OPINION: Want to start a quarrel in France? Mention Islam

My theme is 'what didn’t happen' and why it can sometimes be more important than what did happen, writes John Lichfield in his latest article exploring the troubled relationship between Islam and the French state.

OPINION: Want to start a quarrel in France? Mention Islam
Marine Le Pen and Gérald Darmanin in a TV debate. Photo: AFP

The problem is that, in the present quarrelsome age, it’s not always easy to separate the two. Add the words “Islam” and “Islamism” and the debate rapidly moves from the tricky to the impossible.

My first example is the French government’s proposed law on “reinforcing Republican principles” which will be passed by the National Assembly on Tuesday.

The law is, in all but name, an attempt to curb the advance of radical or extremist Islamic ideology – often known as Islamism. We can return later to what it says or does.

First, let us recall what the law does NOT say or do.

Over 1,700 amendments were tabled. Something like 300, mostly marginal changes, were passed.

The amendments included a proposal, supported by some pro-Macron deputies, to ban the wearing of hijabs or head-scarves by little girls. They also included attempts by centre-right MPs to ban the headscarf in all publicly-owned buildings, such as universities or hospitals, and on all public transport. They included an attempt by Marine Le Pen’s Far Right Rassemblement National to ban the hijab outright in all public spaces (ie streets) in France.

All of these proposals – and others which might fairly be described as an attack on the choices of ordinary, non-radical Muslims – were rejected by the government and voted down by the pro-Macron majority in the Assemblée Nationale.

And yet Macron has been accused in recent weeks of lurching to the Right; of courting Islamophobic voters; of attacking Islam. The allegations have come from some leaders in the Muslim world; from part of the French Left; and – in shrill terms – from some voices in the liberal media in the United States.

It is also worth recalling that the proposed law has been developed in consultation with a representative section of Muslim leaders in France. It is intended, inter alia, to prevent the spread and foreign financing of the violent mutations of Islam.

It will help, not anger, 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).

My second example of “something that didn’t happen” goes back to a 70 minute TV debate on this same law last Thursday between the French interior minister Gérald Darmanin and Ms Le Pen. It was mostly a tedious affair but it generated running battles on Twitter and elsewhere at the weekend in both French and English. (Complete disclosure: I pitched enthusiastically into these battles.)

All turns on one passage towards the end. If taken out of context, Darmanin appears to accuse Le Pen of going “soft” on Islam and suggests that he is more radical than she is.

Darmanin has dangerous form (as I have written here before) as someone who has in the past strayed towards the Islamophobic rhetoric of the hard or far-right.

Cue indignation among left-wing twitterers in France and some UK and US commentators. Here, they said, was disturbing proof that Darmanin/Macron were playing the anti-Islam card to attract votes in next year’s presidential election.

Turkish state English language TV, TRT, carried a short soundbite, which suggested that Darmanin was attacking Islam per se.

No, he wasn’t. If you suffered through the whole debate, it was evident that Darmanin was teasing/mocking Le Pen for pretending hypocritically that she defended “all religions” while she and her party are habitually and virulently Islamophobic.

Others, I confess, have a different interpretation. Even the august Le Monde got it wrong, I believe, and missed the teasing/mocking context of Darmanin’s remarks.

The interior minister (who has form as I say) was clumsy. He might have been trying to have the best of both worlds – teasing Le Pen while posing as hard-line himself. But it is plain wrong to suggest, as some have, that Darmanin attacked Islam.

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Earlier in the debate, he made it clear that the government’s quarrel was with the radical anti-western distortions of Islam which have led to the 30 or so serious Islamist attacks in France in the last eight years. Or with the growing number of younger French Muslims who say they regard state laws as inferior and sometimes contrary to the laws of their religion.

Earlier in the debate Darmanin had made a strong argument against pressure – which comes from both the Right and part of the Left in France – for a ban on the Islamic headscarf.

Not all women who wear the hijab are radicals or under the thumb of men, Darmanin said. He gave the example of a hijab-wearing Muslim French woman whose soldier son was killed in a terrorist attack and now campaigns against radical Islamism.

READ ALSO ‘My body, my choice’ – French women explain why they wear the Muslim headscarf

I should point, briefly, to a third current example of the debate about Islam and Islamism in France which has generated a quarrel in which all basic facts are disputed – and maybe distorted.

Didier Lemaire is a philosophy teacher in the Paris suburban town of Trappes and also leader of a radically pro-secular political movement. He said last month that the town was now “definitively lost” to radical Islam and that his life was under threat.

His claims have been disputed by both the left-wing mayor of Trappes, Ali Rabeh, and the Préfet (senior government officer) in the Yvelines département. The rights and wrongs of the case are difficult to follow. I have no reason to disbelieve Mr Lemaire – or Monsieur the mayor.

My point is that everyone has pitched into the debate – far right, right, pro-secular French Left, Macron-is-a-fascist French Left – from previously fixed viewpoints. Few people seem to want to understand what is going on in Trappes. Lots of people want to grow indignant about it.

Maybe my own point of view is equally suspect – slippery; centrist; a fake pragmatic attempt to see all sides.

Here goes all the same.

No, I don’t think Macron has sought to impose an unnecessary law to strengthen his appeal on the hard and far right. He has no appeal on the hard and far right.

No, I don’t think Darmanin (despite his previous offences) was trying to convey an anti-Islam message last Thursday – either directly or subliminally.

Yes, I do think that radicals on all sides – from Islamists; to the Lepennist Right; to the “Macron-is-as-bad-as-Le Pen” section of the Left – are succeeding in making rational debate on Islam in France impossible.

In those circumstances, Darmanin was right to debate Le Pen last week. He was wrong to have tried to be clever-clever and teasingly ironic in a shallow, partisan and literal age. 

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OPINION: France’s ‘slow train’ revolution may just be the future for travel

Famous for its high-speed TGV trains, France is now seeing the launch of a new rail revolution - slow trains. John Lichfield looks at the ambitious plan to reconnect some of France's forgotten areas through a rail co-operative and a new philosophy of rail travel.

OPINION: France's 'slow train' revolution may just be the future for travel
The slow trains would better connect rural France. Photo: Eric Cabanis/AFP

France, the home of the Very Fast Train, is about to rediscover the Slow Train.

From the end of this year, a new railway company, actually a cooperative, will offer affordable, long-distance travel between provincial towns and cities. The new trains – Trains à Grande Lenteur (TGL)?– will wander for hours along unused, or under-used, secondary lines.

The first service will be from Bordeaux to Lyon, zig-zagging across the broad waist of France through Libourne, Périgueux, Limoges, Guéret, Montluçon and Roanne. Journey time: seven hours and 30 minutes.

Other itineraries will eventually include: Caen to Toulouse, via Limoges in nine hours and 43 minutes and Le Croisic, in Brittany, to Basel in Switzerland, with 25 intermediate stops  in 11 hours and 13 minutes.

To a railway lover like me such meandering journeys through La France Profonde sound marvellous. Can they possibly be a commercial proposition?

Some of the services, like Bordeaux-Lyon, were abandoned by the state railway company, the SNCF, several years ago. Others will be unbroken train journeys avoiding Paris which have never existed before – not even at the height of French railway boom at the end of the 19th century.

The venture has been made possible by the EU-inspired scrapping of SNCF’s monopoly on French rail passenger services. The Italian rail company Trenitalia is already competing on the high-speed TGV line between Lyon and Paris.

The low-speed trains also grow from an initiative by President Emmanuel Macron and his government to rescue some of France’s under-used, 19th century, local railways – a reversal of the policy adopted in Britain under Dr Richard Beeching from 1963.

The cross-country, slow train idea was formally approved by the rail regulator before Christmas. It has been developed by French public interest company called Railcoop (pronounced Rye-cope), which has already started its own freight service in south west France.

Ticket prices are still being calculated but they are forecast to be similar to the cost of “ride-sharing” on apps like BlaBla Car.

A little research shows that a Caen-Toulouse ticket might therefore be circa €30 for an almost ten-hour journey. SNCF currently demands between €50 and €90 for a seven-and-a-half-hour trip, including crossing Paris by Metro between Gares Saint Lazare and Montparnasse.

Maybe Railcoop is onto something after all.

The company/cooperative has over 11,000 members or “share-holders”, ranging from local authorities, businesses, pressure groups, railwaymen and women to future passengers. The minimum contribution for an individual is  €100.

The plan is to reconnect towns ignored, or poorly served, by the Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) high speed train revolution in France of the last 40 years. Parts of the Bordeaux-Lyon route are already covered by local passenger trains; other parts are now freight only.

In the longer term, Railcoop foresees long-distance night trains; local trains on abandoned routes; and more freight trains.  It promises “new technological” solutions, such as “clean” hydrogen-powered trains.

MAP France’s planned new night trains

For the time being it plans to lease and rebuild eight three carriage, diesel trains which have been made redundant in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region.

There will be no space for a buffet or restaurant car. Restaurants and shops along the route will be invited to prepare local specialities which will be sold during station stops and eaten on board.

What a wonderful idea: French provincial meals on wheels; traiteurs on trains.

Olivia Wolanin of Railcoop told me: “We want to be part of the transition to a greener future, which is inevitably going to mean more train travel.

“We also want to offer journeys at a reasonable price to people who live in or want to visit parts of France where train services have all but vanished. We see ourselves as a service for people who have no cars – but also for people who DO have cars.”

Full disclosure. I am a fan of railways. I spent much of my childhood at Crewe station in Cheshire closely observing trains.

Three years ago I wrote a column for The Local on the dilemma facing SNCF and the French government on the 9,000 kilometres of underused and under-maintained local railway lines in France. Something like half had been reduced to low speeds because the track was so unreliable. Several dozen lines had been “suspended” but not yet officially axed.

The government commissioned senior civil servant, and rail-lover, François Philizot to study the problem. After many delays, he reported that much of the French rail network was in a state of “collapse”. Far from turning out to be a French Beeching, he recommended that a few lines might have to close but most could and should be saved – either by national government or by regional governments.

Since then the Emmanuel Macron-Jean Castex government has promised a big new chunk of spending on “small lines” as part of its €100 billion three year Covid-recovery plan. Even more spending is needed but, for the first time since the TGV revolution began in 1981, big sums are to be spent on old lines in France as well as new ones.

The Railcoop cross-country network, to be completed by 2024-5, will run (at an average of 90 kph) partly on those tracks. Can it succeed where a similar German scheme  failed?

François Philizot suggested in a recent interview with Le Monde that a revival of slow trains might work – so long as we accept that a greener future will also be a less frenetic future.

“When you’re not shooting across the country like an arrow at 300 kph, you can see much more and you can think for much longer,” Philizot said.

Amen to that.