It’s true that France is hardly unaccustomed to Islamist terrorist attacks, having had to endure more than most western countries in recent years. The Toulouse and Montauban shootings in 2012, the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket and on the Bataclan nightclub and other restaurants and cafés in 2015, and the truck attack in Nice in 2016, being just the most deadly and high-profile. There have also been many smaller-scale incidents, with a spike in such attacks recently in the context of the ongoing trial of the presumed accomplices of the perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo attack, and two weeks ago the murder of school teacher Samuel Paty on the last day of term, decapitated ostensibly for having shown examples of Charlie Hebdo’s Muhammad cartoons in a class on free speech and laïcité (even though Paty warned that some of his pupils may find the pictures offensive and invited them to turn away or leave the room).
That such incidents provoke a reactionary backlash among rightwing politicians and media outlets insensitive to distinctions between Muslims and Islamists is unfortunately to be expected, but it doesn’t take much to provoke such reductionism in France these days – a veil-wearing woman who dares to express an opinion, participate in a song contest or go jogging or to the beach is enough to warrant as much “debate” on the “Muslim problem” as mass murder. Nor is it confined to the right: a member of Macron’s centrist party recently asked a veiled woman to leave the room, in an echo of a far-right politician doing the same earlier last year.
Upping the stakes
But that which has followed Paty’s murder is taking things to a new level, with the government at the forefront of Islamophobic polemics, and with changes to the law, to the constitution, and to the very definition of laïcité, being proposed to combat the terrorist threat, as well as restrictions on free speech being suggested as a necessary step to defending… free speech! Instead of healthy debate into what the state could have done better to prevent the killing, the mainstream political and media consensus has been to scapegoat those they say are simply in denial about the threat posed by veils and people not eating pork, and in particular those who critique Islamophobia and Charlie Hebdo – a wide range of people they refer to under the umbrella-term of “Islamo-leftists”. Journalist Rokhaya Diallo (black, Muslim and left-wing!) was recently accused by “new philosopher” Pascal Bruckner, for instance, of having blood on her hands for having used the “privilege” afforded her by being a black, Muslim woman to incite hatred against Charlie Hebdo.
In the aftermath of Paty’s murder, the police raided the homes and offices of numerous individuals and over 50 associations that, in the words of the interior minister Gérald Darmanin, admittedly “had no link to the Paty murder”; instead the aim was to “send a message”. Far from being Islamists or suspected terrorists (as suggested in The Guardian), these were in most cases simply Muslims and associations that provide legal advice to Muslims or that protest against anti-Muslim discrimination: the charity Barakacity, a faith-based charity providing clean water in Africa and help to the homeless and refugees in France, was banned a few days ago because of its Muslim affiliation (Catholic charities such as the Secours Catholique pose no such threat to laïcité however); and the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF), a small organization with a UN consultant status which organizes mediation and helps provide lawyers for those defending themselves against Islamophobic discrimination, has been declared an “enemy of the Republic” and also threatened with dissolution – it has since taken steps to extend its activities internationally because it no longer feels safe in France.
Darmanin also went on a media offensive to put the blame on: the existence of Halal (and Kosher) food sections in supermarkets; journalists, left-wing politicians and charities such as Amnesty International and La Ligue des Droits de l’Homme for their denunciation of supposedly non-existent Islamophobia or police violence; and academics for teaching “Anglo-Saxon” courses on racism (as well as gender, sexuality and intersectionality) – all of which apparently contribute to “communitarianism”, “separatism” and ultimately Islamist terror. This weekend he also announced plans to impose a fine up to 75,000 euros and to send to prison for up to 5 years anyone who refuses to see a doctor of the opposite sex.
Jean-Michel Blanquer, the minister for education, has also spoken out against veils, which, although technically legal, are “not desirable” nor “compatible with republican values”, as well as the corrupting influence of Anglo-Saxon academic concepts such as intersectionality. For Blanquer (and, even more embarrassingly, many academics in France), such work essentialises minorities (and is thus racist and sexist itself) and inevitably fragments society, in contrast to the French republican tradition in which everyone is equal and everyone gets along just fine.
Yesterday, on the anniversary of the first day of the Algerian war, Jean Castex, the Prime Minister, spoke about the need for the French public to no longer critique France’s colonial history (something France has never really started doing), and to instead be proud of France’s “roots”, identity and freedom. Meanwhile, and in the face of boycotts of French products in some Muslim-dominant countries, Macron tells the international media how tolerant France actually is of Muslims, offering a very different discourse to the one aimed at French Muslims.
The recurring theme in such debates is the supposed conflict between free speech and laïcité on the one hand (whereby Muslims seem to be little more than convenient objects of ridicule), and Muslims and anti-racists on the other (who inconveniently insist on Muslims having the right to have a voice). This manufactured conflict is dependent upon a curious, neoconservative redefinition of laïcité and a libertarian fetishisation of absolutist free speech.
From this perspective, nothing could symbolise the beauty of republican freedom more than anti-religious satire such as Charlie Hebdo’s depictions of Muhammad as a terrorist or of a veil-wearing student union representative or other Muslims as animals. To suggest that such pictures are more Islamophobic and racist than they are representative of free speech (as indeed the European Court of Justice has done, arguing that depictions of Muhammad are not covered by Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights), is not just seen as an affront to free speech and the French tradition of anti-religious satire, but contrary to the very principles of laïcité.
While the Observatoire de la Laïcité has sought to calm tensions in recent years by explaining that laïcité means simply that the state should be neutral and that the public should be free to practise whatever religion they want, figures from the (so-called) intellectual (so-called) left, such as the Printemps Républicain and former Prime Minister Manuel Valls, have sought to push an alternative conception of laïcité whereby it is the public that is expected to be neutral (so, no more veils, no getting offended, no being too Muslim). In recent years they have been waging a war with the Observatoire (a neutral organisation whose task is to basically explain neutrality) which they regard as ideologically-influenced, partisan and unhelpful in the combat against the Islamist threat. In contrast, Laurent Bouvet, the leader of the perfectly neutral Printemps Républicain, recently posted on Twitter pictures of bacon masks, sent to him as a gift in the fight against the twin pandemics of Covid and Islam. This version of free speech and laïcité is the one that is winning the war, with the government now turning its attention to the Observatoire and threatening to “renew” its staff and role next year.
Free speech provocateurs
But it is almost as if the fearless defenders of free speech think that it is only speech that stigmatises Muslims that should be free. The government ministers who are so adamant about the need to celebrate the content of Charlie Hebdo as an exemplar of free speech have no problem in filing complaints for defamation against Mediapart, an independent online newspaper, for user-generated blog content they’ve hosted criticising police violence. A hundred academics have also just signed a letter siding with the reactionary comments of the minister for education against intersectional studies, asking for the state to intervene to prevent students from wearing headscarves and to put a stop to lecturers teaching such subjects. A few days ago, the Sénat passed an amendment to oblige academics to conduct their research “within the framework of Republican values”, which could be a perfectly banal and vague formulation, but which could also be the end of academic freedom, at least for those that do “critique” and “studies” (i.e. cultural, postcolonial, queer etc.).
I myself had problems organising a conference on Islamophobia, racialization and the “Muslim problem” when I was (very inconveniently) banned from using the words Islamophobia, racialization and the “Muslim problem” because they were too “provocative” (a favourite word of the free speech fetishists whenever they try to limit someone else’s free speech) and my university was too scared of offending the Printemps Républicain (Bouvet is a professor at the same university). I was also banned for the same reason from using an image of a woman wearing a tricolore veil to illustrate the event, and was instead asked to use orientalist images of Muslims as people from another continent and another century – I declined, but one person’s offence is clearly another person’s freedom.
One person’s offence is clearly another person’s freedom.
What seems worryingly clear, however, is that the free speech of academics, journalists, politicians, Muslims, anti-racist organisations, and law and order organisations is currently under threat, and that limits are being placed on the free speech of those who try to hold power to account simply to protect the free speech of those who feel it’s important to ridicule and stigmatise the powerless. And this is going to be done in the name of free speech.
Also, that in the name of neutrality (and even tolerance, of all words – where that now seems to mean the tolerance of offensiveness), the state is going to crack down even harder on the “proselytising” veil and proselytise Republican values instead. The extent to which school teachers and university lecturers go along with this remains to be seen. Further, the blanket approach to blaming both the left and Muslims for Islamist terror attacks, to side-lining critical scholarship and anti-racism activists, and to undermining anyone who tries to be neutral and balanced in their approach to debating such issues rather than reactionary and stigmatising, is going to be a prevailing feature of such polemics.
The extent to which critical scholars of race and intersectionality have taken over academia in France is rather unconvincing, however, seeing as it’s so hard to organise academic events on such topics (and when they are organised, they’re cancelled because of pressure from the very people claiming they’re rampant).
Similarly, the extent to which the organised left are in any way active in combatting Islamophobia is also dubious. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the founder of La France Insoumise, has always been explicitly anti-religious and guilty of Islamophobia himself (emphasising at one point that it simply isn’t French to wear a veil); it was only last year that he became convinced that there was a problem, agreeing to participate in a march against Islamophobia that is still being used against him as proof that he’s an Islamo-leftist. Despite several people from his party denouncing the current climate, there is still little prospect of a left-wing protest rally in front of the offices of the CCIF or Barakacity.
Macron’s move to the right on these issues (a far cry from his balanced tone during his presidential campaign) is perhaps politically-motivated. Le Pen and the far-right will probably be the force to beat in the next election. But the influence of the Printemps Républicain shouldn’t be discounted as well – this movement of the republican left is seeking to transform itself into a political party, with Valls and other big name politicians on both the left and right likely to be tempted to join what could become an attractive (not too obviously racist) alternative for many voters.
But the influence of the Printemps Républicain shouldn’t be discounted as well – this movement of the republican left is seeking to transform itself into a political party.
The focus for the immediate short-term, though, will be on the teachers and pupils returning to school today for the first time since Paty’s murder. Much is being made of the need for teachers to address what happened and for urgent classes on free speech and laïcité, in which many teachers will force racist cartoons upon the children in their class and encourage “debate”, whilst being simultaneously alert to any sign of radicalisation (presumably anyone looking away or debating too much).
In a further ironic twist, the text that teachers are to read out to their pupils today just before a minute’s silence – a text from Jean Jaurès on the role of the teacher, free speech and laïcité – appears to have been amended to emphasise the “fermeté” (determination, assertiveness) of teachers instead of their tenderness, while the passage on the autonomy of teachers has been completely removed. So, no autonomy for teachers or lecturers, and discouragement of critical thinking and debate among pupils and students, and all in the name of free speech, tolerance and neutrality.
Meanwhile, the much-mediated acts of Islamist terrorism continue unabated by the crackdown on Islamo-leftists, while the relatively unmediated acts and threats of violence against mosques, Muslim veil-wearing women and anti-racist academics seem to be occurring ever more frequently.
(With thanks to John Mullen for comments.)