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Emmanuel Macron's cynical crusade

The French president is launching nothing less ambitious than a secular crusade. Not to save Jerusalem, but to save France's imaginary republican soul
French President Emmanuel Macron on 14 December (AFP)

For four years, French prosecutors strained every sinew to prove that a multinational jihadist conspiracy was behind the attacks on the newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket in Paris.

A total of 17 were killed in gun attacks that spread across three days and stunned the nation. This was France's biggest terrorist trial and yet, despite its importance, the fact that the attack on a newspaper led to a second and the likelihood that it will lead to yet more, the convictions last week left basic questions unanswered.

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Prosecutors struggled to establish terrorist links in the so-called "Belgo-Ardennes" group, beyond those of a loose band of petty criminals. Hayat Boumeddiene, the former partner of Amedy Coulibaly who stormed the Hyper Cacher supermarket, was found guilty in absentia of financing terrorism. Mohammed and Mehdi Belhoucine, who were thought to have died fighting with the Islamic State group (IS) in Syria, were convicted of complicity in the attacks. 

Three others were found guilty of  "association with terrorist criminals". The remaining seven were convicted of "associating with criminals". They came across in court as petty criminals.

The prosecutors failed to prove they knew of the plot. All were charged with involvement in networks that led to Coulibaly. But what was their connection with Said and Cherif Kouachi, the gunmen who attacked Charlie Hebdo?

Who from the Islamic State group ordered the attacks? How did the Kouachis get their weapons? Who armed them?

Even allowing for their role in picking holes in the charge sheet, defence lawyers were unusually contemptuous of the evidence. They called the indictment by the National Antiterrorism Prosector’s office (PNAT) "surreal," "shameful," "empty," "a cobbled together tissue of suppositions, conjecture and guesswork".

Margo Publiese, the lawyer representing Miguel Martinez, summed up the view of her colleagues. "This case has driven everyone crazy. It oozes fear and unreason. Something irrational has overcome PNAT, the investigating judge, and the investigators," she told the court. "The chain of command in the case was terrorised. When it becomes too frightened, justice itself suffers. I did not know that fear could do that to judges."

'Homemade terrorists'

This was much as Oliver Roy, one of France's leading scholars on radical Islam, had predicted in his recent interview with MEE. Roy is an unusual man in France today. He prefers evidence to conspiracy theories about an Islamist plot to take over France. In his analysis of attacks carried out by three different generations of assailants, Roy finds differences between terrorist campaigns post-1995 which he thinks are significant. 

Unlike the bombing of a synagogue in Paris in 1980, or of the Jewish restaurant in the Marais in 1982, today's attacks are the work of "homemade terrorists," loners who have systematically chosen to die.

They are untrained. They find their own weapons, make their own plans and carry out their own intelligence. They kill indiscriminately. They target the public at large. Their aim is ritual sacrifice with bloodied knife in hand, rather than to kill as many innocents as possible. There is no evidence they are getting instructions from the Islamic State group, let alone direction from abroad. 

Today's attacks are the work of 'homemade terrorists,' loners who are untrained, find their own weapon, make their own plans and carry out their own intelligence

They generally do not have a mosque, nor an imam, nor a support network behind them. Crucially, their ideological path is not - as the government, prosecutors and counter-terrorist police and media all now assume -  from Salafism to terrorism. 

Roy has taken the mainstream understanding of radical Islam and stood it on its head. It is not Islam that radicalises, he argues, but radicalism, usually of second generation immigrants, that has found in Islam a new form. The difference is crucial. Roy told MEE: "It is not a question of first embracing Salafism and then moving on to terrorism. This is why I talk about the Islamisation of radicalism... The break with society comes first, possibly followed by an immersion in Salafism but, in many cases, radicalisation is not preceded by a Salafist phase at all."

If Roy is right, nothing the French government is currently doing will work. Particularly after the latest killing of Samuel Paty, a school teacher who showed cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad to his class.

Secular crusade

The truth is of scant concern to Emmanuel Macron, the French president, who believes he has stumbled on a get-out-of-jail card with these murders.

Macron has no answers to shrinking ratings and the prospect of having a battle on his hands to get through the first round of presidential elections in 2022

Like other western societies, France has problems maintaining social order, unconnected with religious extremism. The social ladder has broken. There are more barriers between generations, income groups, ethnic minorities, rural and urban populations, than at any time since the Second World War. The EU has long since lost relevance as a redemptive balm for three Franco-German wars. The left is shattered. The extreme right is modernising, changing form and shape.

And Macron himself, once the wunderkind of the political scene, has no answers to shrinking ratings and the prospect of having a battle on his hands to get through the first round of presidential elections in 2022.

So the charge against Macron is not so much that he is following in the footsteps of two men whose spectacular failure in the Middle East resounds to this day, Tony Blair and George Bush (though at the time the French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin got Iraq right and refused to take any part in the invasion). It is that Macron seeks personal political advantage in the brutal murders at Charlie Hebdo and of the teacher Samuel Paty. 

So what Macron has done is to launch nothing less ambitious than a secular crusade. Not to save Jerusalem, but to save France's imaginary republican soul. Macron is doing this in the name of "laicite," a peculiarly French concept of separation of church and state that has been twisted by time out of all recognition.

A neoliberal weapon

When it was first introduced in 1905, laicite was a liberal measure. It was used to reduce the exclusivity of the Catholic Church. By withdrawing state funding from all religious faiths, it placed all religions in France on the same footing. The Catholic Church no longer enjoyed primacy.

Laicite has become the neoliberal weapon of choice against tolerance, multiculturalism, and co-existence

Today, laicite is being used for a purpose, which is the polar opposite of that original intent: to re-establish the exclusivity of one set of beliefs over another for all the population regardless of ethnicity or origin.

It has become the neoliberal weapon of choice against tolerance, multiculturalism, and co-existence. It is the tool by which right (and left) seek to patch up the ever-fraying identity of what it is to be a citizen of France.

Islam amply occupies enemy territory. In Macron's eyes, socially conservative, anti-feminist, rejectionist, the practitioner of medieval forms of justice, an unfathomable pool of "otherness". Islam, unreformed, threatens the French republic. If Christianity had its reformation, Islam will have one too, or so Macron fondly imagines. So in Macron's feverishly active hands laicite has turned into a 21st century crusade, with all the nuance Simon de Montfort showed in the 13th.

Cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad have been emblazoned on the side of buildings. Scores of mosques have been raided. The Muslim Charity BarakaCity and the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF), which monitors Islamophobic attacks, have been closed down in the campaign against "Muslim separatism".

Protesters hold a placard reading "French and Muslims, proud of our identities" as they march in Paris to protest against Islamophobia, on 10 November 2019 (AFP
Protesters hold a placard reading "French and Muslims, proud of our identities" as they march in Paris to protest against Islamophobia, on 10 November 2019 (AFP

The feud with the hijab has taken centre stage once more, when a member of Macron's party walked out of a National Assembly hearing in the presence of a veiled student.

The 'French' Islam

And now imams are to be issued with official accreditation, which can be withdrawn. Further restrictions are to be placed about wearing the hijab. Home schooling is being banned. An official registry of Muslim imams is being built.

Imams will have to sign a charter of "republican values" with at least two central demands - an abnegation of political Islam and all "foreign interference". In the headlong rush to create a French Islam, all groups are being herded together, all distinctions elided: radical Islam; political Islam, anyone who is religiously observant whether they are liberal or not; first, second, third-generation immigrant. 

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All now are now placed in the same virtual internment camp. 

This reaction alone will ensure that France remains a fertile target for Islamic State group or any of its mutations for decades to come. A "French Islam" is being created targeting "Islamist separation". For the first time, anyone who identifies him or herself as a Muslim faces a loyalty test "being with the Republic or not being with the Republic".

This is, of course, arrant nonsense.

At the precise point in history where the West, a group of nations aspiring to control world markets, the reserve currency, arms sales and armies, is in terminal decline, it is no accident that Muslims in France are being forced to sign a charter no other citizen would understand, let alone police.

Would Gerald Darmanin, France's interior minister, have dared to make comments about separate aisles for halal and kosher food in the wake of the attack on the Jewish supermarket five years ago? "When Macron came to power in France, his priority was fighting domestic violence. He has done nothing against domestic violence and now he is trying to stigmatise Muslims over polygamy. Although there are few polygamous men," a French Muslim woman told Channel Four.

"Marlene Schiappa [a government minister] then said it was okay to be unfaithful or to have a three-way relationship. I don't know how to translate that in English, so it's okay to be polyamorous," she added.

Smiles from Abu Dhabi

Macron is not in isolation. Over two borders, Austria is doing the same thing. Last month, hundreds of Austrian security police swooped on addresses in Vienna in response to an attack that left four dead and 20 injured.

Austria's interior minister, Karl Nehammer, however, went out of his way to deny that the dawn raids had anything to do with the attack in Vienna. He said they targeted homes and offices linked to Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Like Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed, Macron is interested in power

Interestingly, one month before this happened, Austria passed a law allowing the descendants of Austrian Jews who were forced to flee the country in the late 1930s to reclaim their Austrian citizenship. This happens to include me and my sister, as our parents had to flee Vienna then. 

Now the same state is casting a shadow of suspicion on its much smaller Muslim immigrant population. Do I want to become a citizen of a country that keeps on turning on its ethnic minorities in times of stress?

All the while, a large grin is growing on the faces of those in the Gulf's most repressive states who are quietly encouraging all this to happen, and in some cases, funding it directly.

The Saudis and Emirates can not believe their luck. Donald Trump is just about to leave stage right, when along comes Macron entering stage left. Both the Saudi Council of Senior Scholars and the UAE Fatwa Council immediately issued new rulings which said that the Muslim Brotherhood "does not have any link to Islam. It is a stray group". 

Neither repressive state has any interest in religious freedom or in the separation of church and state. Quite the contrary. They are abusing religious authorities to give legitimacy to their autocracy. Their sole interest is in maintaining control. And they are using the religious authorities in both lands to do that. That is "political Islam" too. But Macron is not interested either in the quality of life in France for Muslims or in promoting democracy in the Middle East.

He has just awarded Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the Egyptian dictator who killed more unarmed citizens at Raba'a Square than the Chinese authorities did at Tiananmen Square, and who has locked up 60,000 political prisoners, the Grand Croix of the Legion d'honneur. Like Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, and Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Macron is interested in power. 

He is well placed to stand alongside them. He has truly joined their club. This is how low the French presidency has sunk.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

David Hearst is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He is a commentator and speaker on the region and analyst on Saudi Arabia. He was the Guardian's foreign leader writer, and was correspondent in Russia, Europe, and Belfast. He joined the Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.
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