I’ve been quiet for so long that some of you must have concluded that this blog had ceased to exist. The political situation here in the US has been so anxiogenic that it has been hard to concentrate on France. But Emmanuel Macron’s speech today on the subject of “separatism” has awakened me from my slumbers. It signals, if nothing else, the beginning of the 2022 presidential race and tells us something about how Macron plans to position himself on the political chessboard. But the subject deserves a closer look on its own merits.
The French Republic is founded on the premise that it is “une et indivisible,” and the current president’s hostility to “separatisms” and “communitarisms” is, to take him at his word, intended to keep it that way, even if he has now shifted from invoking “separatisms” in the plural to singling out one particular separatism, which he attributes to “Islamic radicalism.”
The idea that the cohesion of the state is fundamentally threatened by religious division actually long predates the Republic; it dates from the Reformation, when animosity fueled by faith did threaten to tear “France and Navarre” asunder. Ever since, the state has lurched–at times cynically, at times opportunistically, at times with cold calculation–from lax latitudinarianism to stern supremacy and back again. The St. Bartholomew massacres, Paris vaut bien une messe, the Edict of Nantes, the revocation thereof, the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, the Restoration, the Dreyfus Affair, the Law of 1905, la trop fameuse laïcité, the recurrent controversies over the foulard islamique and a host of other “ostensible signs” of commitment to something other than–and in some eyes greater than–“the values of the Republic,” whatever they may be: these stages in the tumultuous relation of church and state in France are tiresomely familiar and too often invoked as bludgeons in debates where historical context is erased and all subtlety disappears to serve the polemical needs of the moment. France may once have proclaimed itself “la fille aînée de l’Église, but usually the state has placed itself over “God” rather than under whenever divinity seemed too slow to manifest its unwavering support of the powers-that-be.
Critics have been quick to say that Macron’s strategy is only too apparent: he’s poaching on the preserve of Le Pen’s Rassemblement National, angling for the votes of the extreme right and the Filloniste Republican rump; he’s “prescribing the antidote while instilling the poison,” as Mediapart would have it; he’s following in the authoritarian footsteps of Nicolas Sarkozy and Manuel Valls.
Yet even Mediapart, which has little use for Macron in general, concedes that, as usual, he has, with this supposed swerve to the right, imparted his patented style of divide-straddling to this most contentious of issues:
Le constat posé en préambule de son discours tranchait avec les attaques d’autres responsables politiques, tels Manuel Valls ou Éric Ciotti, contre la prétendue « culture de l’excuse » et autres « rengaines de la repentance ».
« Nous avons nous-mêmes construit notre propre séparatisme, a notamment expliqué Emmanuel Macron. C’est celui de nos quartiers, c’est la ghettoïsation que notre République, avec initialement les meilleures intentions du monde, a laissé faire. […] Nous avons concentré les populations souvent en fonction de leurs origines, de leurs milieux sociaux. Nous avons concentré les difficultés éducatives et économiques dans certains quartiers de la République. » Il a également évoqué « le passé colonial » et les « traumatismes » que la France « n’a toujours pas réglés », en citant la guerre d’Algérie.
While denouncing “separatism,” Macron thus accuses the Republic itself of the mirror offense of ostracism. It is the state that created the ghettos, tolerated the poverty, invited the foreign language teachers, perpetrated the crimes in its former colonies, and failed to correct the flaws in its schools and prisons, all of which are in part responsible for the current divisions. All this he freely and disarmingly admits.
As so often, Macron’s rhetoric is lofty enough and suggestive enough that one is almost ready to believe that he shares one’s own most generous instincts. But then he adds the deft rhetorical fillip that in an American politician we would call a dog whistle, but which Macron manages with such subtlety that it certainly deserves a more august label: he invoked the concept of l’insécurité culturelle. Erudite readers will know that this is the title of a book by Laurent Bouvet, an estimable albeit controversial scholar as well as the founder of Le Printemps Républicain, an organization that is not exactly in good odor–c’est le moins qu’on puisse dire—with the progressive left. Bouvet’s book has attracted many criticisms, all of which come down to a single basic query: Is the cultural insecurity that he worries about a measurable phenomenon or merely a figment of the islamophobic imagination? If the latter, then it is the imagination which needs correction rather than the alleged anti-republican practices of a vulnerable religious minority, and by invoking the supposed corrosiveness of cultural insecurity, the president is actually exacerbating the ill that he is pretending to cure.
And yet … we in the United States, who have been aghast at the spectacle of our own president unleashing the forces of the state against allegedly subversive minorities and so-called anti-fascist agitators, can’t fully share the horror of Macron’s critics. “He is turning into Le Pen,” some say, or even “into Trump.” Hardly. No one who has watched Trump in action can think that Macron has anything in common with him. I was watching the French president’s news conference and thought I caught a flash of a devilish smile on his lips when he invoked Bouvet’s title. He remains irritatingly self-satisfied, but after four years of enduring Trump’s monumental egomania, a little elitist egotism seems a relatively venial sin, and when would Trump ever try to instigate racial fear by alluding to the title of a book?
Macron operates on an altogether different plane, more dialectical than demagogic. What has he proposed, after all? That the state train and certify teachers of Islam and of the Arabic language rather than rely on teachers dispatched by foreign governments, in order to ensure compatibility of the instruction offered with “Republican values.” Such a proposal would raise hackles in the US, with its very different traditions in regard to freedom of religion and speech, but in the French context it’s not extreme. A ban on home schooling and insistence that every child be educated in a state-certified school from the age of 3: well, again, this is a French approach, draconian to be sure, but one makes allowances; America has religious strife in its past, but not Wars of Religion. No special menus in school cafeterias; no hours set aside for segregated swimming in municipal pools; continued policing of veil-wearing and other crimes of the wardrobe, though even there Macron sprinkled a bit of his rhetorical fairy dust on the question.
Alas, having declared the Republic responsible for the ghettos it has created, Macron has proposed nothing to eliminate them and in fact poured cold water on Jean-Louis Borloo’s efforts to rethink the state’s approach to residential segregation. There he deserves strong criticism, but this is not the aspect of his policy that his critics on the left have focused on.
Instead, they say, as I noted earlier, that Macron is merely making things worse by singling out the Islamic community as the seat of separatist thought and organizing. No doubt there’s something to this criticism, but there’s also something to the notion that anti-French feeling has thrived in certain milieus and that it’s not beyond the purview of the state to search for the root of the problem. Separatism is hardly the most important issue on the agenda in a time of pandemic, economic distress, and international disarray. But it is an issue, and it may be worthy of at least a modicum of presidential attention, even if ulterior motives of electioneering are also at work. Yes, it’s a move to the right, but it is no longer surprising that Macron is a president of the right. If the left has a better answer to this particular problem or a more accurate diagnosis of its true nature and causes, it now has an opportunity to make its voice heard and an issue on which it can usefully make clear its differences with the present regime. But I, for one, don’t really know where the left stands on the matter, except in opposition to Macron.
Photo Credit: LPLT, Grande Mosquée de Paris, via Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA 4.0.