Global Extremes

France: is there such a thing as “Islamist separatism”?

What does it mean when the French president Emmanuel Macron warns of "Islamist separatism"?

Abderrahim Hafidi
25 March 2020
A voter casts their vote during the mayoral election in Toulouse held under Covid-19 threat on March 15, 2020
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On a trip to Mulhouse, in the East of France, on 18 February 2020, French President Emmanuel Macron spoke at length about what he called "Islamist separatism". Claiming that he is willing to fight "Islamist separatism" without making "a plan against Islam", Macron announced a series of measures against "foreign influences" on Islam in France, ranging from foreign imams to the financing of mosques on French territory. The French president set out his doctrine on this sensitive subject, at the eve of critical municipal elections that took place on 15 and 22 March 2020 and with his party (the Republic on the Move) at great risk.

Macron spent a day in Bourtzwiller, a working-class district of Mulhouse, and one of the almost fifty territories – 47 to be exact – that are subject to a coordinated fight against radicalization and community withdrawal: This type of neighborhood has a reinforcement of 10 to 35 police officers deployed to fight crime and trafficking.

Separatism replaces communitarianism

The political lexicon used to refer to the process of Islamist radicalization has been enriched by the use of a "radical" vocabulary, that of separatism. This clearly means that the official political discourse endorses what has been in vogue in France for the past few years: Islamism is a radical break with the Republican model and its values.

The term "separatism" replaces, in fact, that of communitarianism. If French does not recognize communities or minorities with special rights, the sense of community membership is a sociological reality that is of course not reduced to Islamist radicalism. Hence the idea that the problem posed by the latter is not this feeling in itself but a desire to separate from the national community: la République.

One of the first persons to use the word “separatism” in this sense was Bastien Faudot, a former candidate for the presidential elections in 2017.

"The burkini affair is not anecdotal: there is a very visible offensive of social, cultural, sexual and religious separatism that threatens the republican pact," he said in a speech in September 2016.

The following year, the French philosopher Elisabeth Badinter took it up in her preface to Georges Bensoussan's book "A submissive France": "A second society is trying to impose itself insidiously within our Republic, turning its back on it, explicitly targeting separatism and even secession", the philosopher wrote, referring to Islamism. However, it was on 19 March 2018 that the term was popularized through the publication, in the French newspaper “Le Figaro”, of a forum against "Islamist separatism" signed by a hundred personalities, including former ministers Luc Ferry and Bernard Kouchner. The forum reads: "the new separatism is moving forward masked. It wants to look benign, but it is actually the weapon of Islamism for political and cultural conquest. Islamism wants to be separate because it rejects others, including Muslims who don’t share its views".

Separatism returns to the religious domain

Historically, the word separatism has moved from the religious to the political domain. In England, it originally distinguished the Christians who did not follow the Anglican Church (Presbyterians, Puritans, Quakers, etc.). It was also applied, in Protestant Europe, at different times, to several Lutheran Schisms [1].

However, it was in politics that it came to the fore of regionalist separatist movements, as opposed to autonomists or federalists. The word is still sometimes used in this sense. After the Second World War, General de Gaulle gave it a new topicality by using it to denounce, in the context of the Cold War, the Communists. "The separatists, exploiting the miseries and sizing the anger so that our people would come to this level of despair where they could establish their dictatorship to put at the service of their foreign masters, use all the resources of the lie, in other words their propaganda, to prevent this civic union and this recovery of the state that would condemn them at least to impotence," said the former head of the “Free France” in Vincennes, on 9 October 1947.

With Emmanuel Macron, the term thus makes a return to the religious sphere, no longer to describe a schism, but a radicalism leading to a separation from the rest of French society. However, it must be admitted that the current context, marked by a tension in identity and a community withdrawal that affects the whole of the European continent, has visibly made political discourse and behavior more rigid and brought both politicians and public opinion to refuse to compromise with what some call "the questioning of the republican pact."

Clearly, this return of the religious would be in the process of undermining the foundation of secularism stemming from the law of separation of December 1905 which, it must be recalled, in its first two articles, clearly decrees the eclipse of all religious behavior in the public space as well as the categorical prohibition by the public authorities to finance or recognize a specific cult.

In this regard we can only note that this awakening of the religious in its Islamic version is the symptom of a crisis in a democratic public space which has difficulty in managing and integrating into its modern history "the religious fact as a constitutive element of social identity”, according to the philosopher and sociologist Marcel Gauchet [2]. That said, this impasse also testifies to the chronic difficulties of the contemporary Islamic faith to operate in a secularized Europe.

The French Council for Muslim Worship (CFCM), created in May 2003 under the leadership of former President Nicolas Sarkozy, seems overwhelmed by the evolution of problems linked to the presence of Islam in French space. It is also forced by the public authorities to promote solutions which combine the final settlement of Muslims in French society and the categorical imperative to comply with the requirements imposed by both the secular values ​​of the Republic and the pressure of a public opinion that has become over the years resistant to anything that is likely to challenge the cultural and social norms resulting from the historical compromise of the secular model.

However, training imams and teaching Arabic language by a qualified teaching staff, well imbued with the life and the realities of French society, seems difficult for the CFCM. This institution is well acquainted with the countries of origin of many Muslim migrants (such as Algeria, Morocco or Turkey) as well as with the tensions that exist between different social and religious currents in these countries but not so much to the realities of France. This paralyzes its proper functioning and prevents it from succeeding in the missions that it has assigned itself in its statutes.

On the other hand, the “paradoxical injunction” exercised by the state over Muslim religious actors: summons them to break away from “consular Islam” and foreign sources of funding while refraining from intervening in these two registers in the name of respect for secularism, indicates the complexity of finding an acceptable and viable "compromise".

[1] Elizabeth A. Livingstone, ‘’The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church’’. Publishers, Frank Leslie Cross. Date of original publication, 1957.

[2] M. Gauchet, Le désenchantement du monde. Une histoire politique de la religion, bibliothèque des sciences humaines, Gallimard, 1985, XXIII - 306 p.

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