On October 6, when Samuel Paty, professor of history and popular geography at a school in a quiet Parisian suburb, presented a copy of the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that sparked the attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine five years ago years ago, he had no idea of the tragic consequences for his own life, French society or France’s relations with the Islamic world. What was supposed to be a classroom exploration of freedom of thought has turned into a mini clash of civilizations.
Ten days later, Paty was killed, allegedly by an adolescent of Chechen descent of Russian descent, sending an electric shock into the long French debate on secularism, or secularism. French President Emmanuel Macron responded by saying that France would not “give up cartoons”.
Since then, Macron has been labeled mentally ill by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan; its ambassador to Pakistan was summoned to condemn incitement to Islamophobia; and from Sana’a to Riyadh, it has become an axis of one-man evil. French products are the subject of a boycott. Le Train Bleu restaurant in Doha, “a Parisian culinary experience par excellence” in Qatar, for example hastily restocked its products.
It would be easy to think that Macron, facing record-breaking Covid infections, could look at his high school and back down. But he appears to have done the opposite, calling on Russian President Vladimir Putin with the Chechen origins of Paty’s alleged aggressor in mind, to push him to redouble Russia’s efforts to cooperate on terrorism. Macron has long sought a reset with Moscow by joining forces against terrorism. The call in some stories took the form of a conference, and in others a call to cooperate more closely in a common cause.
Either way, it’s not a fight Macron is likely to give up. Domestically, he faces the first round of the French presidential election in April 2022, and his challenge will come from the security right, whether it is the center-right Les Républicains or the extreme right Marine Le Pen, with whom he is neck and neck. neck in the polls. His net disapproval rate as president is -24%.
His calculation will be that as long as he makes the final turn, the left as before has nowhere to go. Being tough on Islamist separatism, and paying a price globally, hardly hurts it with hesitant right-wingers.
But reducing his conflict with extremism into a narrow calculation of personal political advantage is tantamount to misunderstanding his intellectual journey on secularism in power and how the issue is at the heart of his foreign policy vision, including its attitude towards Turkey, Russia, NATO Middle East.
By raising the stakes and keeping them high, Macron is also trying to make others recognize that they cannot remain neutral.
Macron had after all addressed the debate on Islamist extremism before Paty’s death in his October 2 speech on secularism – an hour-long speech in which he tried to be nuanced on how to integrate Islam and French secularism. It contained a number of proposals to regulate imams and mosques.
In the passage which turned out to be the most provocative in Turkey, he said: “Islam is a religion which is going through a crisis in the world”, referring to the jihadism of the Islamic State and also to Wahhabism, to the Saudi extremist ideology and Salafism. “We do not believe in political Islam which is not compatible with stability and peace in the world.”
Islamic separatism, which Macron describes as a deviation from Islam, is “a conscious, theorized politico-religious project, which materializes in repeated divergences with the values of the republic, which often results in the creation of a -society and whose manifestations are the dropping out of school children, the development of sports, cultural and community practices which are the pretext for teaching principles that do not comply with the laws of the republic ”.
There were also balanced passages on the state as the guarantor of freedom of religion, economic deprivation of the right to vote, and French colonial heritage.
A complex speech like this is not long in being distorted and becoming a source of grievance abroad, especially in Turkey, since up to half of the imams in France are Turkish.
But more importantly, Turkey is already 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 a French suspicion of Erdoğan’s ambitions. to lead a revived Sunni Islam.
In Syria, Macron opposes Turkish attacks against the Kurdish YPG militia, France’s ally in the war against Isis. In Libya, his initial objection to Islamist influence in the Tripoli National Accord government turned into conflict with Turkey after Ankara jumped to the aid of the GNA. He warns that the NATO alliance could become brain dead as Turkey, another member, is ambivalent about upholding Western values. In the Mediterranean, he assimilates Greek interests to those of Europe, leaving Germany to mediation. It is siding more and more openly with Armenia.
Many Europeans are worried about Macron’s somewhat Gaullist approach, or France first. Bruno Tertrais of the French Foundation for Strategic Research affirms: “France itself does not always consult its allies or ask for their support before taking diplomatic initiatives. He barely did it in Libya and didn’t do it at all when it came to his Russian reset. Perhaps if Macron had maintained ties with NATO allies and the Eastern European EU members of France, he would have secured earlier support for his position against Turkey and more confidence in his Russian diplomacy.
The French calculation is that Erdoğan will succumb to the pressure. The Turkish lira is at a new low, and there are only so many fronts an autocratic leader can fight on. But Erdoğan will draw his own strength from Macron’s condemnations across the Arab world. On Monday, he explicitly joined the call to boycott French products and said: “It is becoming more and more difficult to be a Muslim and to live an Islamic lifestyle in Western countries.” It has a long way to go.