On October 16, an 18-year-old Muslim extremist brutally murdered a middle-school teacher after the teacher showed his students cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. The incident led to a diplomatic crisis between Turkey and France after French President Emmanuel Macron defended the cartoons, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan asked him to get a mental examination and treatment in response.
Islam for Macron looks like the West for Erdoğan. Whenever a need arises to boost popularity in the face of domestic issues, Erdoğan demonizes the West, and Macron demonizes Islam.
Whenever a need arises to boost popularity in the face of domestic issues, Erdoğan demonizes the West, and Macron demonizes Islam.
Macron came to power as an immigrant-friendly leader, but the growth of right-wing discourse pushed him to develop policies against Muslim immigrants. Erdoğan consolidated his power with the European Union’s help, but authoritarian policies and economic failures led Erdoğan to incite civilizational fights by blaming the West.
The strategic use of international controversies for domestic gain is ubiquitous. In my recent book, Alien Citizens: The State and Religious Minorities in Turkey and France, I analyzed how politicians capitalize on international affairs strategically in domestic contestations in the French and Turkish contexts.
Islam in France: The Whipping Boy
As Islamophobia gained ground and the far-right established a significant base, developing anti-Muslim rhetoric became a formidable political strategy for right-wing and left-wing politicians in France.
After the September 11 terrorist attacks, anti-Muslim rhetoric gained traction. In the 2002 presidential elections, Jacques Chirac, a center-right politician, competed against the far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen in the runoff elections.
Chirac and his successor Nicholas Sarkozy responded to the new far-right challenge by pushing legislation to ban the wearing of headscarves at public schools in 2004.
Anti-Muslim policies gained the support of all political parties over time. The French parliament banned wearing the full-face veil (burqa) on the streets in 2011, legislation initiated by left-wing members. Legislators passed the law almost unanimously with majorities of 335-1 in the French National Assembly and 246-1 in the Senate.
Anti-Muslim policies gained the support of all political parties over time.
The events that followed the Arab uprisings in the 2010s unleashed Muslim extremist groups in the Middle East and Europe and contributed to the rise of Islamophobia. In response, anti-Muslim policies in central and local governments increased exponentially. In summer 2016, for example, some French cities banned wearing full-body swimwear (burkini) on public beaches.
In May 2017, Emmanuel Macron, who won the presidential elections, seemed to have broken the discrimination cycle with his pro-immigrant and pro-EU stance. However, the elections demonstrated that nationalism and anti-immigration gained momentum in France. The far-right leader Marine Le Pen was able to get 33.9% of the vote in the runoff elections.
In France, the ideology of the far-right is becoming the mainstream. When Jean-Marie Le Pen made the runoff in 2002, hundreds of thousands of French people went out to the streets and protested. Such a broad-based protest never happened when his daughter, Marine Le Pen, made the runoff in 2017.
Marine Le Pen rebranded her party after 2017 to target the center without giving up on the party’s populist and anti-immigrant agenda.
In response, France’s traditional center-right party, The Republicans (Les Republicans), is inching toward the further right. Laurent Wauquiez, who served as the party leader between 2017 and 2019, embraced a Euro-skeptic and anti-immigration agenda. Christian Jacob, the party’s current leader, demanded that the ban on wearing headscarves at schools be extended to parents volunteering for school trips when the French Senate approved such a controversial ban in October 2019.
The alignment of the far-right and center-right might be Macron’s biggest nightmare for the next elections. If Le Pen was able to get 33.9% of the vote with her radical agenda, a more centrist opponent with anti-Muslim rhetoric can defeat Macron. This strategic logic leads Macron to develop a harsher narrative and stricter policies toward Muslims.
If Le Pen was able to get 33.9% of the vote with her radical agenda, a more centrist opponent with anti-Muslim rhetoric can defeat Macron.
In early October 2020, Macron introduced a plan to create an “Islam of France” by reforming how Islam is practiced. His plan would restrict the funds that Muslim communities receive from abroad and create a certificate program for French-trained imams. Later in the month, France initiated the dissolution of more than 50 French Muslim associations for promoting hatred.
Macron’s recent rhetoric and practice about Islam might have alienated global and French Muslims, but it probably strengthened Macron in contesting his domestic political rivals.
The West for Erdoğan: The Scapegoat
In the 2000s, the European Union helped Erdoğan to gain ground in Turkish politics. Erdoğan implemented several reforms that weakened the military thanks to Turkey’s membership bid for the EU.
Erdoğan’s love with the West faded after he shifted toward authoritarianism. The West became a scapegoat to justify his authoritarian moves and economic failures. Erdoğan frequently referred to Western countries as the “mastermind” in designing Turkish politics.
Erdoğan’s love with the West faded after he shifted toward authoritarianism. The West became a scapegoat to justify his authoritarian moves and economic failures.
He blamed the United States for helping protestors during the nationwide protests against Erdoğan in summer 2013 and for orchestrating a corruption investigation against his cabinet members in December 2013.
After the 2016 coup attempt, Erdoğan accused “the West” of supporting the coup. In the first half of 2018, the Turkish lira depreciated by about 40%; afterward, Erdoğan blamed the West for waging an economic war against Turkey.
When Erdoğan’s popularity decreased with economic deterioration in summer 2020, he capitalized on Turkey’s anti-Western sentiment and provoked civilizational polemics. He reconverted the Hagia Sophia, an important structure for Orthodox Christians, into a mosque.
Similarly, Erdoğan’s clash with Macron came when the value of the Turkish lira dipped to its lowest point since Erdoğan came to power in 2003.
Macron and Erdoğan sought to capitalize on civilizational polemics for political gain in the face of domestic challenges. However, if not addressed directly, Erdoğan’s increasing authoritarian practices and economic failures and France’s failures to integrate its Muslim immigrants will eventually hurt both countries.