After a series of attacks, the French government is once again faced with the challenge of balancing key French principles and the relationship with its Muslim community. In the past two months France has been the subject to many egregious attacks by the hands of Islamic extremist. On September 25, a male with a butcher knife attacked people outside the old Charlie Hebdo magazine headquarters, where four people were wounded, two seriously. This occurred after the magazine had just re-published the magazine cover that incited the more brutal attack in 2015. More recently, Samuel Paty, a middle school teacher was beheaded after having a class on freedom of speech where he showed caricatures of the prophet Mohammad. Thirteen days later, three were killed (one beheaded) in The Basilica of Notre-Dame de Nice. The severity and timing of the crimes have built up a national debate between freedom of expression/speech and national security. The three attacks all share a common thread, they are all related to the French government’s response to the Charlie Hebdo magazine caricature of the prophet Mohammad. The suspect who attacked people outside the old Charlie Hebdo magazine headquarters told authorities that he undertook the attack “in the context of the republication of the cartoons”. Since the attacks occurred, France has needed to juggle the tradition of secularism and insensitivity to the Muslim community.
This is not the first time the issue has surfaced in France and the response to the violence by the French government has activated parts of the Muslim community that few issues have in recent memory. Often the debate is a result of terrorist attacks on French soil and unfortunately, the deadly attacks on French soil are becoming too familiar, which has caused the French government to react with strong overarching policies that appear to criticize Islam in a sweeping manner. France has the largest Muslim community in Europe, but they never integrated successfully. In total, around 5.7 million Muslims call France home and represent more than 8 percent of the population. The emotions about Islam in France has peaked due to terrorist attacks throughout the years. The individuals carrying out the attacks claim to do so in the name of Islam and even though Muslim leaders and French Muslims have repeatedly condemned any violence being done in the name of Islam, tensions remain very high. The attacks at the Charlie Hebdo headquarters that left 12 dead, followed by the targeting of a Jewish supermarket that killed 4, and later the horrific attack at the Bataclan theater and linked attacks that killed 130 people all triggered a number of issues relating to Islam among the French government and people. One after another Islamophobia was fueled revealing deep divisions within French society.
To the more recent attacks Macron’s government has responded with a clear stance: France will not give in to Islamic extremist and will protect key French principles. President Macron has asked the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) to agree to a “charter of republican values” as part of his suppression on radial Islam. The charter states two main principles: Islam is a religion not a political ideology, and the rejection of any foreign interference with Muslim groups. The measures also include a bill that includes restrictions on home-schooling, national identification numbers for all school children, a ban on sharing information of a person that allows them to be located by people who want to harm them, and tougher punishments on individuals who intimidate public officials on religious grounds.
In response, Muslims around the world erupted in protest, with tens of thousands expressing their anger over the French government’s call to “reform” Islam. In Bangladesh’s capital, 20,000 protesters took to the streets carrying signs reading “Freedom of Speech is not Freedom of Abuse” and “Boycott French Products”. The protest seemingly has not caused any drastic difference in the trade of French goods, but it shows that the French government’s response has angered Muslims around the world and not just those currently in France.
The vast majority of France’s Muslims do not support Islamic extremism, but often face unfair stereotypes. There is an audience in France for anti-Muslim rhetoric. In the last presidential election between now-president Macron and Marine Le Pen over 10 million people voted for Le Pen, the anti-immigration candidate who claimed France was being attacked by radical Islam. The popularity of Le Pen pushed fears about Islam into the mainstream, with many controversial laws being introduced after. France’s tradition of secularism may play into decisions by figures in French media and government to criticize Islam in sweeping manners. Things get worse when the government appears to back a particular side. Macron has continually publicly supported Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish whatever it wants. It should not be ignored that a presidential election will be happen in 2022 and Macron’s firmed stance could be perceived as a way to resonate with the 10 million individuals who voted for Le Pen’s harsher policy on radical Islam and the French citizens who are shaken by the terror attacks in recent years.
The discussion of freedom of expression vs the right to offend is highly likely to continue in French society and is a seemingly impossible problem France will continue to face. On one hand, freedom of expression is the bedrock of so many democracies and ensures a society that allows individuals to express their beliefs, thoughts, and ideas without government censorship. On the other hand, when a government stands behind crude expressions of opinions, it risks encouraging bias towards a group of people. If the division between French Muslims and the government are not sealed it is highly likely further division will occur with more Muslims feeling separated from their fellow French citizens. The government is going to have to find a way to stand behind key French values while also supporting the Muslim community against bias and hate. Taking such a strong stance behind one side has made the Macron government come across as bias itself. A society that allows freedom of expression and a Muslim community is not an oxymoron, and both are capable of living and thriving together.
On Monday, 24 April, France’s outgoing president Francois Holland urged people to back centrist Emmanuel Macron in a vote to choose his successor next month and to reject far-right leader Marine Le Pen, stating that her place in the run-off on 7 May represents a “risk” for the country. Mr Macron and Ms Le Pen, leader of the National Front (FN), go head-to-head on 7 May after taking the top two places in Sunday’s first round.
During a televised address, President Hollande, a Socialist, threw his weight behind his former economy minister, stating that Ms Le Pen’s policies were divisive and stigmatised sections of the population. He stated that “the presence of the far right in the second round is a risk for the country, adding “what is at stake is France’s make-up, its unity, its membership of Europe and its place in the world.”
In the days since Sunday’s vote, global markets have acted with relief, with the euro touching five-month peaks as surveys point to a clear macron victory, which has soothed investors who have been unnerved by Ms Le Pen’s pledges to ditch the euro, print money and possibly quit the European Union (EU). There were growing concerns of another anti-establishment shock following Britain’s “Brexit” vote and Donald Trump’s election as US president.
In recent weeks, opinion polls have indicated that Mr Macron, who has never held elected office, will take at least 61 percent of the vote against Ms Le Pen after two defeated rivals, Francois Fillon and Benoit Hammond pledged to back him in a bid to thwart her eurosceptic and anti-immigrant platform.
Late on Monday, Ms Le Pen disclosed that she was taking” a leave of absence” from leading the FN in order to focus on campaigning, in a move that appeared to be a mere formality that changes nothing in her campaign platform. Speaking to France 2 television, she disclosed, “I feel more free and above all, above party politics, which I think is important.” For months now Ms Le Pen has stated that she is not, strictly speaking, an FN candidate but a candidate backed by the FN. She has also long distanced herself from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the former FN leader, and her election campaign has put neither her party’s name nor its trademark flame log on her posters. She has instead focused on battling Mr Macron, highlighting the continuing threat of Islamist militancy, which has claimed more than 230 lives in the country since 2015, and stating that her opponent was “to say the least, weak” on the issue. She also stated that she wanted to talk to sovereignist Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, who won nearly five percent of the first-round vote and who has not disclosed which side he would take in the next vote. She disclosed on Monday that “his platform is extremely close to ours. Patriots should come together to fight those who promote unbridled localisation.
Security has been a major issue in France in recent years, as the country has been affected by a number of terror attacks. Throughout her campaign, Ms Le Pen has promised to suspend the EU’s open-border agreement on France’s frontiers and expel foreigners who are on the watch lists of intelligence services. Meanwhile Mr Macron’s internal security programme calls for 10,000 more police officer and 15,000 new prison places. He has also recruited a number of security experts to his entourage. Opinion polls throughout the course of the campaign however have consistently found that despite the security issue, voters are more concerned about the economy and the trustworthiness of politicians. On Monday, Ms Le Pens’ campaign took aim at what they see as further weak spots: including Mr Macron’s previous job as an investment banker and his role as a deregulating economy minister under President Hollande.
Last week reports emerged that the centre-right UDI party will no longer campaign for Francois Fillon in France’s presidential election after he was placed under formal investigation. The presidential candidate has called a probe targeting him and his wife “political assassination” and has reused to quit the race.
While the UDI, which has about 30 MPs in the French parliament’s lower house, announced its support for Mr Fillon back in November, on 1 March it announced that iw as now “suspending” its backing. The party leadership is due to meet next week in order to discuss whether it will permanently withdraw all support for Mr Fillon. The party’s youth wing is already supporting his rival Emmanuel Macron.
The Republican candidate has been summoned by judges investigating allegations that he gave his wife a taxpayer-funded “fake job.” He has disclosed that he is due to meet with them on 15 March. On Friday it was announced that his spokesman has resigned. Thiery Solere’s resignation adds to a slew of notable departures, which include the campaign treasurer who resigned on 2 March. Two deputy directors and Mr Fillon’s foreign affairs spokesman are amongst others that have resigned, with more than sixty politicians stating that they can no longer support him.
Meanwhile on 2 March, Mr Fillon’s Paris home was raided by investigators as part of the inquiry into the payments to his Welsh-born wife, Penelope. The Le Canard Enchaine newspaper alleges that she was paid US $900,000 over several years for working as a parliamentary assistant for Mr Fillon and his successor, however she had no parliamentary pass, which raised questions over whether she did the work that she was paid for.
Mr Fillon’s ongoing woes have raised speculation that ex-PM Alain Juppe could return to the race, if Mr Fillon were to pull out. Mr Juppe was overwhelmingly defeated by Mr Fillon in the Republicans’ primary in November, securing only 33% of the vote to Mr Fillon’s 66%. Sources close to Mr Juppe have disclosed that he would be prepared to step in, but only with the unanimous support of the party and only if Mr Fillon were to go voluntarily. Mr Juppe has kept a low profile as the mayor of Bordeaux since his defeat in the primary.
The latest poll suggests that Mr Fillon would be eliminated in the first round of the presidential election voting on 23 April, and that far-right candidate Marine Le Pen would challenge independent centrist Emmanuel Macron in the two-candidate run-off on 7 May. A number of opinion polls have suggested that Mr Macron would win that contest.
The deadline for candidates to declare that they are running in the presidential election is 17 March, two days after Mr Fillon is due to appear before a judge overseeing the investigation.
Officials announced this month that the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France is to have a 2.5m-high (8 ft) wall of reinforced glass built around it as protection against terror attacks. The wall will be designed to stop individuals or vehicles from storming the site.
The Paris mayor’soffice has disclosed that th wall will replace metal fences, which were put up for the Euro 2016 football tournament. The project, if it is approved, is expected to cost about 20 million euros (US $21 million) and work on it should begin later this year. The project will also involve reorganizing pathways around the tower.
The French capital has been on high alert since attacks by jihadists in November 2015 left 130 people dead. Last July, 86 people were killed when a lorry ploughed through a crowd celebrating Bastille Day in the southern city of Nice.
According to the assistant mayor for tourism, Jean-Francois Martins, the Eiffel Tower, which is one of France’s most famous landmarks, attracts more than six million visitors each year. He disclosed that the terror threat remains high in Paris and the most vulnerable sites, led by the Eiffel Tower, must be the object of special security measures. He went on to say that itwill replace the metal grids to the north and south with glass panels, which will allow Parisians and visitors a very pleasant view of the monument, adding we have three aims to improve the look, make access easier and strengthen the protection of visitors and staff.
News of the glass wall project comes after earlier this month a man wielding two machetes attacked soldiers at Paris’s Louvre Museum. President Francois Hollande has since stated that there is little doubt that the incident was a terrorist act.
According to an opinion poll that was published on 6 February, French far-right leader Marine Le Pen and independent centrist Emmanuel Macron are set to make it through to the presidential election’s second round in May, with Macron comfortably winning the runoff.
The IFOP rolling poll of voting intentions indicated Le Pen garnering 25.5 percent of the vote in the 23 April first round of voting, up 1.5 percent since 1 February, with Macron getting 20.5 percent, up 0.5 percent over the same period. Conservative candidate Francois Fillon, who is in the midst of a political scandal, placed third with 18.5 percent, down from 21 percent. Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon has also lost momentum since his nomination in a primary vote and was not seen gathering 15.5 percent of the votes, down from 18 percent on 1 February.
On Monday, Fillon vowed to fight on for the presidency despite a damaging scandal involving taxpayer-funding payments to his wife for work, which a newspaper alleges she did not do. Speaking at a news conference in Paris, Mr Fillon, 62, apologised for what he said was his error of judgement regarding the employment of family members. While he disclosed that his wife’s work as parliamentary assistant over fifteen years had been genuine and legal, he noted that the campaign of “unfounded allegations” against him and his family would not make him abandon his bid for the presidency as the nominee of the centre-right. He stated, “there is no plan B,” dismissing reports that other centre-right candidates were being lined up to replace him, and adding “I am the only candidate who can bring about a national recovery. I am the candidate of the Right and I am here to win.” He announced that he would launch a new phase of his campaign from Tuesday. Mr Fillon, a former prime minister, called the news conference after members of his own party, The Republicans, urged him to quit the race to give the party time to find a replacement candidate. He will hop that his apology and denial of wrongdoing rally the party and voters behind him. Prior to the scandal surfacing in a weekly satirical newspaper nearly two weeks ago, opinion polls had shown Mr Fillon to be the clear favourite to win the election over Le Pen. Since then, his approval ratings have plummeted and he is now seen as failing to reach the second round of voting in May.
The stakes are high for France’s Right, which is battling to return to power after five years of Socialist rule under President Francois Hollande.