Illustration by Michael Leo

“Secularism, We Love You!”

The tragic attacks that shook France in the past few weeks raise tough questions about the nation’s rapport to its Muslim minority and to secularism overall. Unfortunately, Macron’s government is unlikely to provide a proper answer.

Nov 8, 2020

Over the past few weeks, a series of tragedies have struck the French Republic. On Oct. 16, Samuel Paty, a teacher, was murdered and decapitated after showing caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in class. The attack then provoked outbursts of Islamophobia across the country, from the vandalizing of mosques to the aggression of two Algerian women wearing the hijab in Paris. This culminated in two attacks last Thursday: one on a church in Nice by a man shouting “Allahu Akbar” that left three dead and another in Avignon where a member of a far-right organization attempted to kill a Maghrebi driver.
These attacks are, in a way, a return of the repressed, the specter of unresolved issues materializing. A few years back, in 2015, similar tremors of rage and anxiety had shaken the country after the fateful shooting of Charlie Hebdo, (whose cartoons were shown by Samuel Paty to his students); controversies surrounding the hijab have been a recurring phenomenon in recent French history, from the prohibition of facial covering in 2011 to the burkini debate in 2016; going further back in time, one stumbles on the 2005 riots of Paris’ impoverished suburban Maghrebi communities and, even further back, on France’s colonial history.
Thus, the recent tragic events require a response with nuance on par with the complexity of the histories behind them. At first glance, Macron’s presidency might seem equal to the task. In a discussion with French intellectuals organized by the government and publicly broadcasted on March 18, 2019, Macron put an end to speculations that a reform of the 1905 law — the foundational law which enshrines the separation of church and state and establishes France’s secularism — in view of making it stricter toward “radical” Islam was in preparation, declaring that “[his] interest lies not in knowing if it is good or bad for a young girl to wear the hijab but in whether she is free to do so or not.” In the same vein, on Oct. 2, Macron gave a speech in which he touched on the aforementioned history, reckoning with “a colonial past and trauma that have not been properly dealt with” and with an unemployed youth abandoned to the clutches of “radical Islam.” Macron must have had such a reckoning in mind too when he entrusted renowned historian Benjamin Soral with a mission on “the memory of colonization and the Algerian War,” earlier this year, on July 24.
Yet, such a reading would be missing a fatal flaw in Macron’s discourse, namely its condescension and neoliberal outlook, which explains his impotence in tackling the issues facing the Parisian suburbs. Indeed, how is a leader who presided over the shrinking of France’s public services supposed to respond to the social needs of suburbs that feel abandoned by their country?
Furthermore, while Macron’s speeches possess a veneer of nuance and tolerance, those of his government exhibit thinly veiled bigotry. His Minister of the Interior, Gérald Darmanin, in particular, has made headlines for linking halal stalls with radical Islam and for his use of the word “ensauvagement,” a French word popular in far-right circles designating the process whereby society becomes more and more savage, the implied cause being radicalization and immigration. Marlène Schiappa, another member of Macron’s government, has since come out in support of Darmamin’s use of “ensauvagement.” Jean-Michel Blanquer, Minister of Education, even denounced “islamo-gauchisme,” a boogeyman reminiscent of the Nazi conspiracy theory of Cultural Bolshevism, designating connivance between leftist movements and radical Islamism.
While such declarations were not unanimous (others in Macron’s entourage have criticized Darmanin’s use of “ensauvagement” for instance), they were still representative of a larger trend in French politics: the adoption of far-right talking points by politicians across the political spectrum. Besides Macron’s political entourage, France has also seen center-left politicians stir the pot of Islamophobia with important figures such as Yannick Jadot, leader of France’s most prominent green party lamenting the reduction of the police force and the “destabilization” of French intelligence agencies under previous presidents. This trend is such that some, like Dr. Béligh Nabli, have noted the “strategic dead end [in terms of communication and upcoming elections]” facing Rassemblement National — France’s main far-right party — after the hijacking of their talking points by various other political actors.
These tribulations stem from an identity crisis as the nation contends with the challenge of diversity. In the search for a French identity, some, like Alain Finkielkraut, have turned to race, fantasizing about “the good old days” of ethnic homogeneity, while others still, such as Régis Debray, raise up republican values as the essence of Frenchness. These republican values are those of democracy, equality, freedom and, of course, laïcité, the French term for secularism. This tendency illustrates what Jean Baubérot, an expert on French secularism, calls laïcité identitaire: that is an understanding of laïcité which elevates it to a symbol. Indeed, rather than a guarantee of religious freedom and pluralism, secularism is understood by proponents of laïcité identitaire as the removal and effacement of religion from the public scene only when it does not fit a certain norm. This norm is presented as an absence of qualifiers, as neutral, when in fact it is rooted in specific understandings of French identity as white, Christian and republican. Such is the laïcité of Rassemblement National which describes itself as secular while maintaining that “if French Muslims wish to practice their faith, they need to accept the fact that they are doing so on soil that is culturally Christian.”
In response to laïcité identitaire, Baubérot calls for a laïcité ouverte (open secularism) which would return France to the original aims of secularism, that is the peaceful management of diversity. Unfortunately, with the present French political scene sliding ever further to the right, the future of laïcité ouverte seems grim. Minister Darmanin’s declaration that the upcoming bill to combat “Islamic separatism” would include fines (up to 75,000 euros) and jail time (up to five years) for anyone “who refuses to be treated by a woman” when seeking medical care or the senatorial amendment requiring academic research to express itself “within the frame of republican values” seem like the final nails on its coffin. Yet, there might still be hope. During their march against Islamophobia, French Muslims walked the thin line between the identitarian secularism of French politicians and the radical rejection of secularity of some Muslim communities abroad. “Secularism, we love you!” they sang. “You must protect us!”
Karim Mohamed Boudlal is a columnist. Email him at
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