The beheading of a teacher will harden France’s belief in secularism

AT THE the start of this month, Emmanuel Macron headed to the town of Les Mureaux, in the Yvelines department north-west of Paris, to warn the French about the rising threat of “Islamist separatism”. This is a radical political project, the president declared, which is testing the resilience of the secular French republic, and constitutes a menace to “freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, and the right of blasphemy”.

At the time, Mr Macron was accused in some quarters of cynically chasing the far-right vote, and in others of stigmatising Muslims. The beheading of a middle-school history teacher on October 17th, however, which the police are treating as an act of terrorism, has rendered Mr Macron’s analysis less extravagant than prescient.

The teacher, Samuel Paty, was murdered following threats he received for showing pupils caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad during a class on freedom of expression. (He had apparently invited those who might be upset to leave the classroom before he did so.) The slaying took place on a leafy street in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine in the Yvelines, not far from Les Mureaux where the president had spoken. Mr Macron said after the murder that it bore all the hallmarks of an “Islamist terrorist” attack.

France finds it unusually complicated to talk about religion in public life, and does so in ways that liberal multicultural countries often find difficult to understand. The land of Voltaire protects the right to believe, and not to believe, as well as the right to treat any sacred belief with irreverence. It also attempts to banish religious affairs from official public life. A law in 1905 entrenched laïcité, a strict form of secularism designed to protect private religious expression but also to keep religion out of state institutions, after an anti-clerical struggle with the Catholic church. It is buttressed by another law that protects the right to blaspheme, which dates to 1881.


For secularists, who are to be found as much on the French left as on the right, this doctrine needs constant reinforcement. Successive governments have done so, banning from public-school classrooms in 2004 all “conspicuous” religious symbols (including the Muslim veil), and in 2010 from all public places full face coverings (including the burqa). France’s blasphemy law has protected, for example, the publication by Charlie Hebdo of satirical caricatures of the Prophet (which Mr Paty showed to his classroom) against charges of incitement to hatred. Under French law it is legal to insult a religion, but not to insult or incite hatred of any individual on the basis of that religion. The overall effect nonetheless, say some French Muslims, is to legitimise Islamophobia and the humiliation of those of Muslim faith. Defenders of the law note that mocking Jesus would be equally protected.

Since he was elected in 2017 Mr Macron, too, has found it awkward to talk publicly about all this. Five years ago, when he was economy minister and France was battered by a series of terrorist attacks, including one at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, the fledgling politician took a more laissez-faire approach. In a speech that year he shocked hard-line secularists by urging the French to acknowledge their own responsibility in creating a “fertile soil” for terrorism through discrimination and closed opportunities. The next year Mr Macron described a debate about whether to ban the “burkini”, which some mayors in beach resorts tried (unsuccessfully) to do, as “crazy”.

In office, however, Mr Macron seems to have had second thoughts. He is now convinced that the “soft” signs of Islamism—such as a bus driver who refuses to take female passengers dressed “unsuitably”, or demands for religious menus in state-school canteens—may in fact mask a more sinister political project, which can supply recruits to violence. While in Les Mureaux, Mr Macron pointed out that 70 residents of the Yvelines had left to become jihadists in Syria and that 170 individuals are currently being followed by intelligence services for suspected radicalisation. Over the past three years, counter-terrorist police have thwarted 32 attempted attacks in France.

The government is now drawing up a bill that will, among other things, ban home-schooling (to counter radical Koranic schools), forbid foreign imams from training clerics in France and tighten controls on cultural associations and prayer halls. “The problem”, Mr Macron said, “is an ideology which claims its own laws should be superior to those of the republic.” Hugo Micheron, author of a book on jihadists in France, says that it is no coincidence that in Conflans a school teacher was the target. “Education in France represents the transmission of the principles of the republic,” he says, and today’s generation of jihadists are “waging an ideological war to counter that transmission, and in which France is seen as the factory of Western ideology.”

Mr Macron will doubtless now judge that he was right to have taken a hard line. There was much activity on social media before Mr Paty was slain. A parent at the school in Conflans had filed a complaint about the teacher showing the caricatures, and posted about it. That parent’s half-sister joined Islamic State in Syria and is wanted by the police. Another radicalised individual known to the French intelligence services was also involved in the mobilisation against Mr Paty, according to French news reports. The perpetrator himself—an 18-year-old refugee of Chechen origin, who was shot dead by the police—posted a photo of the decapitated head on social media. It was addressed to Mr Macron and claimed the killing of “one of your hell dogs who dared to denigrate Muhammad”. The police have so far detained 11 people in connection with the murder.

As France deals with the aftershock, this latest unspeakable attack is likely to strengthen the hands of those urging a clamp-down to defend freedom of expression and secularism. This in turn will reinforce the determination of critics who counter that such measures legitimise Islamophobia. Mr Macron said earlier this month that he wanted to avoid being trapped by those who seek to portray the combat against political Islam as one that “stigmatises all Muslims”. It is, rather, about the French state’s ability to educate children, believers or non-believers, as free-thinking citizens. The struggle, said Mr Macron on the evening of the attack in Conflans, is nothing less than “existential”.

(Photo credit: AFP)

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