Emmanuel Macron's determination to pick the wrong battle

Emmanuel Macron appears to want to rekindle the old conflicts between Occident and Orient. He blusters on about a "crisis of Islam", as if oblivious to the more acute crises society is facing these days, says Stefan Buchen in his essay

Essay by Stefan Buchen

France has lived through a scary October. The country has been shaken by appalling murders. A secondary school teacher had his head cut off. Three people were stabbed to death in a church. The perpetrators were Muslims, who said the murders were motivated by Islam.

These circumstances make the explanations that are usually trotted out by the powers that be, that these are acts by isolated individuals and that they "have nothing to do with Islam", seem just as hollow as the shirking of responsibility for similarly horrific crimes in the past.

Until the chains of causation are more closely investigated, we will have to rely on the thesis put forth by French Islamic scholar and sociologist Gilles Kepel, according to which one must presume a "continuum" extending from those imams who preach a "cultural break" with majority society right the way through to the individual offenders.

The 18-year-old of Chechen origin who beheaded the teacher Samuel Paty on the outskirts of Paris and the young Tunisian who stabbed people in a church in the centre of Nice at least proved themselves able to recognise an insult to the Prophet and a degradation of religion, and to connect these with their own actions.

No matter through which dark paths and enigmatic in-between levels the murders were mediated by the "Islam factor", other aspects seem to be more urgently in need of analysis and criticism. The political background must not be ignored.

French Islam and political scholar Gilles Kepel (photo: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images)
Ideologie des kulturellen Bruchs mit der Mehrheitsgesellschaft: Islamistische Attentate wie in Paris und Nizza zeigen einen neuen Tätertyp. An die Stelle einzelner Terrororganisationen scheinen Netzwerke getreten zu sein, die den kulturellen Bruch predigen und radikale Taten provozieren, konstatiert der französische Sozialwissenschaftler und Islamismusexperte Gilles Kepel.


October began with an energetic public appearance by the French President. Emmanuel Macron cast his speech under the leitmotif of "republican awakening", announcing a programme for the reconquest (reconquête) of those suburbs which the aforementioned researcher Gilles Kepel had already examined thirty years ago in his book "Les banlieues de l'Islam". The problems are therefore not new.

Macron's allusion to the Reconquista of Muslim Spain was likely no coincidence. He admonished his audience that nothing less was at stake than fighting "Islamist separatism" on French soil. The Republic had lost control over "certain quarters". And it was time to regain it.

Appalling miscommunication

Assuming the stance of a man of action, almost like a military commander, Macron presented a strategy to prevent exactly the sort of murderous acts that would then unfold in the second half of October. The failure of that strategy is so spectacular that there is something spooky about it. It is a hair-raising lesson about how dangerous it can be when communication goes wrong.

Macron cited "the school" as a central pillar of his programme. The Islamist milieu was increasingly undermining compulsory education, he said. More and more parents were withdrawing their children from regular schools and sending them to private institutions where they were taught a radical version of Islam that rejected the values of the Republic.

This trend must be stopped, said Macron. The school must be the institution where all children learn the meaning of liberty, equality and fraternity.

France's President Emmanuel Macron in Nice following the knife attack (photo: Eric Gaillard/abaca/picture alliance)
Krise der französischen Republik: „Eine wichtige Lehre aus der Geschichte des Kolonialismus müsste - neben dem Eingeständnis von Verbrechen gegen die Menschlichkeit, die Macron vor seinem Wahlsieg vor mehr als drei Jahren einmal selbst so bezeichnete - die Erkenntnis der Grenzen der eigenen Macht, wenn nicht sogar der eigenen Ohnmacht, sein“, schreibt Stefan Buchen.

It is impossible not to view the decapitation of Samuel Paty as a gruesome answer to this part of Macron's speech. The history teacher had shown his class the Muhammad cartoons published six years ago by the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo as a way of addressing the issue of freedom of expression.

The state leadership could not have been more cruelly reminded that its words are ineffectual for reaching the intended audience. This is no less apparent in other elements of Macron's anti-Islamism strategy.

The President said he wanted to create an "Islam of Enlightenment" (un Islam des Lumières) in order to counter the obscurantist Islam of the preachers in the suburbs.

In his day, Barack Obama even dispatched a blond Arab princess – Rania of Jordan – to fight bad Islam with good. Le Président de la République decided just to do it himself, without mediation. This is simply arrogant, a criminal overestimation of his own moral authority.

A caricature of himself

Apart from his competition with the fascist Marine Le Pen for the favour of the French people, Macron apparently finds it difficult to understand the context of his own actions. In his address, he spoke of the need to reappraise the history of French colonialism. But in the ears of many this must have sounded like mere lip service, if not even mockery. After all, Macron's policies in many areas still carry on the sobering tradition of precisely that French colonialism: in Mali, Libya and Lebanon.

His appearance in Beirut after the devastating ammonium nitrate explosion in August, during which he spouted rosy promises, bore all the traits of a caricature. An important lesson we must learn from the history of colonialism, apart from acknowledging all the crimes against humanity, which Macron himself once described as such before his election victory more than three years ago, should be recognising the limits of one's own power, and even accepting one's powerlessness.

Whoever presumes to "construct" a new Islam, as Macron put it, one that fits his own interests, has probably not yet heard the warning shots. Algeria's colonial history began in the 1830s with the destruction of the established Islamic brotherhoods.

As a result, their main leader, Abd al-Qadir, had to flee to Syria, which was still Ottoman at the time. The occupying power, already committed at the time to the Enlightenment principles of liberty, equality and brotherhood, began to "construct" its own structures to replace the shattered Islamic ones.


Hackneyed slogans


But the idea of taking up these old battles between Occident and Orient once again in autumn 2020 is misguided, not to say absurd. C'est la mauvaise bataille, one would like to shout out at the president. Muhammad cartoons will not dissuade religious people from obscurantism or convince anyone of the merits of secular logic.


They are more like a relic of the late Middle Ages, similar to the "Treatise of the Three Impostors" (de tribus impostoribus), referring to the three religious founders Moses, Jesus and Muhammad. That text ushered in the critique of religion that led to the European Enlightenment. Back then, this kind of provocation therefore had an enlightening role. Today it is a hopeless anachronism.


The real irony, however, only emerges when the head of state tries to reconcile the diagnosis of society he presents with his own policies. The weakness of the state he laments can, in fact, be explained to a large extent by the drying up of its resources and the bottom-up redistribution accelerated by Macron himself. Funding cuts have ravaged the school system, public transport and social services in recent years.


The parallels with the eroded health-care system are obvious. France has been hit harder by the coronavirus pandemic than almost any other European country. The number of intensive care beds has proven to be insufficient for the many severe COVID-19 cases. In March, the President summarily declared "war" on the virus, just as he is now calling for a campaign against Islamist separatism. Rather than ranting about the "crisis of Islam", Macron should focus instead on the crisis of the Republic.


The problem begins with the fact that society's elite, to which former investment banker Emmanuel Macron belongs, does not even know those "certain quarters of the Republic". So they try to fill the vacuum with hackneyed slogans about the secular state.


Michel Houellebecq writes about this vacuum in his novel "Submission" (Soumission). But critics instead celebrated the work, which was published in 2015 shortly after the attack on Charlie Hebdo, primarily as a warning against Islamic aggression. Such misunderstandings are almost inevitable in today's France and Europe.


Stefan Buchen


© Qantara.de 2020


Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor


The author is a journalist for the ARD television news magazine Panorama. He studied Arabic language and literature at Tel Aviv University.