The French president's weaponisation of anti-Muslim bigotry will backfire.
Emmanuel Macron’s low approval ratings and his fear of not being re-elected have led the French President to adopt a series of policies. In his view, such choices would make him popular again and lead the French population to overlook its current problems and focus on other issues.
In September 2020, an IPSOS opinion poll revealed that the French population has a pessimistic view of France under the Macron presidency – 78 percent of the respondents said that France was in decline and 27 percent of them said that such a decline is irreversible.
When asked about the three main issues preoccupying them individually, the interviewees chose the Covid-19 pandemic, the declining purchasing power, and the future of the social security system, respectively.
The French government has badly handled all three areas. Macron failed to take the necessary decisions to protect the country during the initial stages of the pandemic. His government committed borderline criminal negligence by telling the French people that wearing masks was not necessary.
Such a bungled response, combined with Macron’s ill-conceived economic policies, led France into recession mode after witnessing its worst-ever growth slump. Moreover, it is no secret Macron has been trying hard to shake France’s social security in favour of neoliberal agendas. However, following several strikes, he was obliged to reverse course. Against this backdrop, Macron became the least popular French President ever.
Macron has had to resort to diversionary tactics, such as the stigmatisation of the Muslim minority. This strategy consists of amplifying ad nauseam a crude Islamophobic discourse that creates the impression that France is at the risk of losing its identity and future to alleged Islamist forces.
The gruesome murder of a 47-year-old history teacher, Samuel Paty, gave Macron the perfect opportunity to use this strategy. Macron stated that “he was killed because the Islamists want our future. They know that with quiet heroes like him, they will never have it.”
Regardless of how some circumstances surrounding the crime remain to be elucidated, Macron chose to double down on the anti-Islam discourse. He swiftly singled out an entire religion and proposed a bill that proposes policing this religion under the guise of national security.
A neo-conservative playbook
In other words, this discourse, which holds strong similarities with the neo-conservative textbook, paves the way for stifling of public debate and the collective punishment of the Muslim minority. French historian Dominique Vidal observed that France under Macron is drifting day after day to the extreme right. According to Vidal, such a drift is taking place at three levels: rhetorical, political and practical.
One of the key tenets of the American neo-conservative playbook is to use the mantra of terrorism to stereotype the religion of Islam as a whole while silencing oppositional perspectives at home.
During the George W. Bush-era, neo-cons leaders, such as Norman Podhoretz, called upon the US to forcibly re-educate the people of the Middle East to fall in line with the thinking of America’s leaders. Concurrently, Attorney General John Ashcroft stated that critical voices “only aid terrorists,” thus denigrating civil society organisations and critical researchers who dare to oppose his administration’s strategy.
Macron is playing the same tune. The French President’s first moves were to vilify Islam and propose to reform it. He then proceeded to shut down the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF), an NGO that tracks anti-Muslim hate crimes in France. This decision was opposed by more than 50 civil society groups and academics. In their communique, they expressed their strong support to the organisation which has been fighting racism and discrimination targeting Muslims for the last 20 years.
Similarly, the use by the highest spheres of decision-making in France, including France’s education minister, of the derogatory term ‘islamo-gauchiste’ (Islamo-leftist) is designed to silence oppositional voices. These include academics and intellectuals who call for fighting terrorism (and any crime by that matter) within the confines of the law, democratic principles, and public accountability.
This rhetorical ploy instils fear and doubts while mixing religious stereotypes and secular threats at once.
Despite Macron’s attempts at imposing this strategy internally, his moves are already backfiring on the international arena. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan criticised Macron’s aptitude and his drift towards fascism. Incidentally, the French President, who pretends to wage a crusade for free speech, took this reaction very badly and recalled his ambassador from Turkey in protest.
Other international reactions are building up gradually. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan also criticised the French President. He considered that Macron’s “public statements based on ignorance would create more hate, Islamophobia and space for extremists.”
In the meantime, calls for boycott are spreading across the Muslim World. Supermarkets in Kuwait, Qatar, Jordan are already emptying their shelves from French products. The French government was visibly upset by this movement. However, instead of adopting a conciliatory tone, it used arrogant verbiage and accused the boycotters of being part of a ‘radical minority’. Such a condescending behaviour will only exacerbate negative feelings against France and harm French exports in a time of global recession.
While Macron’s ill-conceived policies produced a boomerang effect internationally, many French observers are predicting that he will also fail domestically. Aurelien Tache, who is an MP from Macron’s party expressed his scepticism about this approach: "with this type of approach, we will not have succeeded in eliminating one extremism - Islamist - and we will have succeeded in reinforcing another – the extreme right".
Furthermore, the Islamophobic discourse was already tried and tested by his predecessor Sarkozy, and it did not help him win the elections back in 2012.
Dr. Tarek Cherkaoui is the author of "The News Media at War: The Clash of Western and Arab Networks in the Middle East". Cherkaoui is an expert in the field of strategic communications.
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