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Towards a French Kulturkampf; what's happening in France?

French citizens march from Gare du Nord to Place de la Nation against islamophobia on November 10, 2019 in Paris, France [Pierre Crom/Getty Images]
French citizens march from Gare du Nord to Place de la Nation against islamophobia on November 10, 2019 in Paris, France [Pierre Crom/Getty Images]

What's happening in France? It's a reasonable question that worries even international authorities, the UN included, not least because independent UN human rights experts have declared that a controversial French bill on global security is incompatible with international human rights law. Meanwhile, images of police brutality have raised a public outcry and the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) and a Muslim NGO, Baraka City, have been dissolved during a session of the French Council of State.

In its defence, the government claims to be defending "republican values" in a country still traumatised by various terrorist attacks and the abominable beheading of a teacher, Samuel Paty, in October. However, has the defence of the republic and its values become the pretext for a political reaction that undermines precisely these same values and this same republic? Is France heading towards its own Kulturkampf (culture war)?

A close-up at French President Emmanuel Macron's official twitter account showing a picture of Samuel Paty on October 21, 2020 in Paris, France [Marc Piasecki/Getty Images]

A close-up at French President Emmanuel Macron's official twitter account showing a picture of Samuel Paty on October 21, 2020 in Paris, France [Marc Piasecki/Getty Images]

De-democratisation is defined by the philosopher Etienne Balibar as, "The rise of authoritarian and security mechanisms, the loss of legitimacy and representativeness of parliamentary institutions, and the displacement of the centres of real power beyond the reach of citizens' control and initiative." This process is carried out by the French authorities which, in the name of "fighting against extremism" — or its semantic avatars "Islamism", "separatism", "communitarianism" — and of "defending the values of the republic", develop an argument that is precisely contrary to these very ideals.

Future legislation has clearly gained momentum, such as the forthcoming bill "against separatism". The 1905 law on secularism established the principle of "neutrality" of public services, and therefore of its agents, on religious matters. It was intended to protect the State against any intrusion by the almighty Catholic Church. According to the draft law on "separatism", this principle of neutrality will be officially extended to companies delegating public services such as the state-owned regional public transport group RATP, multinational electricity company EDF, Paris Airports and the SNCF, the state-owned national railway company.

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How can we not question this strange inversion of secularism, which would make the principle at its heart not the neutrality of the State on religious matters but the religious neutrality of citizens who live within the same state? This is the religious aseptisation of this same space and a negation of the emancipatory dimension of the principle of secularism as much as of its spirit of peaceful coexistence and cohesion. Such an inversion would make the State the arbitrator and the judge of the degree of religiosity acceptable or not in its public space. It's a secular paradox.

Moreover, what about the 1901 law on associations? During his speech against "separatism" on 2 October, Emmanuel Macron declared, "Associations must unite and not fracture the nation." The money tap might get switched off, since public subsidies will be conditioned upon signing a "charter of secularism" which the beneficiaries will commit themselves to implement, even though the idea of defending "the values of the republic" remains a vague concept. Is it now up to the government to interfere in the life of associations, at the risk of disputing this freedom which remains the foundation of civil society? Isn't freedom of association precisely one of these republican "values"?

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The "new national scheme for policing" is intriguing, at the very least. It now states that "the crime of remaining in a crowd after being summoned does not include any exception, including for journalists or members of associations." This draft bill, intended for police officers, has already been contested by many journalists who are worried about their freedom to cover demonstrations. Freedom of the press, the right to inform, and the freedom to demonstrate are, quite simply, undermined.

The law on global security was also of great concern to civil society organisations and officials. In article 21 it wants to deregulate the use of police body cameras; article 22 wants to legalise drone surveillance, and article 24 wants to ban the public from sharing images of police officers in the public domain.

Article 21, in fact, will allow the use of police body cameras with the possibility of "real-time transmission to the command post". This obviously raises the question of real-time analysis of images by facial recognition software. This would make it easy to keep a record of the demonstrators, who could then be prevented from going to other demonstrations.

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These measures directly threaten the freedom to demonstrate, to gather, and to move around, as well as the rights to security, safety, and physical integrity. With the use of UAVs, it is also a vision in management and human engineering that is being promoted, what previously would have been called counter-insurgency methods, "drone" technology, and advanced logistics.

Universities have also been targeted. The Minister of Education, Jean-Michel Blanquer, spoke about "Islamo-leftism" that was "undermining the stability of French universities" and whose followers would be "the intellectual accomplices of terrorism."

Is it necessary to establish a link between these official outings and the research programming law for which the Senate has just adopted an amendment— "Academic liberties are exercised with respect for the values of the republic… in the first place, secularism" — to its first article? This would be a blow to academic freedom regarding research, teaching, and what is expressed without suffering pressure or threats to academics, teachers, and students alike.

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This republican reaction claims to oppose communitarianism by means of "universalism". This universalism, though, can sometimes be grasped as mere particularism that has succeeded. For the Muslims of France, on the occasion of a republican Reconquista, will the future be a republican neo-Marranism, which will force the Muslims to erase from within themselves even the most tenuous traces of religious practice? Are we seeing a "republican-McCarthyism", coined by political scientist Jean-François Bayart, who emphasises that, "Whether we like it or not, the French State is indeed Islamophobic."

In a climate whereby the State is claiming to defend secularism by transforming the religious neutrality of the State into the neutrality of the public space, if not of individuals in that same public space; and condemning all "communitarianism" while maintaining a communitarian vision of individuals, with Muslims in France being summoned at each attack to condemn in a communitarian manner acts that they condemn as individual citizens; in such a climate, why has this republican reaction seized the word "Islam" to turn it into a battering ram against all the values it claims to defend?

On the basis of the primacy of secularism and indivisibility, is the emergence of secularist and republican fundamentalism all the more dangerous since it denies the reality of the presence of Muslims in France, whether French or not? In the sociological reality, the Muslim is also the one who cares, teaches, leads, advises, provides expertise, works and generally helps to make society. Under the pretext of fighting against various "-isms" — Islamism, radicalism, separatism, communitarianism — these republican conservatives create schisms that they claim to want to avoid.

France has experienced a social, societal, and health crisis, as well as terrorism. Furthermore, an election is looming and already the debates are crystallising around Islam. Why precisely around a religion? Probably because it's less about Islam per se, as about what French society struggles to confront within itself.

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For a start, there is the fundamental notion of equality, between men and women, for example. In France, the gender pay gap remains around 30 per cent, and a woman is killed by her husband or boyfriend on average every three days. Yet Islam is co-opted to act as a convenient smokescreen so that French society does not see the reality of its own inequalities, and "Islam" and Muslims are accused of practicing and advocating the inferiority of women. Islam also serves the purpose of allowing the French to avoid asking questions about de facto equality between "native French" citizens and those with immigrant parents. Even if French law prohibits the collection of any statistics about ethnicity, it is a fact that access to employment, education, and housing varies according to the surname and ethnic origins of individuals. Reporting to the police is also problematic. According to an official study, an individual perceived as black or Arab is 20 times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police than any other French citizen. A structural inequality that French society has difficulty in seeing and admitting to, is thus dismissed easily under the term "Muslim problem".

Another aspect that France (or its leaders) finds difficult to confront is the link between the constitution of the republic and colonialism. The irruption into the public arena of the descendants of immigrants, often coming from former colonies, disrupts the French psyche and its reassuring national fictions. After all, is said and done, it is clearly possible to be a republican while not behaving like a democrat as France heads for its own Kulturkampf.

Pope Pius IX moving his game piece, the encyclical 'Quod nunquam', against Otto von Bismarck's anti-clerical moves on the chessboard of 'Kulturkampf'

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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