On 9 December, France’s prime minister, Jean Castex, held a press conference to announce the publication of a “draft law to strengthen republican values”, aimed at defending secularism (Laïcité) and free speech, supposedly under attack from “the nefarious ideology of radical Islamism”.
The previous week, the Interior Minister, Gérald Darmanin, had announced a crackdown on 76 mosques accused of promoting “Islamist separatism”. The mosques will be investigated by police and those deemed to be “breeding grounds of terrorism” will be shut down under the new law, originally entitled “against separatism”. Darmanin has even called for the removal of halal food from supermarkets, saying that it was anti-French.
France, which is home to Europe’s largest Muslim community, 5.7 million or 8.8 per cent of the population, has also been the scene of a series of bloody terrorist attacks either by lone individuals or small groups, inspired by, or linked to, jihadist terror groups like ISIS or Al -Qaeda and their offshoots.
The series started with the murders of 16 people at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo on 7 January 2015. This was followed by the mass killings of 130 people, with 350 wounded, at the Bataclan concert hall, the Stade de France, and in bars and restaurants in central Paris on 13 November 2015. Then came the mass slaughter of innocent people celebrating Bastille Day in Nice on July 14, 2016, with 86 deaths.
The new law was already being prepared over the summer but the horrific beheading of a teacher, Samuel Paty, on October 16, closely followed by the killing of three people in the church of Notre Dame in Nice on October 29, not only inflamed popular feelings of justified horror and indignation against the perpetrators but added fuel to the government’s campaign against “separatism”. This in turn reignited the debate about what the first article of France’s constitution means when it declares the Republic to be, “indivisible, secular, democratic and social”.
Obviously, revolutionary socialists have always opposed any form of single-person rule, whether of a monarch or a president, and included in their programme the demand for the separation between state and church or any other religious body. However, when Macron tries to justify his new law by reference to the law of 1905 that enshrined laïcité, secularism, in the Third Republic, he is not comparing like with like.
That law deprived the central bastion of reaction, the Catholic church, of its influence in schools, public offices and the army. Since Muslims have little or no institutional power in France, unlike the Catholic church which still runs 15% of primary and 20% of secondary schools, they are not a threat to democracy and freedom. The threat to them comes from a government and political parties that attack communities that do not integrate into a national bourgeois political culture.
Our defence of freedom of speech and the press does not mean toleration of incitement to hatred or violence against minorities and individuals. No new laws are required to stop such behaviour. Indeed, as far as “radical” preachers or political-Islamist groups are concerned, the surest basis for controlling such elements is the good will of a community whose members enjoy full rights to practice their religion and whose feelings are respected in a society that gives them and their children all the same opportunities as all other citizens.
In reality, the new law and its inspirer, President Emmanuel Macron, have quite different aims in mind, to create an “Enlightenment Islam” with French, secular, republican values. But, disguised behind this, lies an even baser desire; to attract racist votes away from Marine Le Pen and the Rassemblement Nationale (formerly the FN). Worse still, Macron and his ministers’ speeches over the last weeks and months, spread by the media, have doubtless contributed to attacks on women wearing the hijab or niqab in Paris, plus the desecration of mosques in Montélimar, Bordeaux, Béziers and other towns.
The government has also dissolved the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF), alleging links to “radical” networks and describing them as “enemies of the republic”. In fact, the CCIF was created to defend Muslims facing attacks and is supported by left wing groups lie S.O.S Racisme. Banning it is merely an attempt to prevent the highlighting of Islamophobic racism.
A French Islam?
Macron is promising a “return of the Republic” to areas in France’s cities from which, he claims, it has been excluded. He promises funds for the education and justice departments in order to, “assure a republican presence in every road, every building”.
As well as placing mosques under increased surveillance and supervision, the new law will require their imams to be trained and certified in France. By drastically impeding the flow of foreign (principally Turkish and Saudi) funding and training, the new law has declared its aim to be creating a state-sanctioned Islam. Islamic organisations that receive funding from the French state will have to sign a “secular charter”. The legislation includes more funding for higher education and the teaching of Islamic culture, civilisation and history… from a French perspective.
In a speech trailing the new law, on 2 October, Macron made repeated reference to what he called “separatism”, a concept he defined as,
“a… politico-religious project, which is materialised by repeated discrepancies with the values of the republic, which often results in… the development of sports, cultural and communal practices which are the pretext for the teaching of principles which do not conform to the laws of the republic”.Fight against separatism – the Republic in action (speech by Macron, 2 October 2020)
Of late, this term has replaced the “communitarianism” previously used by former President Nicolas Sarkozy. He made himself infamous when, as Interior Minister at the time of the 2005 riots in the housing estates of the outer suburbs, he said he would use the police as a pressure washer to cleanse the “scum” off the banlieues. Sarkozy, who was preparing for a run at the presidency, played the anti-immigrant card to combat the challenge of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s FN. Macron, who will stand for re-election in April 2022 and whose poll ratings show him at 26% against Marine Le Pen’s 25%, hopes to repeat this ‘trick’.
Over the last two decades, a whole series of Islamophobic laws and local authority regulations, masquerading as defending secularism, have poisoned politics. A 2004 law banning the hijab in state schools was followed by one in 2010 banning the wearing of full facial covering in the street. The Senate even banned veiled mothers going with their children on school trips.
A measure of the anti-Muslim hysteria sweeping the country was demonstrated when some local authorities tried to ban non-pork alternatives in school canteens. In 2013, Socialist Party President François Hollande set up an Observatory of Laïcité to apply and develop the 1905 law. In 2016, police tried to force women in so-called burkinis on a beach in the south of France to take them off. Nothing could be better calculated to ensure French Muslims listen to radical preachers when they claim that French society is inherently anti-Muslim.
In a society saturated with this kind of reactionary prejudice, it is no surprise that Macron has his pick of pseudo-academic justifications for inflicting these humiliating restrictions on Muslim communities for their failure to assimilate to the values of the secular republic.
Macron’s speech borrowed its main theme from works by a number of intellectuals, a prime example of whom is the historian and philosopher Georges Bensoussan. In 2002, he wrote a book, The Lost Territories of the Republic and in 2017 A Submissive France: the Voices of Rejection (Une France soumise: Les voix du refus). In a preface to Bensoussan’s book, prominent philosopher and feminist Elizabeth Badinter wrote that, “a second society is trying to impose itself insidiously within our Republic, turning its back on it, explicitly targeting separatism and even secession”.
This is not the first time that feminists, whether liberal or ‘socialist’, have played a dangerous game with secularism and the Muslim communities. Many French feminists supported the state ban on the hijab, because they concluded this was part of the struggle against patriarchal and sexist Islamic practices. Badinter again: “If we allow women to wear headscarves in state schools, then the republic and French democracy have made clear their religious tolerance, but they have given up on any equality of the sexes in our country.”
Of course, the left must support women in the Muslim communities in the West who fight gender oppression within their communities and their families. Likewise, we must publicise and support the heroic struggles by feminists and socialists who fight for women’s rights in Muslim countries like Afghanistan, Iran, Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. We have to reject claims by “anti-imperialists”, third worldists and postmodernists that in doing so we are imposing western racist values. Support for military interventions by an imperialist state, and its racist measures at home, however, is a fraudulent feminism.
Quite the opposite of being liberatory, it gives a spurious martyrdom to reactionary preachers and foments racist Islamophobia in the majority population. It also ignores the fact that it is Muslim women who are often the frontline victims of Islamophobic attacks. In any case, they cannot be “liberated” from patriarchal structures against their will.
Here we should remember the words of James Connolly in 1915 about the struggle of women: “None so fitted to break the chains as they who wear them, none so well equipped to decide what is a fetter.”
France is not only the model and archetype of the bourgeois revolution. Next to Britain, it was the most successful colonising and imperialist power from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries. It was also the one that put up the longest and most savage resistance to losing that empire, not least because in its would-be settler colonies, notably Algeria, it regarded them as French. Indochina and Algeria left deep scars on French national consciousness and, in the form of De Gaulle’s Fifth Republic, on its state institutions too. This history, like that of Britain’s empire, had a demographic legacy; millions of people whose family heritage lies in these colonies. As far as the legacy of “France Afrique” and “Algérie Française” are concerned, this legacy extends to the dominant religion and languages of these communities.
Another legacy is the impudent demand from French politicians, on the so-called left as well as the right, that these people should not practice or preserve their cultures or make public expression of their religion. If they do, they are accused of communautarisme or separatisme. It is for this reason that French academics and presidents have often launched into denunciations of “Anglo-Saxon multiculturalism”. In short, French bourgeois secularism is integrally linked to French imperialism (which is not dead history but a living reality in a large part of Africa.)
Not only LePen plays on this theme but presidents Sarkozy and Macron. Even the “Socialist” president, François Hollande, whilst denying that republicanism is a rival religion, could say in 2016, “What we need to succeed in together is the creation of an Islam of France”. Whether this is expressed brutally or politely, this is a demand for compulsory assimilation. It will have the opposite effect, as it always does, slowing or reversing the “natural” intermixing of the cultures of populations to the enrichment of all.
Thus, Macron was treading a well-trodden path when he took up the theme of a “retreat of the Republic” in the 1,500 public housing estates in the inner suburbs of Paris and other French cities, with their youth of North African and sub-Saharan Muslim heritage. He claimed:
“We have created our own separatism in some of our districts where the promises of the Republic are no longer kept. We have concentrated populations of the same origins, the same religion.”
He described the culture predominant there as, “a systematic way of organising things to contravene the Republic’s laws and create a parallel order, establish other values, develop another way of organising society which is initially separatist, but whose ultimate goal is to take it over completely.”
Given France’s record of mass killings and torture during the Algerian war of independence (1954-62) it is scarcely any wonder that even the youth whose families settled in France 50 years ago still see the tricolour not as the flag of “liberty equality and fraternity”, but of poverty, colonialism and atrocity. Nor was the brutality limited to Algeria. On 17 October 1961, when Algerians defied a curfew to demonstrate peacefully in Paris against French oppression, police opened fire, killing 300 and throwing their bodies into the Seine. The infamous Prefect of the Paris Police, the Nazi collaborator Maurice Papon, never faced justice and a long career that included executing Resistance fighters under the Vichy regime, ended in “honourable” retirement in 1981.
Nor is the question of French imperialism in Africa a thing of the past. In stigmatising Islamist radicalism, Macron directly related this to the French state’s spheres of interest in the Middle East and Africa:
“So everywhere there’s a crisis of Islam, which is being infected by these radical manifestations, these radical impulses and the desire for a reinvented jihad, which means the destruction of the Other. The project for a territorial caliphate which we fought against in the Levant, which we’re fighting in the Sahel, and everywhere the most radical, more or less insidious forms of it.”
Clearly his concern is for the spheres of France’s military activities in the former French colonies in sub-Saharan Africa. Some 4,500 military personnel have been coordinating action against jihadist groups in Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad. These former French colonies in fact never ceased to be under French tutelage.
The Left and the laïque
The French left have a tendency to get caught up in the culture war over republicanism and laïcité, despite their condemnations of Macron’s draconian attacks on civil rights and his obvious racism.
There is no credible threat to secularism from France’s Muslim population, not from hijab or niqab wearing women in schools, on the streets, or on the beaches, nor from halal food options in restaurants. The threat lies more in the repressive and intolerant action of the state and its diffusion of a compulsory state ideology than in fear induced self-censorship.
What is under attack from Macron’s law and his competition with Marine Le Pen for the racist vote is democratic rights, and these include the rights of religious minorities not to be wantonly provoked by anti-clericalists.
The genuine Marxist position is that religion should be a private matter as far as the state is concerned. It certainly includes defending freedom of criticism and opposing state or commercial media censorship, but it avoids actions against, or for, any one religion. In this context, it is wrong to make teachers front line fighters in a culture war against one religion, even under noble slogans like freedom of speech. In any case, such freedom has never been understood as an “absolute right” (shouting Fire! in a cinema, shouting racist insults to incite a crowd against immigrants). Absolute freedom of speech would mean infringing other people’s rights. Incitement to racial conflict is not at all the same thing as freedom to criticise a religion (or atheism, or secularism for that matter).
The French left must play an independent role. The task is to bind the Muslim youth and workers into the French labour movement and that cannot be done by wrapping ourselves in the flag and ideology of the bourgeoisie. If we did that, we would be putting ourselves on the wrong side of the barricades vis-à-vis the culture war being waged against French Muslims. Real toleration must be based on understanding and common struggle, rather than mocking and jeering at one religion, as though that would banish it.
Macron’s strategy is to “Republicanise” a part of the Muslim population, splitting it along class lines. Unless the attack on religious obscurantism and arguments for secularism come from the left, on a class basis, they will have the opposite effect.
The French left needs to learn that it will be fighting a losing battle if it does not oppose the French state’s attacks on minorities. Those attacks are driving people of the majority community into the arms of the petty bourgeois and nationalist organisations whether these are the RN/FN racist populists or outright fascists. Amongst the Muslim minority they will foster “radicalism” and even jihadi terrorism.
Echoing the slogans and demands of bourgeois secularism ignores the reactionary purposes for which they are being used. Freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and secularism will remain empty abstractions, like Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, if they are not backed up by working class values of solidarity and collective action in defence of the oppressed. One road leads to Islamophobia, the other to a militant class struggle against the system that depends on racial, national, and sexual-gender subordination and the fostering of all kinds of inequality based on them.