When Charlie Hebdo was struck in 2015, France was defiant. When blood soaked the floors of the Bataclan later that year, France despaired. Now, after seeing a schoolteacher assassinated for simply doing his job, for doing what the Republic asked of him, France is furious.
For France, the time of hashtag solidarity and “Don’t Look Back in Anger” has passed. After years of terrible bloodshed on its streets, the usual lines and excuses are well worn out among French audiences. Now, France is clearly staking out its position: that the jihadist terror they’ve endured — more than any country in Europe — is a product of the growth of Islamist ideology inside its own borders, and the cultural chasm it creates.
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In a speech to honour the slain schoolteacher, the French President himself could barely hold back his emotions, while in private he is said to be ready for a “fight to the death” with Islamists. His interior minister has denounced “Islamist barbarism” and said it’s time for Islamists to feel the fear and shock of France’s actions, not the other way around. The public, too, wants real action.
While most ire is directed firmly at the Islamist murderers and their apologists, a portion of French anger is reserved for la presse Anglo-Saxon. A growing number of people, both in and out of government, feel that their country is being madly misread and misrepresented in the Anglosphere.
Among what little discussion of Macron’s campaign against Islamism in France there has been, it’s not unusual to find accusations of pandering to the far-right, electioneering, attempting to reform Islam, and enforcing hard-line secularism, or even state atheism. Macron’s policies on such a complex and sensitive issue are of course open to criticism, but they are none of these things, nor are they a knee-jerk reaction — he’s been talking about this problem for years.
Macron is not chasing a bogeyman. What he describes as “Islamist separatism” in France is a problem more developed than just about any other Western country, but there has been little recognition of this starting point. Neither has there been much recognition that Macron wants to tackle France’s own culpability in the social fault lines — the racism and the inequality that afflicts too many in the banlieues.
This problem though, goes much deeper than jihadist terror. According to expert Gilles Kepel, whose thinking is influential on Macron, the Islamist ecosystems thriving in the banlieues are inculcating children with a sense of hostility towards French values and culture. By the time kids make it to school, they are caught in a disorientating riptide between Islamists and the state school system’s efforts to impart the values of secular France. Whether one agrees with Macron’s proposals or not, as these kids emerge into adulthood, the potential for an unprecedented social rift could prove a looming disaster for the Republic.
When Samuel Paty was decapitated in the street in broad daylight for trying to teach his students a civics lesson, the New York Times ran with the woefully misleading headline “French Police Shoot and Kill Man After a Fatal Knife Attack on the Street”. The attack — in which the assassin who had just cut someone’s head off was shot by gendarmes — was awkwardly framed through the lens of liberal America’s anxieties over police violence, and it didn’t get much better from there.
In Le Monde, Hugo Micheron, a leading jihadism expert, slammed “hallucinatory” American coverage, writing that: “the progressive media appear uncomfortable with the facts. In the New York Times and the Washington Post, the two most influential newspapers on the left, the term ‘jihadism’ never appears.” Indeed, in some American coverage there is barely an admission that Islamic extremism is a real problems confronting France. The term “Islamism” is rarely found, unless directly attributed to Macron, as though a mere figment of his imagination. The American coverage, Micheron wrote, “illustrates the ongoing polarisation of American politics, and an increasingly distanced relationship with freedom of expression”.
As other articles bizarrely warned of rising nationalism and a French “crackdown on Islam,” President Erdogan was launching his own international version of the agitprop campaign that got Samuel Paty killed, this time against the entire nation of France.
Commenting on the media amplification of Erdogan’s portrayal of France as hostile to Muslims, prominent journalist Caroline Fourest told me: “This is American soft power helping Islamist soft power.” In an interview with L’Express, Fourest said: “The Anglo-Saxon press does not care. It understands nothing about the French situation and only reflects the American situation… The cultural misunderstanding runs deep.. It’s a form of cultural imperialism, a desire to push the French model into the American.”
Fourrest is not the only one to complain of cultural imperialism. There is a sense in France that ideas largely imported from elite US university campuses — the likes of intersectionality and identity politics — run counter to French universalism and undermine France’s efforts to tackle its unique social challenges in its own way. To then be hectored by liberal America on how to do community relations on top of this unwanted ideological import, especially in 2020, has left a sour taste in the mouth.
Not all Anglophone media is the same, and to its credit, the FT spoke to French teachers on the ground, where one admitted to not feeling safe. “If I have to show a film with a nude scene, a couple embracing, there’d be shouting,” she told the paper: “not the normal teenage stuff, real aggression, kids saying it’s not allowed.” But elsewhere the issue has been framed as if it was just an extension of the English-speaking world’s identity politics debate, a misreading that ignores reality on the ground in Paris and elsewhere.
Many American and British commentators are struggling to see past Macron’s campaign, other than its relation to what they see as a beleaguered minority community — whereas Macron’s government sees Islamism as the domestic growth of a supremacist, totalitarian political ideology that threatens the Republic and prevents citizens from accessing the rights and protections guaranteed to them. An inherently political problem, and not one of race or religion.
Nor is the French sense of betrayal confined to the press. Erdogan has accused Macron of mental instability and compared the situation of French Muslims to that of Jews in 1930s Germany (notably, Paris’ Grand Mosque vehemently disagrees), yet the early silence from the British Government compared to other European leaders was deafening, and certainly not lost on French diplomats.
France has just witnessed one of its schoolteachers decapitated for blasphemy in the street in the year 2020, yet it is somehow coming out of this situation as the menace, the deliberate provocateur bringing all this violence on itself. This is despite most of the appalling atrocities France has suffered having nothing to do with Charlie Hebdo whatsoever.
France is its own country with its own history and its own complex challenges, and it has every right to defend itself against Islamist subversion and jihadist atrocity. While the accusations of colonialism and islamophobia are expected from Imran Khan and Erdogan, perhaps not so from France’s friends. The next time our countries face these horrors — which we will — no doubt France will be more generous and understanding with us than we have been with her.