The Contradictions of Religious Dirigisme

5 May 2021

Not long ago, in the wake of the murder of Samuel Paty by an Islamist extremist, the Macron government announced a new approach to the regulation of the Muslim faith in France. French universities would henceforth train Muslim clerics in order to reduce dependence on foreign-trained clergy. Mosques harboring “Islamist” and “separatist” groups would be closed. And Muslim organizations would be required to sign a “Charter for the Principles of French Islam,” essentially a declaration of compatibility with French republican values. In short, the state would take a dirigiste approach to Islam, setting conditions under which it would be tolerated. These conditions were justified in the name of national security. They enjoy wide support among the French population, shocked by the Paty murder and the long list of atrocities that preceded it.


The government also had another reason for its action. President Macron is facing a strong challenge from Marine Le Pen in the upcoming presidential election. He therefore wants to show that he is tough on Islam—indeed, tougher than Le Pen herself, who was accused of “softness” on this issue by Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin.


The construction of a new mosque in Strasbourg has provided Macron and Darmanin with a test case for their new policy. This battle also illustrates the difficulty of making any clear sense of the principles underlying that policy or of the “republican values” it is meant to defend. Strasbourg is in Alsace, and Alsace, which was part of Germany when the law on the separation of church and state was passed in 1905, has always been exempt from certain provisions of that law. In particular, churches and synagogues in Alsace are permitted to receive subsidies from the government. So it was not unusual when the mayor of Strasbourg, a member of the EELV (Green) Party which opposes Macron, approved a construction grant. Darmanin seized on the opportunity to challenge the grant on the grounds that one of the organizations involved, Milli Gorus, had refused to sign the charter of adherence to republican values. Milli Gorus, which is particularly active in Germany, is a Turkish nationalist group but denies being “separatist” or “Islamist.”


Few would deny that the government has the right to root out terrorist organizations wherever they may be hiding, including in mosques. But to what extent is the government entitled to scrutinize the affiliations of members of a religious congregation and to discriminate on the basis of political beliefs? Is support for Turkish nationalism in a Strasbourg mosque any more of a threat to republican values than support for, say, Israeli nationalism in a nearby synagogue? Or Russian nationalism in an Orthodox church? No doubt these questions will soon end up in the courts, which can hardly relish the prospect of having to adjudicate them on the basis of laws presented as a weapon in the war on terrorism.


Photo Credit:, Emmanuel Macron, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 4.0.


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