Written by Sophie Guillaumat
In the last 5 years, more than 300 people have been assassinated in France by terrorist individuals claiming to act in the name of Islam (Macron, 2020). On October 2, Macron talked about “endogenous terrorism”, a product of the radicalization and indoctrination of vulnerable segments of society following a separatist ideology based on distortions of Islam (Macron 2020). Along with his claim that “Islam is experiencing a crisis today”, he revealed the “policy proposal to reinforce laïcité and Republican principles” that the government intends to implement before next summer. He provided this proposal as an answer to the threat of “Islamist separatism” (Macron, 2020). Although Macron acknowledged the responsibility of the Republic in creating favorable predisposition for the radicalization of certain social groups, his approach to address the problem could actually make things worse. Indeed, his reinforcement of laïcité reduces the flexibility needed to harmonize different sets of values within French society, while he should instead fight the social injustice that is aggravating marginalisation by attempting to foster mutual respect and equal opportunities for all.
Terrorism and “Islamist separatism” apart, tensions between the Muslim religious values and the French Republican values are inherent in French society (Fernerod, 2018). These tensions are experienced by several million French Muslims, 73% of whom understood the offense behind the publication of caricatures of their prophet (Ifop, 2020), to give a current example. France and its initial policy of laïcité of 1905 sought to ensure that these tensions were manageable, as the religion-free State would ensure freedom of religion for all (ViePublique, 2018). However, in 2004, the reform of laïcité turned secularism of the State into secularism of society, forcing citizens to hide any external sign of their religion in schools and public offices (Baubérot, 2015). Regardless of its inclusive framing and initial goal at mitigating discrimination, this law turns out to target disproportionally Muslim women who are forced to remove their headscarf to access public jobs (Giddens, 2004). The ban of religious signs from public offices has become the illustration of the conflict of values imposed upon French Muslims by the French State (Pelletier, 2005). Macron, to fight “Islamist separatism”, seeks to reinforce this controversial policy, and thus diminish the room for compromise that enables French Muslims to harmonize both sets of values. One of the policy’s axes is indeed to extend the ban of religious signs to firms working as delegates for the government, thus excluding those who do not want to give up on their religious principles from a wider range of employment and undermining equal opportunities.
A second axis of the proposal targets education. But instead of reforming schools to equip them to become safe places to foster mutual respect, understanding and tolerance from all students according to the values of the Republic, Macron wants to cancel optional classes on Arabic culture and language. What France needs to foster integration and equal opportunities is an educational system where children needing additional support can receive it in due time instead of being left behind by overworked teachers (OECD, 2008). This support would be the basic requirement to exit a vicious circle of marginalisation (Natason, 2007) that leaves segments of society more vulnerable to indoctrination and radicalization, regardless of any initial religion. To prevent this vulnerability, schools should also train the critical mind of children to protect them from falling into ideological abuses (UNESCO, 2017). Furthermore, forbidding schools to provide special meals without pork for Muslim students would lead to a greater feeling of exclusion from those children whose parents would most likely bring them home for lunch under those conditions. The school meals might seem a minor issue, but it leads to a conflict of values at a young age, one which the majority of other children do not have to endure. Issues such as this one tend to make it disproportionately difficult for French Muslims to cope with their religious background within the framework of French institutions.
The policy also includes a flagrant paternalistic element, where the state would monitor and supervise religious gatherings related to Islam, to prevent distortions and manipulations of the religion. More importantly, Macron wants to transform the training provided to Imams, and change its location from abroad to the homeland, to reduce foreign influence that might contradict Republican values. Such a clear interference of the State into religious matters would be an open violation of laïcité, which seeks to enforce the separation of the religion with the State, but also of the State with the religion (ViePublique, 2018). To make this violation somehow subtle, Macron claims that the French Council of the Muslim Faith would be in charge of implementing this new training policy. However, the Council has always been undermined by international division and a lack of efficiency (Sfeir & Coste, 2006). More generally, Macron seems to ignore the fact that Islam does not work through a vertical system of authority, but rather through decentralized practices, which explains the difficulty to find credible representatives of the religion as a whole (Zeghai, 2008).
Macron is getting it all wrong. His careless terms, such as considering Islam to be in a crisis along with his policy proposal imposing further restrictions on many French Muslims can be interpreted as making the line between Muslims and terrorists blurry, which is simply unacceptable. To ensure that citizens will not turn against Republican values, Macron should instead aim at ensuring that these values are fair to all, foster mutual respect, and equal opportunities. He should address the undermining problem of integration still inherent in French society, along with racism and marginalisation. The true spirit of the Republic is the freedom to show one’s convictions, to be accepted equally and provided with an equal access to economic and social well being.
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