Nicolas Henin, consultant and trainer in counter-terrorism and counter-radicalization
French President Emmanuel Macron presented his long-awaited plan to counter “separatism” on Friday 2 October, in a context complicated by the resumption of the coronavirus pandemic and some heavy news in the field of radicalization. The concurrent trial of the perpetrators of the January 2015 terrorist attacks on the staff of Charlie Hebdo has also allowed some beautiful moments of justice, but it has also reopened deep cleavages in French public opinion. It also saw another attack on the former premises of Charlie Hebdo. Among the subjects that remained unresolved until the last moment in Macron’s plan is the use of plural or singular when it comes to “separatism(s)”. The singular would mean that this plan, which will inspire a law, is aimed at Muslim extremism alone, the plural designating all the factions that disrupt society or aim to fracture it.
Emmanuel Macron began his speech with a very appropriate reminder of the definition of French “laïcité” (secularism), defined by a law of 1905, which is still the subject of misunderstanding, especially abroad where there is an easy tendency to see France as a country promoting atheism, like the former Soviet republics. “Laïcité in the French Republic means the freedom to believe or not to believe, the possibility of practicing one’s religion as long as public order is assured. Laïcité is the neutrality of the State and in no way the erasure of religions in society in the public space. Laïcité is the cement of a united France. If spirituality is everyone’s business, laïcité is everyone’s business”.
The French President then seemingly settled the debate on the plural of separatism, stating: “What we must tackle is Islamist separatism”, an expression that punctuated his speech. However, in the days that followed, several ministers in media interviews recalled the importance of taking into account other ideologies leading to violence, notably supremacism, with the Minister of the Interior using the singular and plural alternately on his Twitter account.
For Emmanuel Macron, this Islamic separatism, which he describes as a deviation of Islam, is “a conscious, theorized, politico-religious project, which is materialized by repeated discrepancies with the values of the Republic, which often results in the creation of a counter-society and whose manifestations are the dropping out of school of children, the development of sports, cultural and communitized practices which are the pretext for the teaching of principles which do not conform to the laws of the Republic”.
Researchers on radicalization are familiar with the dilemmas that confront a state governed by the rule of law in dealing with what is termed as “non-violent radicalization”. While there is a fairly common perception that extremists are harmful to a society, the definition of who is an extremist is much more disputed and, above all, a liberal democracy, on behalf of freedom of thought and freedom of religion, is not intended to prohibit extremism, nor to turn every one of its citizens into moderate centrists.
The concept of a conveyor belt leading from ideological extremism to terrorist violence is undoubtedly one of the hottest topics in radicalization research.
In order to get out of this pitfall, Emmanuel Macron insists on one factor that defines “separatism”: the lack of respect for the law. It is still necessary to distinguish which violations of the law characterize “separatists” and will make it possible to repress them.
The law being drafted foresees action in several areas. In the field of education, for example, the possibility of home schooling (although guaranteed by the historical law on compulsory education) will be strictly limited to imperative reasons, especially medical ones. However, several observers point out that non-contractual private education (which, despite a recent law, is little controlled by the state) is probably a more significant problem for extremist enrolment than dropping out of school. Another measure is the suppression of seconded imams, sent by Muslim countries to teach in France. If this measure has a certain interest in terms of counter-interference, it is of minor interest in terms of security: very few jihadist terrorists trained in France have passed through mosques of this “consular Islam”, which poses far more problems in terms of importing local conflicts than of promoting extremism.
Another of Emmanuel Macron’s ambitions is to avoid “coups” in mosques, which allow a minority of extremists to take control of them. While improving the governance of religious communities is laudable, and possible by law, it could turn to a double-edged sword: what will the state do if supporters of an ideology considered as extremist become a majority and wish to exercise the power that is theirs? It would be tricky to support a “coup” led by those considered “moderate”. Moreover, for state institutions to distinguish between what is “good Islam” and radical or deviant one risks contradicting the principle of secularism and non-interference by the state in the content of religious dogma.
Furthermore, associations (sports clubs, cultural organizations, etc.) will have to sign a charter committing them to respect certain principles, such as secularism and gender equality. Failure to comply with this charter would deprive them of any public subsidy. However, experience has shown that the fund-raising capacities of several extremist ideologies make them relatively insensitive to the fear of being deprived of public funds.
In sum, when presenting his project, Emmanuel Macron avoided a few of the more obvious trapdoors and suggested that the best protection against radicalization remains national cohesion, the presence of a state that guarantees everyone, everywhere the rights of citizenship and ensures equality for all. But this discourse, which he says is the result of three years of thinking, has been injected into a polarized political environment. Muslims in France, according to opinion polls, are overwhelmingly loyal to their country. But as the coverage on news channels and on social media networks shows, many non-Muslim Frenchmen regard the Muslim community as one of the main sources of threats to the Republic. In the wake of the wave of Islamist terrorist attacks that France has suffered in recent years, this perception will not be easily shifted, certainly not by a political statement, no matter how well-intentioned.
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