Response: Why Do the French Fear Islam?
May 8, 2017
France's presidential race has narrowed to two finalists slugging it out in advance of the May 7, 2017, presidential election. Much is at stake because the office of the president in France is extremely powerful. The victor is elected for a seven-year term with powers stronger in some ways than the U.S. president. These two candidates are both political outsiders representing non-mainstream parties, although they are no strangers to French politics. The question is: Will the election of Marine Le Pen or Emmanuel Macron alter French public life and law when it comes to critical issues of religious freedom? Moreover, what are the critical religion and religious freedom issues in France today?
First, the candidates. Le Pen, until just a few hours before this writing, has been the leader of France’s far-right National Front party. She is a lawyer who represents her region of France in the European Parliament. Her platform expresses the frustrations of many of France’s regional and rural traditionalists, including those who are skeptical of multiculturalism, Brussels, and too much power in the hands of Paris. Macron is no newcomer to politics, having served as a socialist economics minister, although he now claims to be an independent and the leader of a new political movement, En Marche!
Macron’s arguments are largely for technocratic reforms to France’s ever-ailing economy, but by American standards, Macron is more socialist than free market champion. Some on the French Left accuse him of being “Tony Blair”—in other words, a moderate left-of-center politician. It is not entirely clear what he would do differently from his predecessors on issues of Islamism, terrorism, and immigration. It is noteworthy that Macron, like many of his socialist antecedents, has been critical of France’s colonial heritage in Algeria and elsewhere.
Marine Le Pen has taken far stronger positions on some elements of religion and immigration, calling for the closing of radical mosques and limits on immigration. It is likely that a Le Pen victory would result in efforts to counter Islamist arguments and activities, not only in the public sphere, but also in cyberspace and in private places such as homes, personal communication, and houses of worship.
In the French context, almost all major candidates support some form of France’s separation of church and state, or laicite. Unlike the United States, where the Founders clearly expected religion to play a major role in public life but not as a state-supported institution, the French experience is quite different. For the past century, French politics have made a virtue of secularism by largely banning institutionalized religion from the public sphere. It is okay to worship in private, but religious symbols, activities, leaders, and arguments are not welcome in politics and government. Hence, whereas U.S. citizens may not like seeing the hijab in public but, due to religious liberty concerns, support the right of Muslim women to choose to wear the hijab, in France the official position of most politicians (at least until recently) has been that the hijab violates France’s secular character.
Le Pen has taken a strong secularist position arguing that Muslim symbols, such as the hijab, are symbols of oppression of women and are not French. Moreover, she argues that the hijab is just a cosmetic symbol of segments of society that are not actually living under French law and customs but are operating as Islamist sub-cultures hidden from view. Although many religious freedom advocates in the United States and beyond reject this viewpoint, it is worth carefully considering the logic of Le Pen’s stance. Should a society be able to say that there are symbols and viewpoints that are not consistent with its ethos? And, if it does so, how should it deal with guests, newcomers, or those who do not choose to conform? If such individuals have a right of friendly departure, what are the obligations of the majority culture to non-conforming minorities?
All of this seems academic when one is just talking about the Amish being left alone or the tax status of monasteries, but arguments about the boundaries of religious expression take on an entirely new dimension in the wake of repeated Islamist terrorist attacks on France and its neighbors. Since December 2014 there have been nearly two dozen terrorist attacks across France, almost all of which were perpetrated by violent Islamists: in the offices of Charlie Hebdo, Strasbourg, Nice, Paris, Normandy, and elsewhere. Le Pen, unlike France’s (and America's) past presidents, is willing to say that these attacks are the work of what she calls “Islamic fundamentalists.” Similarly, U.S. President Donald Trump has been willing to label the enemy as “radical Islamic terrorism.”
So, whether it is Le Pen or Macron, the next French president will have to deal with not just the semantics, but real world policy issues at the intersection of religion and national security because almost every terrorist attack in the past two years in France, not to mention London, Brussels, and beyond, has claimed an Islamist religious motivation. Even if only a small minority of worldwide Muslims support terrorism, that still means that there are hundreds of thousands of potential Islamist shock troops and millions of sympathizers. This is a quandary not just for France, but for the West as a whole. Smart public policy will consider how best to balance liberty and security, protecting French citizens, including Muslim citizens, from the diabolical threat posed by violent Islamists inspired by Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other such organizations.