Terror attacks leave secular France at crossroads

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A series of terror attacks which have plagued France over recent months have been met  with strong resistance from Emmanuel Macron, the French President. As a consequence of the attacks, which have included the beheading of school teacher Samuel Paty, the national debate surrounding French secularism has been reignited. 

Since 25th September, where there was a stabbing outside of the former headquarters of Charlie Hebdo, the location of a previous attack in 2015, there have been a further three attacks. The first was the beheading of Samuel Paty, which has become the symbol of the current feud over secularism. Paty, having shown a naked image of the Prophet Muhammad (which is expressly forbidden in Islam), was attacked by 18-year-old Russian-born Abdoullakh Anzorov. It is alleged by prosecutors that Anzorov paid two children €300 to identify the teacher, with whom he then spent two hours before killing Paty.  

Macron has responded by taking up a strong line against those he describes as supporting  “Islamist separatism”. This was notable in the rhetoric he used in the national commemoration to Samuel Paty, where he directly linked “political, radical  Islamism,” to the killing and contrasted French, republican values to Islamic principles. 

In total, fourteen children have been investigated by French police 

Though Macron has subsequently dropped a large part of this rhetoric, partially in response to the worldwide boycott of French goods by Muslim-majority nations, his  initial offensive is one which is widely supported throughout France, with 79% of people in an Ifop-Fiducial poll agreeing that they believed Islamism “has declared war on France and the Republic”. 

Hard-line language from the French government has been accompanied by controversial plans for new laws. Already roughly 50 organisations have been shortlisted for dissolution, including controversially the  Collective against Islamophobia in France (CCIF). CCIF is currently the largest anti-Islamophobic organisation in France, and the move has been criticised by  Amnesty International, who described it as “shocking”. 

This has been accompanied by attempts by the Macron government to reduce home schooling, which has been perceived to be a method for radical Muslims to take their children out of the school system in order to not be taught French, republican values. This will be introduced in a bill to the French Parliament on 9th December. 

The government’s response returns the debate on laïcité,  loosely translated to state secularism, and the extent to which the government should  intervene to maintain religious neutrality, back into the spotlight.  Secularism is an integral part of  the French national psyche and is largely not up for debate as a national policy which has been  part of law since 1905. The law is understood to be the main backbone of French secularism and holds tremendous symbolic  significance, simultaneously enshrining the right to religious  exercise, whilst also limiting the role of religions within the public sphere.  

However, recently there has been a greater level of scrutiny  placed on the law, with many suggesting that it discriminates against Islam. Whilst the Catholic Church, the largest religion in France, remains somewhat  protected due to its long-lasting  prevalence in the country, the law has been increasingly used as justification to clamp down on Islamic symbols such as the ban of face coverings in public spaces in 2010. 

Whilst supporters of such measures claim that this is necessary to protect secularist society, others point to how Christian holidays and symbols still have significant influence within French society and suggest that laïcité has been used to justify state-sanctioned Islamophobia.  

This debate has affected all parts of French society.  Children have found themselves increasingly involved in the series of events. On top of the two children who are suspected to have accepted money from Anzorov, four school children  from Albertville, a French town in the Southeast, were interrogated by the police on charge of supporting terrorism in a classroom debate.

In total, fourteen children have been investigated by French police regarding inappropriate comments during the national commemoration of Paty. This  demonstrates, in part, the resolve of Macron in his hard  secularist response. Children are not exempted from the French government’s pursuit to enforce what it views as religious  neutrality. With far right Marine Le Pen polling highly as we approach the 2022 presidential elections, some might sceptically say that Macron is appealing to the right in France with a strong response to Islamist terrorism. However, with 87% of French people believing secularism in France is under threat, it is clear that the clash between laïcité and Islam in France seems set to continue.

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