Emmanuel Macron, image via Facebook BESA Center Perspectives Paper n ° 1790, October 30, 2020
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The beheading of schoolteacher Samuel Paty, which occurred two weeks after a memorable speech by President Emmanuel Macron in which he unveiled a plan to defend French secular values against “Islamist radicalism”, marked the beginning of what could turn out to be an all-out war between France and the Islamic world, with Erdoğan leading the Muslim charge. By taking a stand against extremist Muslim violence and the suppression of free speech, Macron could find himself facing a new wave of Islamic terror.
On October 2, 2020, French President Emmanuel Macron delivered a memorable speech in defense of secularism. In the speech, he unveiled a plan to defend French secular values against “Islamic radicalism”.
Two weeks later, on October 16, a French history teacher named Samuel Paty was beheaded in the street outside his school by an 18-year-old radical Islamist. The terrorist, a teenager of Chechen descent of Russian descent, managed to send a deeply shocking message to supporters of secularism, or French secularism: Islamic radicalism in France does not intend to sink without a fight.
The alleged reason the murderer, Abdullakh Abouyedovich Anzorov, targeted Paty was because Paty showed his students the cartoons of Muhammad published by the satirical newspaper. Charlie Hebdo in 2015 – images that provoked the invasion of the newspaper’s offices and the massacre of its journalists by Islamic fundamentalists. In his speech before Paty’s murder, Macron said France would not “give up on cartoons” – in other words, France strongly supports freedom of expression and will not be intimidated by terrorism.
Macron’s speech was almost immediately followed by accusations from Muslims both at home and abroad that Macron is Islamophobic and racist. This furious reaction was particularly strong in Turkey, as around half of the imams in France are of Turkish origin.
In the October 2 speech, Macron tried to be nuanced on how Islam and French secularism could be integrated. He unveiled a plan to defend French secular values against “Islamist radicalism”, adding that Islam was “in crisis” all over the world. He insisted that “no concessions” would be made in a new movement to push religion out of education and the public sector in France.
Macron said the measures were aimed at solving the problem of growing “radicalization” in France and improving “our ability to live together.” He stressed that “secularism is the glue of a united France”, but added that there is no sense in stigmatizing all Muslim believers.
Macron’s plan aims to limit foreign influence and invest in a new generation of French imams, with a certification process based in France. He called “Islamist separatism” a “parallel society” which threatens France by holding sharia the law above French law, which “often results in the creation of a counter-society”. Macron said the government would submit legislation in December 2020 aimed at “strengthening secularism and consolidating Republican principles.”
A significant act that went under the radar occurred on July 7, 2020, when a commission of inquiry from the French Senate, headed by Jacqueline Eustache-Brinio, presented a report titled “Islamist Radicalization: Confront and Fight Together” .
The report describes the situation in France as follows:
Islamist radicalism is not only about the issue of terrorism or the transition to violent action, but also involves behaviors that can be peaceful and do not lead to violence. It can be the work of groups that advocate identity, withdrawal or entry into the associative and political world. … Groups which historically, like the Muslim Brotherhood, are active in France and seek to impose their points of view through association networks seek recognition from the authorities and, more recently, opt for integration into the electoral lists.
Faced with the rise of Islamism, the authorities have focused, since 1995, on the terrorist threat and the obstruction of violent action. This concern has resulted in the establishment of a complete legal arsenal and the structuring of internal security services in order to respond to the threat. But the problem facing French society today has changed in nature: it is a multifaceted Islamist reflected in all aspects of social life and tending to impose a new social norm by prevailing. [upon] Individual liberty.
Among the main Commission proposals, the following should be highlighted:
- Know, follow and prevent the actions of radical Islam.
- Continue to strengthen the human resources assigned to internal intelligence, taking into account the multiplicity of missions allocated to it and the extent of the geographical areas of its field of action. Ensure, as much as possible, a specialization [of] surveillance agents of radical Islamist movements.
- Emergency set [up] an interministerial committee for the prevention of radicalization, and set up departmental units to fight against Islamism and to evaluate radical activities.
- Since the Islamists seek to destabilize our society and to have their right to govern [according to] Muslim denomination, the response of the public authorities must above all avoid interfering in Muslim religious worship. In addition, it is imperative to refrain from stigmatizing Islam, as there is no unified Muslim community, nor one Islam.
The commission of inquiry refutes the idea that Islamic radicalism is only a reaction to “Islamophobia”, but declares that to question the values of the Republic by promoting sharia should not be tolerated.
It’s fair to assume that the Senate committee report inspired Macron’s rhetoric on October 2. However, while his intentions were constructive, it appears his delivery missed the mark. The speech was twisted and instantly became a source of grievance across the Islamic world. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was at the forefront of the furious Islamic response.
Turkey is already involved in a number of disputes with France. These conflicts – over Syria, Libya, NATO, gas exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean and Armenia – each have their own context and their own specificities, but they all stem from the French suspicion of the ambition of Erdoğan to lead a Sunni Islamic revival.
Erdoğan seized Macron’s speech as an opportunity to position himself as both a leader and spokesperson for the Arab and Islamic world. On October 26, he called for a boycott of French products, saying: “It is becoming more and more difficult to be a Muslim and to live an Islamic lifestyle in Western countries. He described Macron as mentally ill.
Erdoğan’s rise in Islamist anger resonated throughout the Arab world. The French Ambassador to Pakistan has been summoned to condemn Macron’s alleged incitement to Islamophobia. From Sanaa to Riyadh, Macron has become an axis of one-man evil. French products are boycotted. Le Train Bleu restaurant in Doha, “Qatar’s ultimate Parisian culinary experience”, is hastily restocking its products.
Several French Muslim intellectuals have severely criticized Macron on social networks. One of them said that “the president described Islam as” a religion in crisis all over the world today “. I don’t even know what to say. This remark is so stupid (sorry) that it does not need to be analyzed any further… I will not hide that I am worried. No mention of white supremacy even though we are the country that exported the racist and white supremacist theory of the “great replacement” used by the terrorist who committed the horrific Christchurch massacre.
Another was even harsher: “The repression of Muslims was a threat, now it’s a promise. In an hour-long speech, Macron buried secularism, encouraged far-right anti-Muslim leftists and threatened the lives of Muslim students by calling for drastic limits on home schooling despite a global pandemic.
Le New York Times has been very critical of Macron’s plans, writing a “broad government crackdown on Muslim individuals and groups.” American sociologist Crystal Fleming, an expert on white supremacist groups, tweeted: “It is more than sad to see French officials responding to violent extremism with violent extremism …”
President Macron thus finds himself in a very difficult position, not only vis-à-vis the Islamists but also among his own ministers. Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin used the language of the hard right, calling France a “civil war” to defend the secular and unitary French Republic against the “separatist” teachings of extremist Islam. Darmanin suggested that ethnic food aisles in supermarkets be closed – in other words, punish innocent French Muslims as well as those responsible. According to the investigative journal The chained Duck, Macron asked Darmanin and other ministers to cool their language.
Macron, who was elected president in 2017 after two years of bloody terrorist attacks in France, is heading for a 2022 election campaign and hopes to succeed where his predecessors failed. He may have bet on the wrong horse, however. Defeating radical Islam requires strong action, but Western governments must try to find a compromise path to break the cycle of backlash and backlash that creates more extremism and violence.
French far-right leader Marine Le Pen sees no reason to be cautious or tolerant of Islamists in France. His reaction to Paty’s beheading was to repeat over and over again that “massive uncontrolled” immigration is responsible for this kind of atrocity.
Given the fragility of the situation in France, as well as the anger that has developed between Paris and the Arab and Muslim states, there appears to be a high probability of a new wave of radical Islamist terrorist operations against the France and assets linked to France. The rage directed at Macron’s statements, which are seen as proof of French Islamophobia, creates a common denominator between Sunnis and Shiites, in that both currents feel hurt and humiliated.
According to reliable intelligence sources, there are several sleeper cells of Islamic terrorist organizations in France as well as in other Western European countries which can be activated at short notice.
Important French interests in the Arab world could be economically harmed by the explosion of anger, and there could be diplomatic deterioration between the Arab states and Paris.
President Macron is faced with a difficult dilemma: stand firm and implement the measures he has described regarding radical Islamism in France, or reassess this policy and jeopardize his chances of re-election.
Dr Raphael G. Bouchnik-Chen is a retired Colonel who served as a Senior Analyst in IDF military intelligence.