Is the treatment of Islam in France symptomatic of a republican crisis?

Emmanuel Macron recently went to the Great Mosque of Paris to commemorate the 100th anniversary of this institution. If the president has made a flattering speech to the attention of the Muslim community, the turning point of sections of the French state in their relations with Islam raises questions.

In a recently published book I tried to decipher and understand the way in which, starting from the attacks of 2015, a “moralizing, secure and identifying” trend has been built and spread on the French political scene, primarily by some representatives of the State, on Islam and Muslims.

My survey shows that between 2015 and 2022 politicians and state representatives (and therefore not the state as a whole or in an absolutely ahistorical sense) no longer seem to target the so-called Islamist terrorists on established facts or even the rigorists on the point of to target violent action, but apparently too conservative speeches and behaviors of Muslims.

The latter are particularly targeted when they criticize certain public discourses and policies addressed to them. My research questions precisely the legitimacy of the state to censor and repress this type of criticism, or to judge “ways of life”. If religious conservatives abide by the law, should a liberal state worthy of the name, or committed to individual freedoms, still seek to regulate what they think and what they apparently show about their religious affiliations, whatever their nature?

Should a rigid moral order, in the name of the Republic, supplant the polytheism of values ​​operating in society?



Read more: On the poor defense of “Islamophobia”


A progressive “state intrusion”

Centralized and regulatory state management was already active at least since the end of the 1980s and from the birth in 1989 of the CORIF (Council for Reflection on Islam in France), under the leadership of Pierre Joxe, Minister of the Interior under François Mitterrand.

But there was an evident flight effect with the first Islamist attacks of the 90s and then especially those of 2015, with less and less dialogic accents and, on the contrary, more and more repressive and safe. It should be noted that in the interval, however, there were phases of dialogue, depending on the times and the ministers in office.

However, we are increasingly witnessing “the intrusion of the state […] in the visions and lifestyles of Muslims “, as I write in my book, and which translates into an” extension of the norm “, in other words, in the sense understood by the philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984), a” permanent classification of individuals “, in this case Muslims, in” moderates “,” republicans “,” Islamists “,” fundamentalists “,” separatists “, etc. I do not objectively know of other social and religious actors in France classified under so many qualifications, a fortiori derogatory.

Thus, this new context of stiffening on the question of the Islamic fact seems to have experienced a turning point with the speech of Les Mureaux by Emmanuel Macron in October 2020 and the Charter for the principles of Islam of France also launched by the Elysée at the end of the Elysée. 2020, as part of the preparation of the “law against separatism”. Emmanuel Macron, especially advised by some researchers, tended increasingly to see Islam as hegemonic over the Islam of France and to assume, in doing so, that religious liberalism and closer supervision of the Islamic cult were the solution to the problem.

Speech and press conference by the President of the Republic from Les Mureaux, 2 October 2020. YouTube.

Critical vision and acting?

This change in attitude at the top of the state apparatus was therefore also fueled by the active support of some academics, united around a conviction: the existence of a continuity between a critical vision of society in the name of the Muslim religion, sometimes understood in key fundamentalist on the part of Muslims, and the transition to violent action, over-determining the role of “republican values”.

Thus, what is now being sanctioned are no longer just violent acts or what would lead to them in a decisive way, but speeches that should constitute fertile ground favorable to the questioning of the “values ​​of the Republic”, for example misogyny, equality between men and women, etc.

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The great change is at this level: the quarantine of figures, individual or collective, capable of feeding a critical, bitter vision of the state, even conservative of society, or of not giving sufficient promises, tangible proof of rigorous respect for secularism, less like principle, moreover, that as a value.

Let’s take the example of the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF), dissolved by decree of the Council of Ministers at the end of 2020. It is true that the association, which is non-denominational, has been questioned several times, but the accusation that it was considered to be largely excessive by the League for Human Rights, which referred to a political dissolution.



Read more: “Fight against separatism”, a law that stigmatizes minorities?


Confusion between different trends

The speeches of state representatives, ministers, prefects, active and inactive, contribute, defending themselves from it, to the deplorable amalgamation between Islam and Islamism, precisely through the imprecision of the terminology used, and above all the affirmation of a continuum between some religious practices deemed “rigorous” (regular religious practice, wearing the veil in public space, etc.), politicization and radicalization.

Here I am thinking directly of the emblematic observations of the man who was Minister of the Interior of the current Head of State, Christophe Castaner, in front of the national representation, in October 2019.

However, in order not to get confused, we must distinguish three phenomena:

1 / Muslims with conservative practices, i.e. attached to traditional values ​​of family, authority, the relationship between the sexes, etc., politicized or not, who can sometimes speak in the public space criticizing this or that political orientation, without necessarily making appeal to sedition. These people are not always attached to a certain ideological current or tied to a well-defined Islamic corpus. We must therefore not spontaneously overdetermine the place of ideology in their behavior and their world views.

2 / Islam, which I define as legalistic: this is embodied in France in particular by the neo-Muslim Brothers, such as the Muslim Federation of France. Its members respect the law, while having a very conservative view of social order and morals. The new brothers consider social and political commitment vital in the name of their religious faith, depending on the context and the balance of power. To our knowledge, in the recent period, no member of this French organization has called to fight the laws of our country; on the contrary, it immediately ratified the Charter of Principles of Islam of France. It is true, however, that abroad the Muslim Brotherhood, or the heirs of their ideology, have historically been able to commit acts of violence and practice terrorism, in Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, etc., particularly in an authoritarian and repressive context. . But some of them have more or less evolved.

3 / Finally, terrorism, radical Islamism that passes through arms, attempted murder, murder, intimidation, in the name of a deadly vision of Islam.

Blurred criteria

The vague criteria for the public definition of radicalization have led, particularly after November 2015, to errors and even errors, rightly reported by many human rights NGOs and even the Defender of Rights.

The measures initiated by the state hit individuals and families, who were subsequently declared innocent by the French justice, with therefore unjustified searches, deprivation of liberty, even if there was no established link with terrorist cells or activities.

This conceptual confusion between conservatism, rigorism, radicalization, separatism, Islamism and jihadism is being implemented and maintained without even the political actors and decision-makers ever being fully aware of it.

All these confusions also translate into meddling in the private affairs of Muslims to tell them how to organize themselves at the associative, religious, cultural and accounting level. Recent controversies surrounding the veil in France and support for Iranian women have revived these questions.

A crisis of the republican model

However, this conflicting and uneasy relationship with Islam and Muslims in France by some sectors of the state reveals something even more significant.

Indeed, the public treatment of Islam and Muslims seems to reflect above all the paroxysmal illustration of a crisis of the universalist republican model and of “color blindness”, that is, indifferent to colors and origins.

Let me give two brief examples to get to the point. On the one hand, at the beginning of the 2000s, the philosopher Alain Renaut highlighted the inability of the French rulers of the time, mainly Jacques Chirac and Lionel Jospin, to consent, to really integrate the pluralistic linguistic fact of France into the Constitution; the latter effectively circumvented the ratification of the European Charter of Regional or Minority Languages, in the name of the pre-eminence of the French language, presumed to guarantee the uniqueness of the nation.

On the other hand, in connection with the foregoing, the writings of the philosopher Jean Marc Ferry explain the turmoil of the crisis of the republican model; in its difficulty in thinking of a “postnational identity”, which is certainly not the negation of the national idea, but its overcoming into something greater, a European citizenship with a cosmopolitan vocation, in which individuals can experience of “recognition in the other”.

It is therefore purported to treat citizens without taking into account their cultural, religious and linguistic affiliations, but, in reality, individuals remain somehow always prisoners of these.

The republican discourse

Since 2015, a discourse has therefore developed that can be defined as “republicanist”, in this case mystifying, which intends to affirm and reaffirm, through a tightening of the law, as well as police surveillance and repression, the attachment to the “values ​​of the Republic” ; and, at the same time, punish any offenders.

In fact, some representatives of the State and associative actors who cultivate a police, moralizing or axiological approach to secularism, promote definitely a “unanimous vision of a nation that we dream of being homogeneous in its values ​​and behaviors”. In flagrant violation of the very nature of democracy and human rights.

Towards a moral discipline?

Is it up to the President of the Republic, Emmanuel Macron, head of a secular state, to invoke an “Islam of the Enlightenment”?

All the indices briefly cited in this contribution indicate the uses and especially the abuses of the republican reference system. It is not the Republic that is identified, but what is said and done.

This deviation from the republican frame of reference calls into question the “loyalty” of Muslims to the republic and, in so doing, justifies a kind of moral and behavioral discipline of those who are apparently too apparently Muslim, too visible and moreover authors of speeches of criticism of public policies that affect them most significantly.


The author of this article has just published “The authoritarian republic. The Islam of France and the Republican Illusion (2015-2022) ”edited by Bord de l’eau.

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