Earlier this month, the French President Emmanuel Macron took the stage at city hall in the Paris suburb of Les Mureaux to deliver one of the most consequential speeches of his career. A series of policy pledges to tackle what he calls Islamic separatism.
Incidentally, the day that Macron chose for this announcement was Oct 2. It is not clear whether the French President meant this deliberately as a tribute to Mahatma Gandhi. However, two things are clear. First, the speech involves a level of plain speaking that is quite unusual for a head of state. Second, the speech completely changes the way France (and potentially the rest of Europe and even the West) looks at Islam.
The following is a collection of some of the upshots from the speech, translated loosely into English. We shall not go into details of his policy announcements, which are very specific to domestic governance in France. Rather, we will look at the introduction to the speech, where Macron explains what he has set out to do and why. The full text of the nearly hour long speech, in French, is available from the French Government website [pdf].
“Who has put the Republic in danger?”
The French President lays it out thus:
“There are two objectives for why I am speaking to you today. The first is to define the reality of our problems without any taboos. Who is it today, in our society, that has put our Republic in danger and our ability to coexist? The second is to share with you the decisions made by the government on how to tackle the situation. These decisions are the result of careful consideration of nearly 3 years.”
“The problem is not secularism”
The President laid this out firmly:
“The problem is not secularism. I have said many times that secularism in France means the freedom to believe or not to believe and to worship however you want, subject to public order. Secularism means the neutrality of the state and does not mean that religion must be erased from the public sphere. Secularism is the glue that holds France together.”
In France, they take secularism (in French: laïcité) with overwhelming seriousness. The state maintains the strictest possible distance from religion, bans all religious symbols in government buildings including public schools and forbids public servants from wearing them.
A bit of historical context is needed here. The French Revolution saw religious authorities as part of the complex that supported the tyranny of the king. The 1789 revolution was followed with the Declaration of the Rights of Man. It explicitly rejected religion as the basis of government and laid the foundation for modern secular law. At the time, the US had just finished fighting the revolutionary war, in which France had been their ally against British colonial rule. The Declaration inspired the Bill of Rights in the US Constitution and was also the basis of the UN’s declaration of universal human rights in the 20th century.
“Islamic separatism aims to form a counter-society“
The President describes his opponent thus:
“It is Islamic separatism that we have to attack. Islamic separatism is a conscious effort, a politico-religious one. It repeatedly breaks with the values of the Republic and aims to form a counter-society. This takes the form of taking kids out of school, developing sports and cultural communities that become an excuse for teaching principles that do not conform to the laws of the Republic. This indoctrination negates our principles such as equality of men and women and the dignity of the human being.“
A “counter-society” that does not respect the dignity of the individual. Ouch!
“First it forms a parallel society, but its ultimate aim is to take over“
The President explains further:
“The problem is this ideology which believes that its laws are superior to those of the Republic. I have often said that people are free to believe or not to believe, but every citizen, with or without religious belief, must absolutely respect the laws of the Republic. And let us name it and tackle it : it is in Islamic separatism that we find a desire and a methodical organization to destroy the laws of the Republic and create in its place a parallel system, based on different values and a different organization of society. At first, this is only a parallel society, but the ultimate aim is to take control of everything.“
I warned you. This level of plain speaking is unusual for a modern head of state.
“Islam is in crisis all over the world“
The President gave his personal view
“A lot has been written, said and analyzed in this regard, about what our country is facing right now. I have the humility to admit that I am no specialist, but let me tell you in a few words what I think. Islam is a religion which is in crisis all over the world. This is not just happening in France, this hardening of attitudes is happening all over the world, including in countries where Islam is the majority religion. Just see the example of our friend Tunisia, how different it was thirty years ago. And Tunisia is one of the most educated and developed in that part of the world….“
And with this, President Macron went on to lay out his ideas for tackling the problem as he saw it. For instance, requiring that all kids must attend public school, instead of possible indoctrination via “home schooling.” Closing down places of worship that are suspected of spreading radicalization. A national effort to shut down establishments that have practices that violate core French values, such as gender equality, for example by having different times for men and women to use a swimming pool. He would also crack the whip on elected officials, who might “compromise” on these values in certain neighborhoods, due to pressure from the local public.
While Macron’s speech did not receive the kind of attention you would expect, possibly due to English being the language of global discourse, the usual suspects did cry out.
And then, two weeks later, came the public beheading of a school teacher Samuel Paty in a suburb of Paris. It touched something within the already alarmed French public and set off a public reaction that has become a mass movement. For days now, crowds have thronged public squares across France, holding up placards, banners and in mourning. This one reads : “I defend liberty against barbarism.“
No leaders. Just people. Gathering to sing La Marseillaise, the French national anthem. Below are the powerful lyrics of the song.