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Macron’s response to Islamism leads France to cul-de-sac… again

John Laughland
John Laughland
John Laughland, who has a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Oxford and who has taught at universities in Paris and Rome, is a historian and specialist in international affairs.
Macron’s response to Islamism leads France to cul-de-sac… again
The problem with France's President Emmanuel Macron, writes John Laughland, is that deep down he is very superficial.

The French president’s unusual family life started, as is well known, when he acted in a school play. He so impressed his drama teacher that she married him. His political career is similarly based on play-acting: no other conclusion can be drawn from his latest intervention about the problem of Islamism.

Macron last week chose the right-wing magazine Valeurs actuelles (Current values) to give his thoughts on Islam and integration. He told his conservative readers that France was caught between two evils, sectarianism and the National Rally party (formerly the National Front). Since the sectarianism in question is Muslim, the message is clear: I understand your concerns about Islam but vote for me, not for Marine Le Pen.

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Although the interview gave rise to widespread comment, no one seems to have noticed that what he said, and where he said it, was a copycat exercise in Clintonite triangulation – the method of appealing to the electorate of the opposite camp by presenting oneself as a ‘third way’ (Tony Blair’s phrase) between the two. In the words of Bill Clinton adviser Dick Morris, this means “taking a position that not only blends the best of each party’s views but also transcends them to constitute a third force in the debate.”

This union of opposites is Macron’s hallmark. It is the reason why the French make fun of him for using the phrase “and at the same time” (et en même temps...) to argue one thing and then another. On his recent tour to the Indian Ocean island of La Réunion, Macron said both that the Muslim headscarf worn in the street was none of his business – because, as head of state, he was concerned only with affairs of state – and also that the veil is worn “in certain circumstances, in certain districts, as a demand for separatism from the Republic.” He said that people should not stigmatise Muslims but also said that Muslims are prone to “political Islam.” Which is it? Take your pick – providing it is Macron.

In reality, Macron’s electorate is overwhelmingly bourgeois, so an appeal to it on conservative themes is entirely predictable. (The most expensive parts of Paris have shown North Korean levels of support for Macron ever since 2017.) But unfortunately, such electoral manoeuvering is entirely out of place given the gravity of the situation. 

On October 3, after all, a Muslim police officer in the counter-terrorism unit of the Prefecture of Police in Paris murdered four of his colleagues by cutting their throats as they sat at their desks. It is impossible to think of a more powerful proof of the level of penetration of Islamist terrorist networks into the very heart of the French state.

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Macron’s response? To sack the minister of the interior? To introduce a radical review of the presence of Islamists in public services, especially the police, of which some experts have been warning for years? No. His response was to give an interview in a magazine in a bid to shore up his support as municipal elections approach next year.

The ultimate irony is that Macron’s so-called response to what he calls “the failure of our model of integration” (demonstrated, he says, by the fact that daughters or grand-daughters of immigrants wear the veil, whereas one should expect second and third generation immigrants to be integrated) is to propose more of the same. The Republic, he says, and in particular its education system, is the answer to the Islamisation of society.

Unfortunately, this is nothing but the age-old prejudice of secularists down the ages, who have believed since at least the Enlightenment, and down through Jules Ferry, who created the modern school system at the end of the 19th century, and who was also an energetic promoter of French colonialism, that religious observance is nothing but superstition. For Ferry, indeed, civilising the French peasants was essentially the same operation as civilising African natives.

This view gave rise, in 1905, to a vicious series of governmental measures, packaged under the easy slogan ‘separation of church and state’, which destroyed a huge part of the social fabric of France by expelling numerous religious congregations from their monasteries and convents, hospitals and schools. It was inspired by a left-wing and progressivist hatred of the Christian religion which today has no equivalent against Islam, except perhaps on what is called the extreme right, some of whose members have called for the Muslim veil to be banned completely in France, as the burka was under Nicolas Sarkozy in 2010. It is, indeed, the greatest paradox that today’s right-wing in France (from Sarkozy to Le Pen) supports secularism as the only possible antidote to Islamism, whereas a century ago secularism was exclusively a left-wing and progressivist policy directed against Catholics.

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Unfortunately, Islam is more resistant to this kind of state policy than Catholicism was. Christianity, after all, has always recognised the separation between church and state (even when it argued for a symbiosis between them) while in Islam only Islamic law and practice count. Moreover, the rise of Islam today is a worldwide phenomenon which concerns not only immigrant communities in Europe but also countries as far apart as Turkey and Indonesia. It demonstrates that religious observance is an eternal anthropological reality which simplistic materialist rationalism cannot comprehend, still less confront.

This anthropological reality is one reason why countries like the US and Russia, which are also officially secular but whose political leaders publicly embrace religion, have had fewer problems with Islamic terrorism than European countries, where religion is banished from the public realm. President Putin is well known for attending Orthodox ceremonies in public, while President Trump celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Normandy landings by reading a prayer. 

Unlike them, Emmanuel Macron, who went to a Jesuit school, and Angela Merkel, who is the daughter of a Lutheran pastor, refuse ever to make any public gesture in favour of the religion in which they were raised. Macron refused to make the customary gesture of sprinkling holy water onto the coffin at Johnny Hallyday’s funeral in 2017, while Angela Merkel told the European People’s Party Congress in Bucharest in 2011 that, for her, Christianity means ensuring that one’s children and grandchildren have a higher standard of living. 

Nature, in other words, abhors a vacuum. Islamism is partly a reaction against the nihilism of European societies which have abandoned their own religion and all the transcendent values which traditionally inspire allegiance, like the nation and the family. The societies have become fluid, worshiping immediate and therefore transient material success alone. The most politically correct elements even refuse harmless expressions of traditional Christian culture, such as cribs at Christmas, while happily celebrating the breaking of the fast during Ramadan. Such stupid contradictions fool no one.

Instead, they make matters worse. Not only are the values of civic tolerance insufficient to act as a glue bonding disparate elements of society together, they also tend actively to disaggregate it. A state is not just a constitutional structure rationally designed to protect rights supposedly existing outside it. It is instead a living organism whose whole is greater than its parts and whose life extends beyond theirs. It is a family, a union of people which projects itself into the future through its children – the children whom neither Macron nor Merkel have ever had. The desiccated and sterile language of rights can never tame, but only inflame, minority demands. Yet this is the cul-de-sac into which Macron seems determined to lead France – once again.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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