Credit: Pikist

Is Macron’s militant secularism the right response to religious extremism?

Even in a covid prioritizing world, there is something strange and no doubt significant about the low level reaction to the beheading of a schoolteacher on a Paris street last month. The equally tepid response to the equally barbarous killing of three people, in no way associated with the provocation, in a Nice church over a week later was stranger still.

When the Charlie Hebdo killings happened in Paris back in 2015, following the publication of cartoons that mocked Islam’s prophet, Mohammed, the world convulsed in outrage and revulsion. Leaders from European countries and beyond rallied around President Hollande as he led protests defending freedom of speech down the Champs Elysee. The cry of solidarity was ‘Je suis Charlie’.

But we didn’t hear ,’ Nous sommes La France’, or any such slogan last month. There are no profile pictures on social media overprinted with the French national colours. Much has changed in five years and much is the same. We are again dealing with the same cartoon trigger.. This time however, the images were used as a teaching resource by a mid-grade teacher for a class on freedom of expression. He did not create the cartoons. The sacristan and parishioners in the Catholic Church in Nice had nothing whatsoever to do with either the cartoons or the decision to use them as a teaching tool.. There is a parallel here with 2015, when four customers at a Jewish supermarket were shot dead by an associate of the Charlie Hebdo killers following the attack at the paper’s offices. These victims had no link whatsoever to Charlie Hebdo. In fact if they were religious Jews, they may have found Charlie Hebdo quite offensive too as its cartoons lampooned religious faiths in general, not just islamic faith.

Targeting innocent Christians and Jews alongside the real or perceived perpetrators of insults to Islam is revealing.  Islamic extremists are engaged in a wider cultural war and use alleged offences of one kind or another as justification for periodic all out attack. They have not changed their tactics since 2015 but the world around them has changed its attitude. A France that is liberal in its defence of freedom of expression is also the France that rigorously enforces its official creed of secularism in public life. Religious signifiers like hijabs and crucifixes are banned in french schools. The ban is perceived to be targeted at scarf wearing Muslim girls. This policy jars somewhat with the newly emerging dogmas of inclusivity and diversity favoured by other progressive countries. Liberal France, of all places, has fallen behind with the the programme of enlightenment.

There is more concern now about ‘hate’ speech than freedom of speech.  Protecting minority sensitivities is a priority.  After a mosque was attacked in Christchurch, New Zealand in 2019 resulting in the death of 51 Muslims gathered for prayer, the country’s Prime Minister wore a hijab as a mark of solidarity and respect with the minority community. While New Zealand is as secular as France, it embraces diverse expressions of culture. Its Muslim population is little over 1%. Diversity has not posed challenges. The Muslim population of France is almost 9%. Because the community is not spread evenly, some French cities have significantly higher percentages.  15% of the Paris metro area population is Muslim. At that level, a religious minority feels strong enough to resist militant secularism.

Has the French policy of ‘laicete’  to which President Macron is deeply committed alienated Muslims unnecessarily ? How is it received by other faiths? Generally there are no issues that don’t affect  Christians across the rest of the secularizing world.  But Macron does show militant flint at times towards Christians too. Initially, after the devastating fire that almost destroyed Notre Dame in April 2019, Macron called for ‘innovative renovation’ and ‘ a respectful audaciousness’  adapted to ‘techniques and challenges of our times’.  His crude lack of genuine respect for what Notre Dame represented for Catholic and Christian France was widely opposed and he has had to do a U-turn and commit to a faithful restoration of the much loved, historic church.

So Macron, unlike Hollande in 2015, stands almost alone now in his defence of free speech which in the words of Canadian Premier, Justin Trudeau responding to the most recent atrocities, apparantly ‘has limits’. The limits for the woke Trudeau are no doubt reached when somebody’s beliefs are offended. All part of the new philosophy of diversity and inclusion which other countries believe a secularist state is big enough to embrace.

When a small, extremist minority within a minority is aggressive to the point of self-destruction as islamist extremists are they are unlikely to be content with mere relaxing of laicete at its outer fringes with regard to dress and religious signifiers.  The ‘inclusivity’ some minorities want goes well beyond affirmative rhetoric, ethno-friendly workspaces and curbs on offensive speech.

The pattern of terrorist attacks show a deep ideological aversion to mainstream culture, including its secular manifestations as the attack on the Bataclan theatre showed. More significantly, the targeting of synagogues and churches reveals a visceral hatred that won’t be appeased by what is perceived as progressive absorption behind the friendly rhetoric.

We can’t say for certain which response to increasing cultural diversification will win out in the end. It may be that Trudeau and others like him find in the end that the ideology of inclusion that ‘has its limits’ too.


This morning, 15 Nov, Catholics in Nantes demand that religious services are opened again 


Catholics in Bordeaux singing and praying outside their church which was closed by the French Republic


French Catholics in Versailles today demonstrating for a return to Mass after the French Republic closed their doors for public worship


French Catholics are praying in front of Saint-Sulpice Church in Paris


French Catholics in Versailles tonight



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