When a terrorist in the Paris suburb of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine beheaded Samuel Paty, a middle school teacher who’d shown his students caricatures of the prophet Muhammad, he was transformed from an educator into a national symbol. Paty is the latest of more than 260 French killed in similar attacks since 2012. As with Jacques Hamel, an 85-year-old priest whose throat was slashed by Muslim fundamentalists in 2016 in a small stone church in the village of Saint-étienne-du-Rouvray, Paty’s killing was portrayed as an attack on the soul of France. He “has become the face of the republic,” President Emmanuel Macron said at a memorial service Wednesday.
After years of brutal attacks by Muslims who’d been radicalized at the margins of French society, the government has finally had enough. Early this month, Macron unveiled his long-awaited plan: reforming the practice of Islam in France. The proposals would restrict the funds that Muslim communities receive from abroad, supposedly limiting foreign influence, and create a certificate program for French-trained imams, among other things. Paty’s killing made this matter much more urgent. The French Interior Ministry added this past week that officials will target for potential dissolution more than 50 French Muslim associations if they’re found to be promoting hatred, including a mainstream group devoted to combating Islamophobia. Macron wants to build “an Islam in France that can be an Islam of the Enlightenment,” as he put it, and to halt “repeated deviations from the values of the republic and which often result in the creation of a counter-society.”
The objective, backed by popular sentiment, appears sensible: to protect the French from further attacks. “What we need to fight is Islamist separatism,” Macron said. But the method seems designed to solve a different problem than terrorist violence. Instead of addressing the alienation of French Muslims, especially in France’s exurban ghettos, or banlieues — which experts broadly agree is the root cause that leaves some susceptible to radicalization and violence — the government aims to influence the practice of a 1,400-year-old faith, one with almost 2 billion peaceful followers around the world, including tens of millions in the West. It’s an odd answer to the problem (although one that echoes the way Napoleon regulated the practice of Judaism). But it’s perhaps the only one France can contemplate in a universe where it will not commit to measuring the systemic discrimination that fuels so much of the “separatism” it seeks to combat.
The French republic is avowedly la?que, or secular. Enshrined by a 1905 law, this notion forces the state to remain neutral — to neither support nor stigmatize any religion. In the United States, a religiously pluralistic society, the separation of church and state is seen as the freedom to choose one’s religious belief. In France, historically dominated by Catholicism, it is largely understood as the freedom from oppressive religious authority. But this clear and seemingly uncontroversial vision of secularism is a product of a vastly different time, when the country was far more culturally and ethnically homogenous than it is today. At the turn of the century, it was predominantly Catholic, with a small Protestant minority and an even smaller Jewish population. The collapse of the French empire after World War II meant that metropolitan France soon became home to many former colonial subjects and their descendants from North Africa, West Africa, the Caribbean and South Asia. Islam had officially arrived.
With these changes gradually came a new interpretation of la?cité, one that often positions the country against public displays of Islam and that has no basis in the law. After France’s humiliating defeat in Algeria in 1962 — a trauma that remains largely unprocessed — French citizens began to see public traces of Islam as aggressions against the country’s secular essence, even if the state still closes for business on every major Catholic holiday.
The veil, and where it can be worn, has become one of the most fraught questions in public life. The French often see criticizing its use as a means of liberating their fellow citizens from religious oppression. A law enacted in 2004 prohibits the veil from being worn in high schools, and a 2010 law banned the face-covering burqa on national security grounds. When Muslim women wear the headscarf in public, they often come under fire, even when they do so legally, and even when they attempt to be part of French society. Last year, for instance, then-health minister Agnès Buzyn decried a runner’s hijab marketed by the French sportswear brand Decathlon, because of the “communitarian” threat it apparently posed to France’s secular universalism. “I would have preferred a French brand not to promote the veil,” she said. Likewise, Jean-Michel Blanquer, France’s education minister, conceded that although it was technically legal for mothers to wear headscarves, he wanted to avoid having them chaperone school trips “as much as possible.” These were examples of Muslim women attempting to participate in public life rather than withdraw from it; still, they were censured.?
The result of this vitriol, and of prejudice among some White French, particularly on the right, is that many French Muslims do live in the sort of “counter-society” Macron fears, withdrawn from the mainstream — a position not all have chosen. Conservative commentators are not wrong when they call some of the banlieues that surround Paris, Lyon and Marseille “territories lost to the Republic,”?in the words of the historian Georges Bensoussan. These communities are often rife with radical interpretations of Islam, anti-Semitism and gang activity that, together, can incubate terrorist violence.
But the question is why these territories have been lost. One explanation is structural. The descendants of immigrants who live in the crowded housing projects often struggle to achieve the social mobility promised by the officially color-blind republic. Applications for jobs and certain housing options can still require pictures, and people of color are often overlooked because of unconscious (or even intentional) bias. When minorities, and especially Muslims, voice opinions critical of establishment dogma, the French press often accuses them of terrorist complicity. In a television debate Wednesday, for instance, the author Pascal Bruckner said the well-known journalist Rokhaya Diallo — whom he identified as a “Muslim and black woman” — abetted the 2015 attack on Charlie Hebdo because she had once signed an open letter against the paper.
Yet despite the public scrutiny Muslims face here, it can also be extremely difficult to prove that discrimination exists. Since 1978, French law has largely prohibited the collection (even by private or academic social scientists) of statistics on race, religion or ethnicity, primarily in response to World War II, when the country’s classification of Jewish citizens made it easier to round them up and deport them. But banning race has not banned racism, and without an empirical basis, it can be difficult to prove where disparities exist and to what extent — let alone to know how to undo them.
All of this contributes to the phenomenon of “separatism” in France’s Muslim community, says the Franco-Tunisian scholar Hakim El Karoui, the author of “L’islam une religion fran?aise,” a popular 2018 book that influenced Macron’s Islam reform project. Especially among third-generation immigrants, “there is an important minority who have this problem of identity, who don’t feel French — either because they’ve been rejected or because they don’t have the desire,” he said. “Islam fills that void.” The radical and violent version practiced by attackers over the past eight years represents only a fringe of what is thought to be just under 10 percent of France’s population. But it is enough to threaten public safety.
The problem, then, isn’t Macron’s understandable desire to address an actual threat. And his proposed law may block the most toxic strains of foreign preaching from reaching French worshipers, and it may limit the diffusion of hatred on social media, two factors that were thought to have animated Paty’s killer. But these issues are only adjacent to the problem of isolation and anomie that the country has helped to foster — deliberately in some cases, inadvertently in others. The truth is that the counter-society has as much to do with France as with Islam.
The raw anger that Paty’s killing elicited allows little room for reflection. Most French politicians have doubled down on a hard-line interpretation of France’s secularism.?Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin went on national television and identified ethnic food in supermarkets as “communitarian cuisine” that fosters the sort of separatist sentiments that led to the attack. Days after Paty’s killing, two female attackers stabbed two Muslim women in headscarves and called them “dirty Arabs” as they walked near the Eiffel Tower. “There is a hysterical climate,” says Rachid Benzine, a French political scientist.
One person who did not share the exclusive vision of secularism was Samuel Paty, who was sensitive to the potential concerns of his Muslim students and who offered anyone in his class who might be offended by the Muhammad cartoons the option to look away. He was clearly fascinated by Muslim culture, signing up for training courses at Paris’s Arab World Institute and organizing an Arab music concert for his students’ benefit. But those aspects of Paty as the “face of the republic” appear already to have been forgotten. He was the victim of an unspeakable barbarity, but he may end up a martyr to someone else’s cause.