France’s Macron Uses Secularism and Minority-Baiting to Shore Up His Sagging Political Fortunes

Dnyanesh Kamat

AFP Photo: Banaras Khan

As with demagogues the world over, Emmanuel Macron has resorted to minority-baiting to shore up his sinking political fortunes.

In October, the French president accused the country’s approximately six million Muslims of embracing a culture counter to French values. Macron even went so far as to suggest that Islam was in crisis globally and that the French state would liberate French Muslims from foreign influences. The first statement is factually incorrect and betrays a dangerous ignorance of basic facts. Islam, like every other religion, is not a monolith.

Next, by first accusing French Muslims of forming a counter-culture to French society and then promising to liberate them from foreign influences, Macron does two things. He portrays Muslims in France as the great “other,” separate and distinct from the rest of the nation’s citizens. Then, in promising to liberate French Muslims, Macron is echoing the sort of language used by European colonizers. They, too, used a “civilizing mission” as justification for their rapacious colonization of Africa and Asia. And by shouting over the heads of progressive voices among French Muslims, Macron and the state amplify the voices of conservatives within the community.

Following two recent terrorist attacks by Islamist radicals, the country’s politicians and news media have declared open season against Islam and Muslims. In the midst of a global pandemic, Macron has promised to clamp down on homeschooling for Muslim children. His government also announced plans to dissolve NGOs combatting Islamophobia; this in a country that is the source of the Islamophobic “replacement theory” tract cited by white extremists worldwide, and which was explicitly referenced by the terrorist who attacked mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, last year.

Macron cited the danger to secularism, or laïcité as it is known in France, as the reason for raising the alarm about “Islamist separatism.” Macron is correct in standing up for laïcité since it is one of the tenets upon which the country was founded. But laïcité arose from 19th-century anti-clerical struggles and was codified in 1905 when France was still a predominantly white, Catholic country rather than the multiracial, multi-religious country it is today.

Laïcité, in contrast to American or British secularism, for example, seems unable to accommodate multiculturalism. Or it was perhaps never meant to. This is probably why the French state does not collect data on race or religion when counting its citizens. An ossified, even fanatical, adherence to laïcité is perhaps the French state’s way of masking its discomfort with a changing society. What can be kept out of sight does not require much attention. This explains the state’s prohibition on displays of religious belief (such as the veil) in schools and public institutions. Indeed, the state has never engaged in a two-way discussion with immigrant communities about shaping a newer, common, pluralistic French identity that accommodates religious expression while also preserving the state’s core ideals.

Crime and radicalism among youth clearly is a problem within neighborhoods dominated by immigrants. Yet the source of this lies not in their religious affiliation but in their relationship with the state and society. Immigrants face routine discrimination in employment and housing and experience police brutality and systemic racism. A state that refuses even to see their race or religion, but is all too happy to hector them for it when convenient, is part of the problem, not the solution.

On October 31, Macron tweeted “la laïcité n’a jamais tué personne” – secularism has never killed anyone. The tweet was deeply shocking not only for its less than subtle bigotry but also because of its utter disregard for historical facts.

The French state justified its colonial project in Algeria on the pretext of a “civilizing mission,” which presumably also involved introducing Algerians to the concept of laïcité. Between France’s invasion of Algeria in 1830 and when it became “settled” in 1875, about 825,000 Algerians were killed. An estimated 1.5 million Algerians were killed during Algeria’s war of independence. This also included attacks on Algerians in France, including the infamous 1961 Paris massacre, in which the chief of the city’s police force ordered police to attack a demonstration by 30,000 Algerians calling for independence. In 2018, the French state admitted to carrying out a policy of systematic torture during Algeria’s war of independence.

In the post-Second World War period, France brought in large numbers of North Africans for low-wage work. It settled them in ramshackle housing colonies on the outskirts of its cities. Today, their descendants are being singled out for their apparent inability to mold themselves to French society, in rhetoric reminiscent of French colonial propaganda.

In the past, Macron has expressed contrition for French colonialism and also acknowledged systemic discrimination in housing and employment against France’s immigrant communities. So what then explains his current rhetoric?

The answer may lie in electoral politics. Like every demagogue anywhere, Macron has taken to minority-baiting as a way to outflank his political rivals. Pillorying the Muslim community helps him hive off votes both from the far right and anti-Muslim leftists. Macron’s approval ratings are at an all-time low, particularly for his government’s bungling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Moreover, France has been witnessing anti-government protests since 2018, on issues from police violence to price hikes on fuel to pension reform.

So Macron has taken a page out of Donald Trump and Narendra Modi’s playbook, choosing to rely on identity politics to win re-election in April 2022. Disturbingly, that is a long way away.


Dnyanesh Kamat is a political analyst on the Middle East and South Asia. He also advises governments on policies and strategic initiatives to foster growth in the creative industries such as media, entertainment and culture.