SHARE
COPY LINK

POLITICS

ANALYSIS: Has Macron succeeded in creating an ‘Islam for France’?

Three months ago, President Emmanuel Macron made a speech in the Paris suburbs in which he promised a law to combat radical, Islamic 'separatism' writes John Lichfield.

ANALYSIS: Has Macron succeeded in creating an 'Islam for France'?
French president Emmanuel Macron. Photo: AFP

He called on Muslim organisations to negotiate and sign a charter accepting the principles of secularism, democracy and the rule of law. He called for the creation of an “Islam de France”.

He also admitted – crucially – that France had created its own “separatism” by dumping poorer people in suburban ghettoes with few jobs and poor housing.

Much blood and many angry words have been spilled since then. A history teacher, Samuel Paty, was beheaded outside his school in the western suburbs of Paris after using Charlie Hebdo cartoons of Mohammed to invite adolescents to think about secularity, tolerance and free speech. Three people were murdered in an Islamist terrorist attack on a church in Nice.

Macron – and France as a whole – came under a sustained and often ignorant attack in parts of the US media and parts of the Muslim world.

READ ALSO No, France is not planning a 'register of Muslim children'

 

France, and Macron personally, has come under attack for his proposals. Photo: AFP

The French principle of laicité (secularism) – all religions are allowed; none is favoured; the state is strictly secular – was dismissed as a cover for widespread discrimination, racism and islamophobia.

Macron’s proposed new law has also been attacked within France. Some politicians on the Left said that it was anti-Muslim and authoritarian. Some on the Right (and in the centre) said that it was inadequate. They called for more draconian measures, such as a ban on all Muslim head-scarves in public places.

Even moderate critics said that Macron was trying to impose a tame “French Islam”. They said that Nicolas Sarkozy had already tried that and failed. France’s disparate Muslim organisations would never be able to agree a single charter on the supremacy of secular law.

Two things have happened this week which advance Macron’s ambitions and pull the rug from under some of the criticism. How far the rug has been pulled remains to be seen.

The main French consultative body, the Conseil français du culte musulman (CFCM), representing nine broad streams of Islam, agreed on Monday an eight page “charter on principles” for l’islam de France. I have left that last phrase in French because the translation into English is crucial and hazardous.

Does it mean a “French Islam” or an “Islam for France” or just “Islam in France”. Critics and supporters will translate or interpret the words in different ways.

The charter commits its signatories to “combat the use of Islam for political ends”. It rejects “all discrimination based on religion, gender, sexual orientation or ethnicity”. With a glance at the Turkish and Pakistani leaders as well as the US media, it dismisses as “defamatory” all “attacks on an alleged state racism” in France .

Crucially, the CFCM has agreed for the first time to set up a “Conseil national des imams”, which will certify Islamic preachers and withdraw their certificates if they break the terms of the charter

The second development this week is that Macron’s proposed law against separatism – now called “law strengthening respect for Republican principles” – has been presented to a special committee of the National Assembly. It will be debated by the assembly proper from February 1st.

READ ALSO What is contained in France's proposed anti-separatism law?

 

Over 1,700 amendments have been tabled – many of which seek to impose the kind of draconian, and arguably anti-Muslim, measures which Macron rejected.

They include a proposal, supported by some pro-Macron deputies, to ban the wearing of hijabs or head-scarves by little girls. They also include attempts by centre-right deputies to ban the headscarf in all publicly-owned buildings, such as universities or hospitals, and on all public transport.

All these amendments are likely to be rejected in advance or defeated in the assembly. Attempts will be made to reintroduce them in the Senate. No doubt the inevitable arguments will be misrepresented by some as a “France attacks Islam”.

What does the proposed law do? Although the words Islam or Muslim never appear, the draft law has been drawn up – with the help of moderate Muslim leaders – to try to check the growing influence of fundamentalist, Islamist groups in France.

Parents who wish to home-school their children after the age of 3 would have to convince authorities they have a good educational reason for doing so “in the interests of the child”. Local councils would be banned from agreeing to religious-based demands, such as female-only opening hours for swimming pools.

There are rules to try to prevent radical minorities from taking over places of worship or foreign governments from controlling them financially. People convicted of supporting terrorism would be banned from leading religious organisations for 10 years.

There are also clauses strengthening protections against forced marriages and forbidding certificates of virginity. There is also a section – inserted after Mr Paty’s beheading – which introduce new penalties for combatting the spreading of hatred online.

Some aspects of the law are clumsy. Others – such as the clauses on online hatred – should have been dealt with separately. But nothing in the draft law as it stands can be fairly described as anti-Muslim.

The law offers some protection against extremist forms of Islam. That will benefit France as a whole. It will especially help the great bulk of law-abiding French Muslims who wish to practise their faith without being bullied by religious extremists (or the French far right).

Many questions remain. If state and religion are strictly separate in France, how can the state pass laws on religions?

READ ALSO EXPLAINED What does laïcité (secularism) really mean in France? 

 

Macron argues that the law does not tell people what they should believe or how to organise their religions. It sets limits on how far religion can invade “secular” society and interfere with democratic freedoms.

What of Macron’s promise to do great things to reduce the “separation” of Muslims and other Minorities by job and housing discrimination? That promise has not been forgotten, the government says. Formal proposals will be made in the next few weeks.

Here is another unresolved question. How representative is the Conseil français du culte musulman, which drew up the new “charter on principles”?

Three of the nine movements represented in the Council have yet formally to sign an agreement that they have accepted in principle. Of the 2,500 mosques in France only 1,000 are affiliated to the nine movements within the CFCM.

These are weaknesses – maybe fatal weaknesses. But for the first time a great swathe of moderate Muslim opinion in France has agreed rules and principles of religious freedom and tolerance within which it can work and defend itself.

Does that make it a tame and discredited “French Islam”, as radical critics claim?

Or a peaceful and constructive “Islam in France”, which will be better able to resist the violent, extremist teaching encouraged from abroad?

 

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.

STRIKES

‘We can’t work until 65’: Why French workers are ready to battle pension reform

French workers took to the streets across the country on Thursday in an effort to fight for higher wages and to decry proposals by President Emmanuel Macron's government to raise the retirement age.

'We can't work until 65': Why French workers are ready to battle pension reform

The protest in Paris was one of around 200 around the country on Thursday but only drew around 40,000 marchers.

It could be seen and heard from far away, as drums were banged and chants were sung, marchers made their way towards the historic Place de la Bastille.

The chants of “SMIC à €2,000” (minimum wage at €2,000) and “Rétraite à 60 ans” (retirement at 60 years old) were repeated over and over.

Originally Thursday’s inter-union protest – representing workers from several sectors – intended to demand higher wages amid the cost of living crisis, but the mobilisation quickly shifted to focus equally on denouncing plans by President Emmanuel Macron’s government to push through pension reform. 

Protests occurred as the French government vowed on Thursday to push through the reform by the end of the winter. 

Macron made raising the retirement age from its current level of 62 one of the key planks of his re-election campaign, arguing that the current system was unsustainable and too expensive.

But opposition parties have vowed to fight the government all the way.

“It’s the start of a social battle,” leading left-wing MP Alexis Corbiere from the France Unbowed (LFI) party told AFP as he took part in a protest march of tens of thousands in Paris. “My hope is that this is the starting point.”

While there were some notable absences from the march in Paris, namely the largest union in France, CFDT, those present were keen on making their voices heard, particularly in regard to their plans to continue protesting should Macron push on with his plan to raise the retirement age.

“There is nothing wrong with the system as it is,” said Fréderic Aubisse, a sewage operator in Paris and former head of the waste treatment union with CGT. For Aubisse, the problem of salaries and retirement are connected – he sees current salaries as too low and unattractive.

“We just need more people paying into the system,” the former union head said.

For waste treatment workers, the subject of retirement is particularly sensitive.

“We [waste treatment workers] already have a low life expectancy,” he added, explaining that pushing retirement back even further is not sustainable for people in his line of work. In Aubisse’s view, many would die before getting to enjoy any benefits of retirement.

According to Libération newspaper, waste treatment workers in France do have an excess mortality of 97 percent. 

Aubisse said he has been fighting for at least thirty years to keep social protections from being eroded, and that he and members of his union would continue protesting.

“If it makes it through parliament, it will be too late. We must start taking action now.” 

Another demonstrator, Dominique, who has been employed as cash register worker for Carrefour supermarkets for 35 years, said for her it would be “like 2019 again.” 

Dominique was referring to the 2019-2020 pension reform strike – the longest industrial action in French modern history. The Carrefour worker said she would be prepared to go to such lengths once more.

“Many of us here today have painful, repetitive jobs. We cannot continue to the age of 65,” said Dominique.

With deficits spiralling and public debt at historic highs, Macron views pushing back the pension age as one of the only ways the state can raise revenues without increasing taxes.

He has made it clear he would not hesitate to call fresh elections if opposition parties voted down the government over the reform.

Maintaining the focus on salaries

Some protesters in Paris on Thursday remained firm in the original motive of the protest to focus on demanding higher wages. The inter-union group, largely represented by the union CGT, called for for salaries to be indexed at a rate of at least 10 percent for civil servants.

The government previously increased the rate by 3.5 percent, but unions said that this “falls short of the urgent need to raise all salaries” and “preserve living conditions of all.”

Whilst the strike on Thursday caused some disruption on public transport and rail services, around one in 10 teachers joined the action forcing many schools to close their doors.

Teachers – a well-represented group at Thursday’s protest in Paris – were adamant wages must increase further.

“[The government’s 3.5% increase] is not enough. It does not suffice,” said Clotilde, an elementary school teacher in the Paris region.

Wearing a sign on her back with the words “20 years in teaching, but still a salary of a student,” Clotilde said it is “extremely difficult to live in the Paris region as a teacher.”

Clotilde’s sign. Picture Credit: Genevieve Mansfield

For her, the government’s proposals did not adequately cover the costs of inflation, a sentiment which was echoed by fellow teacher Aina Tokarski.

Tokarski, a middle school teacher in Villejuif, also wore her sign on her person. 

Tokarski holding up her sign

Tokarski explained that the start of the 2022 school year shook her – a young teacher, she saw several colleagues leave the profession, and she too considered making some changes, such as moving to a more affordable region in France.

“When I get to the grocery store, I look at the prices and just think to myself: this is not possible,” she said.

For her, the government has not raised salaries enough to combat the cost of living crisis.

In addition to rising costs, Tokarski worries about the conditions in the public school system generally. “The start of the school year really concerned me. We have teachers with upwards of 30 students per class. That is unattainable. It has been getting worse since the pandemic,” she said. 

While it was not a focus of the protest, other public employees highlighted staff shortages as deeply concerning, and innately related to salaries.

Véronique, a speech and language pathologist who works for the public hospital system, said she was there to “defend our salaries.”

Wearing a white doctor’s coat, Véronique explained that low salaries have pushed several doctors in her sector to leave their jobs, adding that this shortage has led to wait-lists growing far too long:

“It is not right for a four-year-old child who cannot speak to have to wait at least a year or two years to see a specialist. We have to triage our patients now,” she said.

When asked if she had plans to protest again, Véronique gave an emphatic “Bien sûr” (of course).

Xavier Signac, a 48-year-old member of the UNSA union from southwest France, as he walked along with a flag in Paris told AFP: “It’s up to us to show our determination, to show that street protests still have some power.”

SHOW COMMENTS