On 16 October, French school teacher, Samuel Paty, was beheaded while on his way home from work in a Paris suburb by an 18-year-old Russian-born man of Chechen descent. The attack was carried out after Paty had showed controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed created by the Charlie Hebdo magazine. Following the attack, President Emmanuel Macron was quick to declare support for the publication of the images and announce that France was in an existential fight against Islamist fundamentalism. Less than two weeks later on 29 October, three people were killed in a knife attack by a 21-year-old Tunisian national at a church in the southern French city of Nice. Rather than condemn radicalisation and extremism, which is not unique to Islam, the rhetoric and policies of Macron and his government in recent weeks have largely been seen as anti-Muslim and have prompted a backlash from Muslims across the world. The response by the French government is likely to exacerbate existing Islamophobia in France, increase the prospect of further radicalisation and promote a negative image of France internationally.
The horrific attacks in October, as well as a stabbing attack outside the Charlie Hebdo offices which injured two people in September, were condemned by people across the world. Yet, the response by the French president was to crack down on Islam and veer towards right-wing populism rather than to call out the act of terrorism – which has historically been carried out by different groups from across world and the political spectrum. Prior to the October attacks, Macron had pledged to fight “Islamist separatism” and argued that free speech was under attack. Similar statements have been made by other members of the ruling class in defence of secularism, which over the years has come to mean the exclusion and control of Muslimness rather than simply the separation of the state and religion. The government had already proposed a law on Islamic separatism, which includes a ban on Islamic schools where girls wear headscarves and gives the government power to close any organisation which does not comply with “Republican values.” The Muslim charity, Baraka City, was ordered to close due to alleged ties with radical Islamic groups and the government has also planned to dissolve other similar groups. These actions and the rhetoric of the French government contribute to the othering and further marginalisation of Muslims. The impact of which is an increase in Islamophobia which already has structural roots in France. Shortly after the killing of Paty, two Muslim women were stabbed and subject to racist abuse by two white women near the Eiffel Tower, and similar attacks are likely to be carried out in the future.
Critics of Macron claim that the populist rhetoric is simple opportunism in an attempt to garner support and overlook some of the domestic problems France is currently facing, including the handling of the coronavirus pandemic and his failed attempts to overhaul the social welfare system. Macron’s approval rating has dropped significantly since he was elected in 2017 – an election which ended in a second round run-off between Macron and the leader of the far-right National Front, Marine Le Pen. With elections scheduled for 2022, Macron is seen as hoping to gain support from the far-right at the expense of the Muslim community. However, this Islamophobic discourse will not guarantee re-election and instead runs the risk of radicalising more young Muslims as well as cementing far-right beliefs and stereotypes about Muslims among some people in France.
The statements from Macron were also not well-received in the Muslim world and the backlash has been unfolding gradually. Thousands of Muslims protested across the world, including in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Senegal, Tunisia, Turkey, Iran, Lebanon, Palestine and other countries to denounce the cartoon images of the Prophet and Macron’s comments on Islam. Muslim leaders such as Pakistani President Imran Khan and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan condemned France for rising Islamophobia, and people in countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Qatar and Kuwait called for a boycott of French products. In Saudi Arabia, a guard was stabbed outside the French Consulate in Jeddah on the same day of the Nice attack, and France has warned its citizens abroad to be vigilant. The international backlash towards Macron’s statements is unlikely to stop and French citizens, companies and interests are now more likely to be targets for anti-French sentiment, whether this manifests via demonstrations, boycotts or attacks.
There is already structural Islamophobia in France and the latest attempts by President Macron and his government to condemn terrorism are likely to exacerbate the stigmatisation and exclusion of Muslims. As a result, the division between Muslims and the rest of French society is likely to grow, and such divisions only serve to help extremists, whether Muslim or those on the far-right, to spread their message and radicalise more people. While Muslims will continue to bear the brunt of the impact in France, it will be French citizens, companies and interests abroad which will be at a greater risk of being targeted. At a time when President Macron could have helped improve the relationship between French Muslims and the state, it appears that his actions could further marginalise them.