France hits the panic button to combat its Islamic ‘enemy within’. But is its new secularism law just symbolic virtue signaling?
After years of cozying up to foreign sponsors of radical Islamism & turning a blind eye to huge integration problems, Paris is closing mosques and tabling a new law to impose secular values. Too little, too late?
French President Emmanuel Macron and his party’s majority government are in the midst of a multifaceted crackdown to tackle the country’s “separatism” problem. It comes in the wake of Islamic terrorists perpetrating a series of high-profile attacks on French soil, the most recent being the murder and decapitation of French schoolteacher, Samuel Paty, in retaliation for having shown images from a satirical French newspaper depicting Prophet Mohammed to his class.
Everyone here in France knows that separatism is a euphemism for Islamism. The notion has been further enforced by Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin’s announcement on Twitter: “In accordance with my instructions, the state services will launch massive and unprecedented action against separatism. 76 mosques suspected of separatism will be checked in the coming days and those that will have to be closed will be.”
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The move comes in the the wake of the government’s decision to close a mosque in the Parisian suburban commune of Pantin for six months after it was revealed that the mosque had used social media to publish a video calling for action against Paty in the week prior to his beheading.
France’s Islamic radicalism and insufficient integration have been allowed to fester for so long that the drastic measures now being taken suggest a problem that’s out of control. For years, the government has quietly monitored about 10,500 suspected radical jihadists all while letting more individuals into France via lax immigration policies without any assurance that they’re capable of integrating into society or whether they’ll also end up marginalized and finding comfort among others who have failed to assimilate.
Closing mosques is proof that the government no longer has a handle on the issue. Just shutting everything down is likely to alienate moderates. After all, these are people who have always been told that France is a place where they’re free to practice their religion privately as they see fit. And a mosque is that place. Now, they’re suddenly being told otherwise.
The move is also likely to signal to those responsible for promoting radical Islamism that their activities need to be driven further underground. If the French government already had trouble keeping track of the 10,500 recognized Islamic extremists – which recent attacks suggest to be the case – then potentially creating more angry radicals from moderates and signaling to them that they’d better find new ways to hide since they’re being placed under a microscope probably isn’t the wisest strategy.
Like much of what Macron and his government does, the move smacks of virtue signaling. It’s little more than a symbolic exercise in communication designed to show a French public, fed up with terrorism, insecurity, and lack of social cohesion, that the government is doing something – anything – to address their concerns. It’s the same mentality used by the government against Covid-19: symbolic, bureaucratic decisions of questionable or unproven impact whose main purpose is to make the public feel that the government is listening and acting.
The new “bill consolidating secularism and republican principles” is meant to enshrine religious neutrality across a variety of aspects of French life, from schooling to businesses and associations. While it’s a step in the right direction, it’s far from sufficient.
In an October speech, Macron acknowledged a problem with foreign funding of French extremism: “All in all, for our associations, the law thus proposed will strengthen the elements of control, respect for our republican values, will place additional constraints in terms of clarity of respect for our principles on funding…”
Most frequently, Saudi Arabia and the Qatar-sponsored Muslim Brotherhood are associated with such funding efforts. Not only has France done little to confront these state sponsors, but it has actively cooperated with them to France’s economic benefit.
Qatar, for example, owns the Paris Saint-Germain football club through an investment arm, and Qatari investments in France are expected to reach $35 billion by next year, according to a former French minister of state for foreign trade. The trade volume between the two countries is also reportedly at a record high.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia remains one of France’s biggest weapons clients, to the tune of $1.9 billion in 2019 alone, according to a Human Rights Watch report.
So France is doing a delicate dance in calling out foreign funding without naming the actual nation-state perpetrators – and it’s no surprise why that’s the case. It has a lot to lose with these relationships. But it also has to decide what it wants. If Macron wants to get to the root of the Islamic problem, he has to go a lot further – and into more complex and uncomfortable diplomatic territory, rather than adopting simplistic largely symbolic measures.
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