How France Became the Muslim World's Most Hated Country in the West

In the battle between Islamist terror and the French principle of secularism there is only one winner: the far-right.
November 13, 2020, 11:23am
Muslim protesters burn an effigy of French President Emmanuel Macron in Kolkata, India, earlier this month
Muslim protesters burn an effigy of French President Emmanuel Macron in Kolkata, India, earlier this month. Photo: Samir Jana/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

On the last day of classes before the autumn half term, in broad daylight, Samuel Paty, a teacher at the Collège Bois-d'Aulne in the outskirts of Paris, was beheaded.

For weeks, he had been targeted by an online Islamist hate campaign for showing his students caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed during a class on freedom of expression. 

And then, on the 16th of October, an 18-year-old Chechen refugee decapitated him in a side street around the corner from the school, before being shot dead by police minutes later.

Cartoons of the Prophet have become symbolic of the French principle of laïcité – or secularism – since the terror attack on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January 2015. 

The caricatures that Paty showed his students were published by Charlie Hebdo in 2012. In one drawing, Mohammed is shown exposing his genitals.

Divided over secularism

At a ceremony to honour Paty, President Emmanuel Macron was visibly emotional but unrepentant. 

“We will continue, professor. We will defend the freedom that you taught so well, and we will defend secularism,” he said. “We won't renounce the caricatures.”

Paty’s murder was just one in a spate of Islamist terror attacks in France. There have been nine this year already. Today itself marks five years since the 2015 Paris gun and bomb attacks by ISIS militants in which 130 people died, with ceremonies taking place in the French capital to remember the victims.

Only two weeks ago, a young man who had recently arrived from Tunisia killed three people at the Notre-Dame Basilica in Nice. One woman was “practically beheaded” in the attack, according to officials.

Abdelkader Sadouni

Abdelkader Sadouni. Photo: Jules Boudon-Chambre

Abdelkader Sadouni is the imam in the only prayer room in the Nice city centre, a few minutes’ walk from the Basilica. The attacker prayed there an hour before the killings. 

Sadouni says a lot of the tension comes down to how religion is treated in France. “King Louis XVI was God's representative on Earth, and they guillotined him. That’s quite a strong message about religion.”

While 70 percent of French Muslims think Charlie Hebdo was wrong to publish the caricatures of Mohammed, 60 percent of all French people support the publication, and say they don’t understand the offence that the cartoons cause Muslims.

That difference in approach to secularism has caused tensions. Last year, more than 10,000 people took to the streets in Paris to demonstrate against Islamophobia in France.

In response, Marlène Schiappa, the government minister in charge of fighting discrimination, said the demonstration was actually a protest against secularism “under the guise of combating discrimination.”

Macron vs. Islam

But it wasn’t always like this. 

“In 2003-2004, France was the most popular Western country in the Muslim world. Today, it is the least popular Western country. Something went wrong,” says Pascal Boniface, director of the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS).

Pascal Boniface.

Pascal Boniface. Photo: Jules Boudon-Chambre

The heady peak of France’s reputation in the Islamic world was President Chirac’s opposition to the Iraq War.

“After that, we kind of fell back into line,” says Boniface.

He argues that – on top of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons – there’s a lot of anti-Islamic rhetoric in the French media. Headlines published in political magazines like “Shameless Islam” or “The Mosque Invasion” are not anti-Islamist, he says – they’re anti-Muslim.

And it’s not just people in France seeing the coverage. “All of this is picked up abroad because we live in a globalised world.”

Then there’s President Macron himself. Last month, he proposed a draft law targeting “separatism,” and has spoken of the dangers of “Islamist separatism.”

In response, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said that Macron needed “his head examined”.

In recent weeks, there have been boycotts of French products and protests against France in Iran, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Lebanon, Palestinian territories and Afghanistan.

On November 11, during Armistice Day commemorations in Saudi Arabia, an explosive device targeted French diplomats, wounding several.

Nothing new

It’s not all down to Macron, of course. Who can forget the “burkini ban” of 2016 which saw Muslim women arrested for wearing full-body coverings on French beaches?

And before that, came the banning of the veil in schools.

Sophie Mazet says she wasn’t surprised when she heard about Samuel Paty’s beheading.

Sophie Mazet

Sophie Mazet. Photo: Jules Boudon-Chambre

She teaches freedom of expression at a high school in Saint-Ouen, another diverse Paris banlieue, or suburb.

“Nine years ago at my school we were threatened by Islamists groups. And I was personally on the line and I had my name on every extremist Islamist blog in France,” she says.

“Nobody helped us nine years ago. So we saw it coming.”

Two thirds of Mazet’s students are Muslim – but she’s going to keep showing them the caricatures. She hasn’t had any problems so far.

“They're shocked, some of them. Offended, sure. But it's never a violent reaction.”

And is there Islamist separatism in the banlieues?

There’s poverty and joblessness, she says. “The absence of prospects – of job prospects, of career prospects – that's what these people, the extremists, that's what they thrive upon.”

Chasing the far right vote

With the next presidential election two years away – and Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally party, just ahead of him in the polls – some accuse Macron of going after Islam to win the far-right vote.

Boniface, the IRIS director, thinks the law against separatism was at least in part a way of pulling the rug out from under the National Rally. But he says it also helps Le Pen’s party. 

“They’re saying ‘we warned you about this,’ ‘no-one listened to us,’ etc.”

It’s “obvious” that the far right is gaining more influence in France, according to Boniface. “And they're winning the battle of ideas.”

Those ideas are very extreme. 

Jérémie Piano is the spokesman for Génération Identitaire, a far-right youth movement. He says that Islam can’t exist in France. 

Laurel Chor

Jérémie Piano. Photo: Jules Boudon-Chambre

“It can't adapt to French society: our approach to society, to women, to institutions, to secularism … none of that is compatible with Islam.”

For him – and increasingly for the National Rally – the solution is remigration.

“Remigration means sending non-European foreigners back to their countries of origin. There are incentive measures and coercive measures. An incentive measure is banning the building of mosques. A coercive measure is deporting all Jihadists and Islamists.” 

Fixing the relationship

Macron may well be courting the far-right vote with talk of Islamist separatism, but he’s also attempting to build bridges with the Muslim world. 

Days after the Nice attack, he gave an interview to Al Jazeera Arabic in a bid to improve relations – and clarify his position.

His tone was conciliatory: “I understand and respect that people can be shocked by these cartoons but I will never accept that someone can justify the use of physical violence because of these cartoons.” 

Sadouni, the imam at the prayer room in Nice, doesn’t think laïcité is a problem in itself. 

It’s what allows people to practice their own religion as they wish, he says. “It’s thanks to secularism that there are 2,500 mosques in France, and as many imams.”

But he thinks French society could make some concessions, too.

“It’s obvious you don’t have to show caricatures that are hurtful to some people in order to teach freedom of speech. Let’s find another way. Let’s find another way. I think it’s to everyone’s benefit. But if we keep on that way, if it goes on like this, we’ll look away and ignore it.”

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Tributes are left to the victims of the attack at the Notre-Dame Basilica in Nice. Photo: Laurel Chor

Additional reporting by Laurel Chor.