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France at crossroads: need for acting decisively but sensibly

In the wake of recent terror attacks, the French government said it would crack down on “Islamist separatism” but contradictory responses from officials are playing right into the hands of extremists. Instead of working to unite the country, French authorities are using divisive rhetoric and implementing policies that are further alienating France’s Muslim population.

Shortly after the beheading of schoolteacher Samuel Paty, French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin declared “a war against the enemies within.” He then launched a series of raids against Muslim associations and individuals, who, in his words, “were not necessarily linked with the investigation but to whom we are clearly willing to send a message.”

Darmanin also called for the dissolution of anti-Islamophobia organisations, namely the Collective Against Islamophobia (CCIF), which he labeled “enemies of the Republic.” Going even further, the minister said it has always “shocked” him to see ethnic food sections in supermarkets because he believes they contribute to separatism in France.

Linking the despicable act of one man to peaceful Muslim groups and institutions, while creating an atmosphere of suspicion, is dangerous. To understand how this enflames extremism, we must first realise that Islamist terrorists strike precisely to sow division and fear.

There are many al-Qaeda and ISIS manuals that make their aim of driving a wedge between Muslims and non-Muslims explicit. As ISIS outlined in its online magazine as early as 2015, “Muslims in the West will soon find themselves between one of two choices.” The group explained that the prescient threat of terror attacks will lead to Muslims being treated with increased suspicion and distrust, forcing them to “either apostatise [convert]… or [migrate] to the Islamic State and thereby escape persecution from the crusader governments and citizens.”

This divide-and-conquer strategy is crucial to terrorist groups replenishing their ranks and shoring up support from sympathisers. They target Muslims who feel marginalised from the rest of society and then lure them with promises of social status and a sense of belonging. That’s precisely why it’s so important for French leaders to work on social cohesion and lead with good examples.

Yet French President Emmanuel Macron’s narrow focus on “reforming Islam” is stigmatising Muslims and downplaying France’s responsibility. Experts broadly agree that structural inequalities and socio-economic deprivation creates a propensity for Muslim radicalisation. They point to the ‘ghettoisation’ of Muslims in French banlieues and the higher rate of unemployment among Muslim youths.

True, in an earlier speech in October, Macron conceded the country was not blameless in creating the problem it seeks to combat: “We have constructed our own separatism in our neighborhoods, creating ghettos, at the outset with the best intentions in the world – but we let it happen. We concentrated misery and difficulties, and we know it.” But any goodwill he might have earned for this admission was quickly erased when Macron patronizingly said Muslims needed to develop an “Islam of enlightenment.”

The issue to be targeted is not religion. Religion is used by extremists to frame their actions and to capture the attention of Muslims. But the underlying problems are the social and individual risk factors that make a relatively small group of individuals susceptible to joining terrorist organisations or acting on their behalf.

While Macron previously recognised France must do more to offer economic and social mobility to immigrant communities, his new antiradicalism plan following the killings in Nice does not. Instead, Macron is largely concentrating on the alleged shortcomings of Muslim schools and mosques, sports clubs, and fraternal circles. He said the government plans to cut off foreign funding to Islamic schools, train and license imams and Arabic teachers at French universities, ban halal meals from school cafeterias, and limit homeschooling.

This sounds like more scapegoating from a government that has failed to push the country in a more inclusive direction, and that is trying to appeal to far-right voters. As the recent stabbings of two Muslim women under the Eiffel Tower suggest, these new measures will do little to fix France’s social ills and will likely exacerbate the threat of extremism of all types.

Indeed, at a time of deep polarization, there is now momentum to discredit academics who question the role of the state in perpetuating socioeconomic inequalities. French Education Minister Jean- Michel Blanquer has called out what he describes as “intellectual complicities with terrorism.” He said so-called “Islamo-leftism… wreaks havoc in the university,” and blamed “indigenist, racialist, and decolonial ideologies” imported from North America of “conditioning” the man who killed Paty.

Alarmingly, over 100 French academics stated their agreement with Blanquer in a manifesto published in the newspaper Le Monde this month. Voluntarily conflating Islam with Islamism, and branding academics who point out state discrimination against French Muslims as terrorist allies, stifles constructive debate and prevents us from addressing the root causes of radicalisation.

The goal of terrorists is to divide our society, and French officials are creating the perfect atmosphere for them to succeed. Combating terrorism requires a united front; it requires cooperation between French Muslims and non-Muslims to integrate. We must reduce social tensions, not increase them. Only in doing so will we deprive extremists of the oxygen they need to survive.

Audrey Courty is a PhD candidate and researcher at Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia, specializing in political extremism and digital media.

Audrey Courty

Audrey Courty

By Audrey Courty