typical of the paper’s strategy and has been ever since 9/11, when Charlie positioned itself as a vanguard defender of Western values, a life-or-death enemy of jihadism, but also as a playground bully, winding up Muslims in the name of anti-clericalism and testing minority sensibilities to the limit.
Much of this aggressive posturing was down to Philippe Val, a successful dilettante – singer-songwriter, TV comedian and astute journalist – who relaunched Charlie Hebdo in 1992: the first iteration had folded more than a decade earlier. During his time as editor and publisher, Val fell out with several contributors and made his peace with a rump of staffers whose libertarian politics, a residue of their 1960s leftism, suited his own, even though he had tired of the ‘radical left’ and was moving to the right. He was a lover of controversy. He also had deep misgivings about ‘Arabs’ and what he saw as France’s ‘pro-Arab’ foreign policy; he was a down-to-the-wire advocate of Israel, and many of the incendiary cartoons that ran during his time and after his departure in 2009 conflate the Arab with the Muslim, the Muslim with the jihadist, and the depiction of Muslim women baring their buttocks for IS fighters with the right to freedom of expression. Every Muslim the paper failed to offend was a lost opportunity for secular values and freedom of speech.
In 2006 it published a manifesto ‘against the new totalitarianism’ – i.e. radical Islamism – signed by Bernard Henri-Lévy, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Val himself and nine others, including the left libertarian communications whizz Caroline Fourest, one of Charlie’s trophy writers, a celebrity feminist and lesbian, author of Eloge du blasphème and, during her time at the paper, an admirer of a racist Dutch cartoonist called Gregorius Nekschot. His Muslims lounge about on sofas because the Qur’an does not proscribe benefit scroungers; they have sex with animals in the name of handing on a venerable tradition; his white men carry black men on their shoulders, representing the brunt of the Dutch tax burden. Fourest, who takes any reservations about Charlie Hebdo’s own Muslim-baiting as an endorsement of the 2015 murders, is now a prominent figure in the new drive to root out enemies of laïcité.
Anxiety about radical Islamist groups extends to non-violent Salafists. In 2018, according to French intelligence services, roughly a hundred of France’s 2500 mosques tended towards Salafism. Salafists locate the exemplary nature of Islam not in its golden age, which Macron has in mind when he acknowledges Europe’s debts to Islamic culture, but earlier, in the seventh century, during the Prophet’s lifetime and in the two or three generations after his death. Theirs is a fundamentalist, over-the-shoulder view of Islam. But they are also energetic, puritanical advocates of an Islamic revival in the here and now. Their rules are attractively simple, their dress codes as rigorous as those of the Western fashion industry, and their appeal to young people who have lost their bearings but hung onto their taste for iconoclasm is strong. (Years ago, in Azad Kashmir, at the shrine of a local Sufi saint, I ran into a young Muslim man in his twenties, raised in Yorkshire. He had fallen into bad habits and had been sent to Pakistan to sober up by his Deobandi family. He was appalled by the shrine; he wanted to dismantle it and bring benighted Kashmiri Muslims into the light.)
Many Salafists in the West, like that young man, have signed up to the rigours of Wahhabism, a fussy, intolerant doctrine that has prospered for half a century on the back of Saudi oil revenues. But French mosques, under close scrutiny by the government, are funded largely by North African and Turkish money, and by domestic subscriptions. The Gulf States, which edified several French mosques in the past, are losing interest in bricks and mortar, especially Saudi Arabia, which has already thrown its weight behind a powerful strain of Salafist ideology.
France feels threatened by Salafism for two reasons. First, many Salafists are reported by intelligence services to ignore secular principles, pursuing a ‘separatist’ religious path which flies in the face of the French demand – sometimes sotto voce, sometimes loud and clear – that migrants and their descendants should ‘assimilate’ fully. Second, the Macron administration, like its predecessors, sees Salafism as a little like a Class C drug habit that leads worrying numbers of users into Class A jihadism. But France’s wish to come to terms with Islamism is compromised by the fact that its arms sales to the Saudis – a global purveyor of Class C dogma – have never looked better. In 2019 they amounted to 1.4 billion euros.
It isn’t easy to see what jihadism or Salafist ideologies have to do with most French Muslims. Yet this question is always in play. Since the murders in Paris in 2015, Western-style democracies, including New Zealand, have seen a significant rise in far-right terrorism. It is often attributed to the discourse of rabble-rousing politicians and fanatical groups on social media; citizens who vote for the right in their millions are not called to account for these acts of violence or thought to condone them. But among non-Muslims in France, as in the UK, jihadist terrorism and non-violent Islamism can be relied on to raise the spectre of a large, homogeneous, disloyal Muslim population conniving in terrorism, despite the fact that any number of polls and academic studies tell us otherwise.
Five years ago the Montaigne Institute, a neoliberal think tank in Paris, published a report about Islam in France on the back of a detailed Ifop survey. It gave a general picture of the habits and views of Muslim communities. Only around 30 per cent attended mosque regularly (and around 30 per cent never did). Around 40 per cent considered themselves ‘secular’ citizens even if religion played a symbolic role in their lives (irregular attendance at mosque, for example); 28 per cent, half of them under 25, living in poorer parts of the banlieues, had adopted Islam as a defiant signal of their alienation from ‘republican values’. This last group is the one that Macron and his speechwriters had in mind when he spoke about ghettoisation last October.
The bill to ‘strengthen respect for republican principles’ envisages a crackdown on online hate-speech, restrictions on home schooling, tougher controls on foreign money going to mosques, and close monitoring of private associations whose tenor is ‘anti-republican’ (i.e. Islamist). A string of amendments to do with where and when religious dress may be worn – a long-standing obsession that the government sidelined in its draft – have been tabled by right-wing deputies and ruled inadmissible. The bill, however, dodges the question of investing in rundown neighbourhoods, leaving Macron looking like a president who deplores ghettoisation from the podium but won’t address substandard housing and overstretched services. His administration has several dogs at its heels, including the far right and ultra-secularists on the centre left. With elections due next year, he has already identified Marine Le Pen as his most redoubtable rival. In 2019 he gave an interview to the hard right journal Valeurs actuelles, carefully picking his way through subjects dear to readers’ hearts (migrant expulsions, the horrors of the veil and the right to family reunion), in an attempt to woo Lepennist intellectuals.
For the moment, intransigent centre-left secularism is more of an irritant than an electoral threat. In the vanguard of this noisy, pseudo-consensual culture, which he can’t be seen to ignore, is Le Printemps républicain, a largely Socialist Party grouping that includes Valls and many of his supporters, confident since the murder of Paty that their cause has electoral leverage (the PS was all but wiped out in the first round of the presidential elections four years ago). Both the far right and the Valls persuasion would sooner take an ideological approach than spend money in the banlieues. (‘Une laïcité de combat’, or proactive secularism, is a clarion call of the anti-clerical centre left.) And besides, what money? There were four budget revisions in 2020 as a consequence of Covid-19, involving more than four billion euros in economic relief. Borrowing may be cheap, but dwindling coffers and rising indebtedness are forcing politicians back on extravagant rhetoric.
In a speech about the dangers of separatism given last October, two weeks before Paty was killed, Macron announced that Islam was experiencing a ‘deep crisis’ throughout the world. Wahhabism, Salafism, the Muslim Brotherhood, he asserted, had taken a radical turn to violence. When he touched on France’s colonial past, in Algeria especially, he admitted that the French ‘have never unpacked things for ourselves’. Despite this conciliatory note, he was thought in majority-Muslim countries to be pointing a finger at nearly two billion Muslims and telling them that their religion was in a mess. At the memorial for Paty at the Sorbonne, he stepped forward to defend secularism. Once again, he was exposed. One of the cartoons that Paty showed to his pupils was drawn by Corinne Rey – a.k.a. Coco – a Charlie Hebdo stalwart. It showed the Prophet on all fours, testicles dangling, buttocks in the foreground, with a star over his anus. Paty’s murder has made it impossible to state the obvious: using that cartoon in a civics class was not a good idea. In defending France and honouring Paty, Macron risked being identified with Paty’s lack of judgment and Charlie Hebdo’s drip-drip provocations. During the first stirrings of the cartoon controversy in 2006, Chirac had deplored all forms of ‘obvious provocation’ (Val was outraged), but Macron and Chirac are separated by fifteen painful years, hundreds of jihadist murders in France, and a commemorative rally attended by four million people in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings: no president in Macron’s place, speaking over the mutilated body of a teacher, could have said what Chirac was able to say.
‘We will not disavow the cartoons, the drawings,’ Macron declared at the Sorbonne. His remark – I’m quoting from the official translation on the Quai d’Orsay website – was widely reported in the Anglophone media. Those two definite articles in the English version turned out to be another, unintentional snub to Muslims. They were taken to mean that Macron stood by the two cartoons that Paty had shown to his class, and perhaps that he approved of Charlie Hebdo’s incontinent offerings down the years. But his original French – ‘nous ne renoncerons pas aux caricatures, aux dessins’ – surely refers to a long-standing culture of offensive cartoons and scurrilous drawings in general. Recep Erdoğan, a shrewd orchestrator of Muslim sentiment in Europe and the Middle East, suggested that Macron should have his head examined.
Another lexical pitfall opened when the Financial Times ran an opinion piece by its EU correspondent Mehreen Khan, taking issue with Macron’s tough line on ‘Islamic separatism’. Macron published a stern response in the FT complaining, correctly, that Khan had substituted ‘Islamic separatism’ – ‘a term that I have never used’, he said – for ‘Islamist separatism’. (It’s a fine distinction for the general public: in London the Metropolitan Police have reportedly been looking into alternatives to the terms ‘Islamist terrorism’ and ‘jihadi’.) Around the same time, Politico carried a piece by Farhad Khosrokhavar, a Franco-Iranian sociologist, attacking France’s ‘religion of secularism’. Here, too, the Elysée fought back. Both the FT and Politico removed the offending pieces from their websites. No such luck with Charlie Hebdo’s recycled cartoons.
Paty’s death has left France at sea. In the wake of his murder and the killings in Nice, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons were projected on public buildings in southern France. It was an astonishing moment. Yet again, despite its debatable claims to defend republican values, the paper had pulled off the ideological equivalent of state capture. Yet again it was dragging government and public servants in its charismatic wake: not just local elected officials who approved of public property being lit up with offensive cartoons, but the executive and parliament, teachers and police, ambulance staff and medics. Charlie Hebdo’s martyrs were creating a posthumous furore. In the rush to denounce Muslim ‘separatism’, Gérald Darmanin, the minister of the interior, spoke out against kosher and halal shelves in supermarkets, but what was he thinking? Coulibaly had murdered Jews in a kosher supermarket two days after the killings at Charlie Hebdo’s offices. And suddenly there was Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the left-wing leader of La France Insoumise, announcing that the identity of the murderer pointed to ‘a problem with the Chechen community’.
Mohammed Moussaoui, president of the French Council of Muslim Faith (CFCM), deplored Paty’s murder, as did several distinguished imams, and under pressure from the Elysée, the CFCM set about drafting a charter laying out a set of principles for ‘Islam in France’. It is already proving controversial, not least for its suggestion that it is inappropriate for Muslims to pose as victims of ‘alleged state racism’ or even invoke it in the first place.
That the events last autumn fuelled non-institutional racism is beyond question, with calls to torch a mosque in Béziers circulating in the aftermath along with dozens of febrile posts. In Avignon, days after Paty’s murder, reports of another jihadist attack by a man with a knife shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ briefly did the rounds. Némésis, a far-right feminist collective, posted a jubilant photograph of the assassin lying in a pool of blood, shot dead by police, but he turned out to be a white man nursing a horror of immigration who had threatened a man of North African origin with a handgun.
It also emerged that one of Paty’s pupils had inadvertently set her teacher up by complaining to her (devout) father about his class, even though she hadn’t attended it. Paty, too, got it wrong. (Don’t even ask if I’m suggesting he deserved to die.) The flurry of emails between Paty and his fellow teachers after the crisis broke, and days before his murder, was eventually published by Le Monde. Horrified by expressions of parental outrage, he told the principal that he would switch his freedom-of-expression module to something less controversial in future. The principal sent a message to the staff, announcing that Paty had admitted his ‘maladresse’ and deserved to be supported. Two of his colleagues dissented: one said that Paty had undermined the precarious trust between parents and the school; another said that Paty had helped the Islamist cause and ‘worked against secularism’ by playing on its ‘intolerant side’.
In an email to staff shortly before his murder, Paty explained that his class was meant to confront students with the following question: should cartoons of the Prophet not be published in order to avoid violence, or should they be published to keep ‘freedom’ alive? But neither of these questions is the right one. Better to set aside the matter of violence for a moment and ask simply: is contempt a fair weapon for the fourth estate – even a satirical paper – to wield against a minority? Charlie Hebdo couldn’t perform this abstraction, but a careful civics class might have done so.
Now reintroduce the reality of murderous jihadist acts and ask whether Charlie’s war against bigotry and violence was a precision-target offensive, as it imagined, or just the indiscriminate carpet-bombing of Muslim sensibilities. In either case, was the effect to diminish jihadist violence or to increase it? Did Charlie’s obstinacy distinguish the enemy from the vast majority of French Muslims, or did it subject their republican loyalty to new kinds of stress? Did it reinforce respect for laïcité among Muslims or did it broaden the scope for ambivalence? Another quandary: is freedom of expression an absolute right that anyone who claims to draw, rap, teach, publish or kill in its name can invoke? Some of these questions are complicated for the 14-year-olds whom Paty taught, but they’re surely not beyond the grasp of the government, the media and the French electorate.
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