Separatism or Diversion?

2 October 2020

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 direwith 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.


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  • Alex Price says:

    A pleasure to read one of your blog posts again.

  • Keith Roberts says:

    Good piece. As formerly true in the US, the right sometimes has a valid point. If Macron can defang Islamophibia by taking over Islamists’ most important appeals, it sounds smart to me. I thought his speech a model of decency, as it seems some of the Islamic commentators also did.

  • Gwenael HENRY says:


    The reasons for President Macron’s sudden attention to separatism (Islamist mais pas que) are manifold.

    First of all I would like to draw your attention to the term used: “separatisms”, is this really the appropriate term to designate the problem, would it not have been better to use the term “extremisms” (political and religious)?

    The study of the details thus indicates that “departmental cells of struggle against Islamism and community withdrawal (CLIR), supposed to counter “acts that undermine constitutional principles: liberty, equality, fraternity, but also secularism, equality between men and women, the indivisibility of the Republic and the uniqueness of the French people” will be created in the departments.

    But the devil is in the details!

    In the midst of the preparation of the bill against separatism, Emmanuel Macron made a point of celebrating with great pomp and circumstance, at the Pantheon, on September 4, the 150th anniversary of the French Revolution. anniversary of the proclamation of the Third Republic. Quite a symbol…

    Confusing the unity of a country with cultural uniformity, inventing a History of France that would begin with the “coronation of Reims” and praising in turn Abbot Gregoire and the Edict of Villers-Cotterêts for having made French “one of the cements of our nation”, the President of the Republic offered an anthology of “national” myths and fantasies about the French language.

    This obsolete, chauvinist and exclusive interpretation, with a very 19th century look that Napoleon III would certainly not have disavowed, led to the human dramas we know.

    For it was precisely in the name of a supposed civilizing mission of the “inferior races”, as Jules Ferry said, that France with its “language of liberty” justified its wars and colonial crimes. It is also in the name of a pseudo emancipatory and universal character of the French language that France has been methodically striving for several centuries to eradicate the other languages historically spoken in metropolitan France and overseas.

    France was built from Paris by crushing the diversity of the peoples and cultures it administers.The steamroller of the nation-state has not yet finished its work.

    Article 2 of the constitution was amended in 1992 to protect the French language from anglicization (French is the language of the republic). It is finally against the so-called regional languages that are brandished by the judges of the Council of State and the Constitutional Council. (although courses in English are now part of the compulsory university curriculum, but not those in German or Spanish).

    Given the content of Emmanuel Macron’s speech on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the proclamation of the Third Republic, it is to be feared that the “regionalists” who defend a conception at the antipodes of that of the President of the Republic (we are in favor of the decolonization of the regions) will be collateral victims of the law against separatism currently being drafted.

    The criminalization of regionalism in Spain and the imprisonment of Catalan democratic leaders after the referendum on the future of Catalonia call for vigilance.

    And it is not the European Commission that will come to veto the anti-democratic drifts of Spain and potentially of France if need be, it is easier to lecture (rightly so) Poland or Hungary.

    In the end, the short-term objective for President Macron is to hunt on the lands of the Le Pen’s RN while preparing “l’air de rien” in the medium term, the legislation to force the Corsicans, the Bretons and even the Kanaks.

  • fredericln says:

    Thanks for this post. “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.” Yes. The left expresses despair that the issue *even exists* (that is easily assessed), basically because the existence of the issue proves that religion is not dead within French society (that ‘because’ is my opinion only). The mainstream French left definitely hopes to “free the people” from any superstition including the reverence to any G*d. “Ni Dieu ni maître” is generally understood, imho, as linking (not distinguishing) the concept of G*d with the concept of master.

    What about, the (supposed) “islamo-gauchisme” ? A large part of it emerges from patronizing / friendly behaviors of seasoned atheist/leftist militants: the present, i.e. widely muslim (in some areas), working class, is their only possible social/electoral base, so they have to tolerate islam, still taking for granted that progress (becoming less poor, social advancement, education) will by itself free poor workers, or their children, from the influence of religion. Another part of “islamo-gauchisme” is criticized (not only by the right) as “entrisme”: islamic militants, whose core issue is to get their religious behavior better accepted in French social life (schools, offices and the like), join (leftist) organisations, get elected and promoted there, because the former group tolerates them much better than other organisations do (except La Manif pour Tous, at least at the beginning). For sure, there are also people who are *simultaneously* leftist militants and openly observant muslims, including converts. But in France, they are not a large number of, as far as I know; they cannot in any case be considered as a functioning group or a community. Rather, I see some of them leave left parties, or be expelled by left parties, once openly visible that, beyond patronizing attitudes, rejecting religion is part of the core culture / “doxa” of these parties.

    The two last “groups” might elaborate some emerging political doctrine combining religious values (mainly from islam) and social progress / integration, and likely environmentalism too, e.g. around the third word of our motto, brotherhood/fraternity. This has not happened yet (as far as I know). But mainstream politicians, mainstream media and a broad majority of the voters would obviously consider such a new doctrine as “séparatiste”, as “la République est laïque” : integrating (clearly) religious values in political agendas would be against “la République”. (That was the fatal mistake of Christine Boutin showing a Bible in Parliament: her party remains ostracised 20+ years later).

    (Messy thoughts, after all. My point should have been: you rightly broke this blog’s silence. The issue makes sense and should make more and more sense, I guess, in the forthcoming years).

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