France’s Struggle to Balance SecularismDecember 12, 2020 in France
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.