By Henry Srebrnik, [Frederickton, NB] Daily Gleaner
A recent series of murders has brought a hardening of French attitudes towards terrorism. President Emmanuel Macron has sought to make a critique of Islamism a signature issue before the 2022 presidential campaign.
France has faced terrorism before, most notably on Jan. 7, 2015, when terrorists forced their way into the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Incensed at the publication of a series of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, which is prohibited by Muslim law, they killed 12 people and injured 11 others.
When Charlie Hebdo republished the caricatures this past September, it triggered a new chain of events that included two stabbings outside the newspaper’s former offices, the beheading of a teacher near Paris, and the murders of three people inside a church in Nice.
In a speech Oct. 2, Macron declared that the “ultimate goal” of Islamists is to “take complete control.” He categorized “Islamist separatism” as a “parallel society” that “leads to denial of the Republic’s laws.”
The Oct. 16 murder of schoolteacher Samuel Paty, in particular, caused an uproar. He had shown students caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, as part of a lesson on free expression, while allowing Muslim students to be excused from class.
It took place in the context of the high-profile trial of accomplices of the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attackers.
The killing of a teacher at a public school was seen as an attack on the very foundation of French citizenship. Macron called him “the face of the Republic.” Paty was a strong believer in laicité, the strict secularism that separates religion from the state in France.
Paty was posthumously granted France’s highest award, the Légion d’Honneur, and commemorated in a national ceremony at the Sorbonne in Paris on Oct. 21. Macron, eulogizing Paty, told his audience: “I have named the evil. The actions have been decided on. We have made them even tougher. And we will carry them to their conclusion.”
The country’s interior minister, Gerald Darmanin, describing France as fighting a “civil war” to defend the French secular and unitary Republic, announced police operations against “the enemy within, insidious and extremely well organized.”
The steps included expelling some 200 imprisoned foreigners suspected of terrorist links, carrying out raids and banning a Muslim group accused of “advocating radical Islam” and hate speech.
Macron has also bridled at criticism from the Western media. “France is fighting against Islamist separatism, never against Islam,” he wrote to the Financial Times on Nov. 4 after it published an opinion piece that Macron asserted had unfairly accused him of stigmatizing French Muslims for political purposes.
“For over five years now, and since the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, France has faced a wave of attacks perpetrated by terrorists in the name of an Islam that they have distorted. Some 263 people -- police officers, soldiers, teachers, journalists, cartoonists, ordinary citizens-- have been assassinated in our homeland,” he responded in the Financial Times.
Macron also expressed irritation about American coverage of the government’s response. He pointed to the New York Times, which was highly critical of Macron’s plans, referring to a “broad government crackdown against Muslim individuals and groups” in an Oct. 21 article.
A Washington Post article of Oct. 30 also accused the government of adopting “reactionary language” and directing its rhetoric “toward criminalizing and stigmatizing France’s Muslim population.”
“Our democracy was established against the Catholic Church and the monarchy, and laicité is the way that democracy was organized in France,” sociologist Dominique Schnapper explained in the New York Times Oct. 26.
Caroline Fourest, a teacher, journalist, and co-founder of the feminist, secularist anti-racist journal ProChoix, in an article published Nov. 9 on the Tablet website, wondered “Why the American Press Keeps Getting Terror in France Wrong.”
She suggested that for them the “fight against racism required them to close their eyes to the mortal dangers of terrorism and fundamentalism -- and to ally with enemies of free speech, open debate, and other foundational values of free societies.”Yet Macron found himself mocked by dozens of journalists. “Why is defending the principles of free speech and the separation of church and state so hard for Americans these days?” she wondered.