By Arab News
By Zaid M. Belbagi*
The egalitarian principles of the French republic would suggest that the state is blind to the creeds and private beliefs of its citizens. For the most part, this is correct. Its very particular brand of state-endorsed secularism projects a certain veneer of a republic to which all its citizens have an equal right. However, for France’s second-largest religious group, its Muslims, this blanket equality falls short. Decades of marginalization have characterized their experience, but since the government embarked on a struggle against what it calls “Islamist separatism,” many French Muslims feel that the xenophobia and discrimination they face has become mainstream.
The “laicite” (secularism) with which French policymakers are so obsessed mandates strict delineation between the state and the private sphere of personal beliefs. This wall between the two was originally meant to protect citizens from the intrusion of the state and the state from religious influence, which frequently raised its head throughout the country’s history. This arrangement has, however, come increasingly unstuck as the state seems to be involving itself more and more in the lives of its Muslim citizens.
For decades now, French presidents have stuck their noses into Islamic dress codes, dietary needs, and the plethora of religious institutions and places of worship modern France is home to. With an aging population struggling to cope with the societal transitions of post-imperial France, French leaders have sought to focus on the country’s Muslims as an electoral scapegoat in lieu of making the bold structural changes that are so desperately needed.
A staggering third of French government spending is on welfare — a reality that the state can ill-afford. Successive governments have shied away from making the necessary spending reforms, but President Emmanuel Macron has made this the center of his presidency. Having outmaneuvered France’s existing political parties in 2017, his En Marche movement started with a bang and approval ratings were initially high. Nonetheless, the necessary labor market and welfare reforms have slowed and, rather than guiding France toward economic competitiveness, Macron has been faced by protests and strikes — hallmarks of the old France.
With his approval rating waning, the president has also been faced with a succession of terrorist attacks by Muslim extremists, the most recent of which was the October beheading of teacher Samuel Paty and the murder of three people at Notre-Dame Basilica in Nice. With an election on the horizon, these unprecedented events have led Macron to engage in a dramatic change in tack.
According to Macron, France has been targeted by terrorists because of its “freedom of expression, right to believe, or not, and its way of life.” However, given the resurgence of Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally party amid economic stagnation and a haphazard response to the coronavirus pandemic, the president appears to have sought to embrace her potential voters by laying the blame for the country’s ills on its immigrant population, millions of whom are Muslim.
This short-term tactic has been allowed to take too great a hold on French society and ignores the economic and political marginalization of a community that, by 2050, is expected to account for up to 15 percent of the population. In planning to construct a “French Islam,” through the state regulating religious practice, the president’s attempts to demarcate the private matters of Muslim citizens have not been welcomed. Most recently, by proposing a ban on children wearing the hijab in public, the French state has shown itself once again to be at odds with Islam.
The consistent attempts of the secular French state to define religious practice has not reinforced its cohesiveness, but rather undermined it. French governments can no longer expect to enjoy the acquiescence of immigrant communities if they not only encourage their marginalization, but also use it as a deliberate way to stratify society ahead of elections. Worryingly, certain elements of government policy are no longer simply tools of electioneering, but are rather the preserve of deliberately discriminatory politics, the likes of which still bear deep historical scars in Europe.
In a recent report titled “Discrimination Against Muslims: The State Must React,” Amnesty International denounced the “hostile climate and discriminatory discourse” toward Muslims in France. Most worryingly, then-Interior Minister Christophe Castaner in 2019 listed very basic religious freedoms, such as praying, fasting and growing a beard, as “signs of radicalization.” As the Amnesty report pointed out, the increasingly focused nature of French policymakers does not distinguish normal forms of religious practice from extremism, leaving many Muslims at risk of being penalized for their religious beliefs.
For France, which has prided itself on being a beacon of freedom and tolerance, the recent hardening of mainstream political views concerning Islam does not bode well. The marginalization of France’s Muslim community has underpinned the terrorist acts in the country. Today, France’s Muslims languish in her jails, 58 percent declare having experienced religious discrimination, and an estimated 40 percent live in poor suburbs. Should the French state wish to harness its human capital to mobilize rather than marginalize this vast swathe of its population, it cannot keep on attempting to dictate religious practice under the notion of secularism, but should rather seek to embrace its citizens regardless of their creed.
- Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid