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In Macron’s France, the Lessons of the Past Remain Unlearned

The current French government has taken state-sanctioned Islamophobia to new heights. An in-depth look at the dark path France is heading down.

In 2015, I wrote a blog article about the Charlie Hebdo shootings following the magazine’s publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad in 2012. The piece was my first foray into writing for a living and was a rebuttal of an opinion piece published in Germany’s conservative “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” that partially blamed terrorism in the name of Islam on Islam itself. 

The main point I made was that instead of overstating the Islamic credentials of perpetrators who grew up in the West and framing them as representatives of an anti-Western jihad, Western societies should instead take a hard look at their own complicity in these acts of terrorism. 

By way of their exclusionary identity politics, systemic marginalization of ethnic and religious minorities, history of colonial violence, and their neo-colonial policies, Western societies shared at least some of the blame, I argued. By this logic, attacks like these — without calling in question their deplorability — were a form of postcolonial blowback in which historically marginalized subalterns rose up with a vengeance. 

Since then, five years have come and gone and the lessons of the past have not been learned in France: to mark the start of a long-awaited trial for the revenge attacks that killed 11 of its staff, Charlie Hebdo republished the incendiary cartoons in September. It again decided to do so not out of love for free speech, but out of the jollies it gets from habitually insulting the religion of France’s 4.5 million Muslims. 

And once again, Charlie Hebdo’s reckless behavior initiated a chain reaction of bloody violence that compromised national security and led to subsequent government crackdowns on the civil liberties of Muslims and to their faith once again coming under the external pressure of having to prove it is not inherently anti-Western: On October 16, a French school teacher in a Parisian suburb was beheaded by a Chechen teenager in broad daylight. The victim, Samuel Paty, had shown the Charlie Hebdo cartoons in his course on freedom of speech earlier that month. 

Two weeks later, a knife attack occurred in a Roman Catholic basilica in the southern city of Nice, killing three people in an equally visceral fashion. Whether the attack perpetrated by a freshly arrived Tunisian refugee was connected to the Charlie Hebdo cartoons or was a reaction to the racist discourse revived by the French government in early October when  President Emmanuel Macron called Islam “a religion that is in crisis all over the world today” and during a televised speech announced tough new legislation that can only be described as anti-Muslim, is not clear. 

But what is clear is the dark path France is heading down with regards to its already fraught relationship with the country’s Muslim citizens. 

How the French state once again chose Islamophobia over national security

Not only did Charlie Hebdo not learn from the past, so didn’t the French state: in an act of narcissistic passive-aggressiveness worthy of tantrum-throwing children who are only capable of seeing the world as bending to their will (something they usually outgrow as they become adults) and react to the slightest aggrievement with an overkill of revenge (much like the psychological dynamic behind the physically violent retributions for physically non-violent acts like the Charlie Hebdo shooting and the murder of Samuel Paty), local governments in the city of Montpellier and Toulouse made a point to add calculated insult to injury by projecting the cartoons on administrative buildings for several hours. 

What was framed as solidarity for the murdered teacher was in truth a thinly veiled message addressed to French Muslims, the subtext being: “Not only don’t we respect your religion, our unprovoked historic contempt for it and by extension for you is so massive that we can be as dickheaded as we want towards you and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it.” 

While the French government actively supported the premeditated provocation of Muslims in the name of free speech, other Western governments didn’t fall for this cheap trick: Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau —his country no stranger to Islamophobic legislation and white supremacist anti-Muslim terrorism, especially in the francophone province of his native Québec — commented on the matter by saying: 

“(F)reedom of expression is not without limits. We owe it to ourselves to act with respect for  others and to seek not to arbitrarily or unnecessarily hurt those with whom we are sharing a society and planet.” 

Disrespectful, arbitrary, unnecessary, hurtful: these were the adjectives Macron should have used in his condemnation of the cartoons’ republication that never came. Trudeau didn’t stop there, going on to say that “in a pluralist, diverse and respectful society” one should be aware of the impact of one’s words, and acknowledging the “great deal of discrimination” minority communities still experienced. 

Western governments routinely do not hesitate to downgrade or downright abolish civil liberties in the name of national security. By allowing Charlie Hebdo to reprint the inflammatory cartoons that had already resulted in national security being breached in a  devastating manner, the French government once again proved to the world that it prioritized its right to racism over the right of its citizens to safety and security. 

France’s Islamophobic Newspeak

Not satisfied with throwing a childish tantrum, the French government quickly moved to consolidate its Islamophobic agenda through stringent executive measures: Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, a hardliner who has expressed his disdain for halal and kosher food sections in supermarkets and mocks the Black Lives Matter movement by saying that he “can’t breathe” when he hears the phrase “police violence”, promptly declared war on “the enemy within” and ordered the closure of 76 French mosques and Paris’s only school catering to Muslims, despite it being a secular school following the national curriculum. 

If you want to know just how dangerous the rhetorical device of declaring an “enemy within” and this line of otherizing and legalized racism is, ask any Japanese-American: they will tell you how following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed and issued the infamous Executive Order 9066 which authorized the Secretary of War to prescribe military areas within the borders of the United States, thus clearing the way for around 112,000 men, women and children to be evicted from the West Coast and interned in “relocation centers” across the country that were effectively concentration camps. 

Japanese-American actor, political activist, and social media phenomenon George Takei recently released an autobiographical graphic novel titled “They Called Us Enemy” that relives his personal experience of that dark time of U.S. history. In its belated zeal to fight fascism in Europe, the U.S. resorted to fascism within their own borders, turning the Japanese into the Jews of America virtually overnight and forcing Takei and his family to spend years behind barbed wire, incarcerated as “enemies of the state” in the country of his birth. 

More clever than the blunt rhetorical instrument lifted straight out of the “Fascism for Dummies” self-help guide that is the phrase “the enemy within” is the so-called “Republican Charter”: in mid-November, the French Council of Muslim Worship (CFCM) was given two weeks by Macron to come up with a charter of “republican values” that would be binding for all of its members and affiliated organizations. 

The terms of this forced charter dictated to the CFCM by the paternalistic and petty Macron include recognition of “the values of the Republic”, the specification that Islam in France is not a political movement, and an end to foreign involvement in French mosques.

When a phrase like “Republican charter” is uttered in the context of problematizing Islam and forced upon a selectively chosen group (Macron has not given French Jews 14 days to distance themselves from the political movement that is Zionism, which the United Nations General  Assembly as early as 1963 condemned as “a form of racism and racial discrimination), the subtext here is everything other than flattering: French Muslims are inherently anti-Republican. 

Equally Orwellian is yet another neologism coined by Macron, who seems to exhibit  remarkable native-speaker fluency in France’s unofficial second language, Islamophobic Newspeak: namely that of “Islamist separatism.” Like the term “secession”, “separatism” conventionally refers to the full separation from a given political entity and is tied to territorial claims. 

But by juxtaposing Islam(ism) next to a term like “separatism” in the context of an already belligerent rhetorical climate, Macron is not only insinuating that Muslims in France want political and territorial independence and is basically comparing them to militant separatists like the now-dissolved Basque ETA or the Kurdish PKK (who abandoned its maximum demand of full independence long ago), but is also engaging in a perfidious display of role reversal and victim-blaming by denouncing French Muslims for their alleged games of identity politics which only Macron himself is playing.

That French Muslims are neither anti-Republican nor separatists do not matter. What matters is that those in power frame it that way for whatever reasons they might have: political expediency or inveterate ideology. 

Blasphemy is a right. But is it a virtue?

While it is a no-brainer consensus across the French political spectrum that it is Islam that has to adapt to “Western values” (whatever these are supposed to mean) and not the other way around, you rarely hear the counter-argument that maybe it is not Islam that should bear the sole burden of adaptation, but that it might rather be French society that needs to change its mindset. 

One commentator who said exactly that was RT Germany’s op-ed columnist Thomas Fasbender: in a wonderfully written critique of laïcité — that idiosyncratically French version of secularism where the right to believe and the right not to believe are enshrined in law and religion is strictly kept out of public affairs — and what was by far the most intelligent and fair analysis of the dynamics of French Islamophobia I came across in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo Reloaded and Samuel Paty incidents, the author argued that blasphemy might be a right, but it sure as hell wasn’t a virtuous one. 

Echoing the points already made by Trudeau which I have mentioned above, Fasbender went on to explain why blasphemy is an anachronism in a multicultural society like France (I am translating from the original German): 

“A closed society, let’s say France in the 1970s, can agree on the following: the freedom to believe and the freedom to blaspheme under one roof. But a multicultural society? The future has a price. The luxury that France has indulged in for so long, the coexistence of worship and contempt, of faith and mockery, will not be possible any longer. At least not peacefully.” 

This is a radical departure from the mainstream Western narrative that delineates Islam and Muslims as the sole problem disturbing the utopian peace that is Western society. The author didn’t stop there, but went on to expose the root causes underlying this French obsessive-compulsive disorder that is the repeated execution of the right to blaspheme: 

“The French experiment could function as long as the European West was white and lukewarm in its Christianity. In the 21st century that is history.” 

Translation: The continued insistence of the French government and — despite its multicultural make-up — of still predominantly white French society on its right to blaspheme is intrinsically tied to white supremacy and atheism/agnosticism.

But when you have people sharing a country with you who take their religious matters seriously — even the atheists and agnostics among them who don’t practice religion, but are decent enough to not agitate against it — the indecencies of white supremacy and selective anti-religionism which constitute the foundation of French Islamophobia will indubitably hit a brick wall. 

Black, Arab and Muslim Lives don’t matter in France

French Islamophobia is intrinsically tied to the country’s historical anti-Arab and anti-Black sentiment, a continuity from its colonial days that is as ubiquitous and deep-seated in present-day France as it was during the “Grande Nation’s” imperial heyday and during the post-war Fourth Republic when the Algerian War of Independence was raging in Africa and galvanizing French anti-Arabism at home. 

Black and brown people are the most marginalized groups in France: Anyone who’s seen the 1995 award-winning film “La Haine” (“The Hate”) knows what I’m talking about, and no amount of technicolor interracial feel-good buddy comedies that followed, like the 2011 blockbuster “Intouchables”, will mask the monochrome realities of a life on the racialized margins of French society as portrayed by “La Haine” that chronicles 24 hours in the life of three friends growing up in the parallel world that are the French banlieus.

Which are basically nothing else than what bantustans were in Apartheid South Africa: You might not legally be forced to live in the HLMs (Habitation à Loyer Modéré, lit. “housing at moderate rent”, the French designation for low-income housing projects) of Clichy-sous-Bois or Vitry-sur-Seine (or “Vitry Sur Haine”, as its native son Rohff, a famous French rapper of Comorian descent, calls it in an eponymous song off his 2015 album “Le Rohff Game”), but the diabolic circle of your socio-economic reality does.

Your meager income will force you to live in the urban periphery and when applying for a job, your stigmatizing address will hinder you from getting one, thus barring your social mobility and cementing your lower station in life proscribed by the neoliberal market economy and the Darwinist process of selection that is its lifeblood. 

Being brown, black, or Muslim in a country that systemically favors whiteness and Islamophobia doesn’t exactly help your case either. And as a hijabi woman in a country that boasts the toughest anti-hijab laws alongside Austria (where the highest constitutional court recently declared the hijab ban in the nation’s elementary schools to be illegal), you are even more — pardon my French — screwed. 

Add the reality of over-incarceration by the criminal justice system and the culture of  brutalization by racist law-enforcement that periodically leads to outbursts of mass protests, it is fair to say that France’s black, Arab and Muslim population are the new “Les Miserables.” I highly recommend watching the 2019 film of the same name, a nod to Victor Hugo’s 19th-century fictional social critique: this unofficial “La Haine 2.0” was inspired by the 2005 Paris uprising following the deaths of teenagers Bouna Traoré and Zyed Benna who were electrocuted while they were running away from the police officers that were hounding them like animals. 

It’s Colonialism, stupid

There is a lesser-known quote by Samuel P. “Clash of Civilizations” Huntington that lays bare an open secret that white people don’t like to talk about: 

“The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion […] but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact; non-Westerners never do.” 

With this in mind, “Islamist” attacks in the West can in many instances be read as the reluctance of “non-Westerners” (this includes Muslims born and bred in the West who are nonetheless relentlessly otherized as “non-Western)” to forget that historic “organized violence” of white people better known as Colonialism and Neocolonialism and to let it go unpunished.

It is not by coincidence that these attacks occur with striking frequency in the two countries whose combined colonial empires at their height encompassed an overwhelming chunk of the globe: Britain and France. There is a direct line of causality — no matter how long and winding — from the politics of racialized marginalization, unredressed colonial violence as well as the neocolonial violence of blood-for-resource wars and the War on Terror to the horrific act of an individual beheading a person in a Parisian suburb. 

The hegemonic Western discourse surrounding Islam should keep this in mind the next time the ghosts of the past come back to haunt them in the form of “radicalized Islamists” who in many cases are not only radicalized by the land of their upbringing and not by that of their forebears but are also not exactly pious Muslims to begin with, sometimes not more religious than their agnostic fellow white European country people.

No amount of superstructural framing of such attacks as “Islamic” simply by merit of the attacker yelling “Allahuakbar” will obscure the all too often secular foundation of what is essentialized by a term like “Islamic radicalism.” 

The hopelessness of the “condition musulmane” in France, of black and brown lives, of the  socioeconomically dispossessed, can be summed up by that famous opening sequence of “La Haine” in which the voice-over narration of one of the protagonists, accompanying a frame of the Earth as seen from outer space while a flaming molotov cocktail is hurling towards it, asks the viewer: 

“Heard about the guy who fell off a skyscraper? On his way down past each floor he kept saying to reassure himself: ‘So far so good. So far so good. So far so good’ How you fall doesn’t matter. It’s how you land.” 

How the decades-long freefall of exclusionary identity politics in France will end, no one knows. Unfortunately, Macron’s current anti-Muslim, anti-working class and pro-law enforcement policies and the violent crushing of popular opposition to a highly unpopular President, one who is fighting for reelection in 18 months and has no scruples in exploiting the xenophobic and Islamophobic leanings of a significant portion of the white majority  French electorate for his own political gain, are no cause for optimism.

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