The glorious hype and the ugly reality of French values

The glorious hype and the ugly reality of French values
Comment: For the leader of a supposedly free and secular republic, Macron's attempt to preside over the lives of French Muslims is an affront to our community, writes Yasser Louati.
7 min read
01 Dec, 2020
France has traditionally seen itself as Europe's home of freedom and equality [Getty]
"Few of the countries that are said to be developed and that claim to be lands of freedoms, fraternity and equality live as much as ours in a context of inequality" wrote French trade union activist Michel Gevrey back in 2006.

When Emmanuel Macron issued his ultimatum to Muslim leaders on 19 November this year, many criticised his arrogant approach towards faith leaders given the restrictions imposed by France's commitment to the principle of "laïcité" - a secular French Republic. 

But since the president's 2 October speech in the city of Les Mureaux on what he termed "Islamist separatism", Macron's administration has consistently hammered the idea that it is on the French government to manage Islamic affairs, if it wants to effectively prevent terrorist attacks. Macron, just like his predecessors, has repeatedly insisted that in order to prevent terrorist attacks, French Muslim communities must be held responsible, and tightly regulated and policed by the government. 

Just like his predecessors, Macron refuses to publicly admit the correlation between terrorist attacks at home and France's foreign policy of support to dictatorships and illegitimate rulers across the Middle East, including wars of destabilisation in Libya, Mali and the whole of the Sahel region to name just a few.

Despite its brutality and outright conntempt, Macron's ultimatum was taken lying down by the state's chosen Muslim leaders. Rather than invoking the law of a secular state in order to keep the president at bay, and doing their job serving and protecting the religious liberties of millions of Muslims, the French Council of the Muslim faith answered "Yes, Sir!" and scrambled to come up with a proposal to make sure French Muslim leaders abide by so-called "French values". 

Not only is the government feeding Islamophobia, but they also criminalise those fighting it

But on what factual grounds can Muslims be accused of not abiding by "French Values"? Is Macron really in a position to define the limits of "French values"? And if he is, what would he be talking about?  

Mr Macron's cabinet is not exactly a shining example. He has as chosen Gerald Darmanin as Minister of the Interior, a man who also happens to be in charge of "religious affairs" and is himself being investigated for rape and sexual assault. The Minister of SME's Alain Griset is being investigated for "breach of trust" and for lying on his "declaration of assets" when joining the government.

The Minister of Education is in the midst of a scandal for having set up a bogus student union that he heavily subsidised to support his policies. Personal advisor to the President himself,
Thierry Solère, has been indicted for tax evasion, and a President of the Assembly has been indicted for having illegally benefited from a property deal. The list goes on. 

"French values" are a set of loosely defined ideas that have not been compiled in a legally binding document one could refer to, so let's see what the French Republic itself proclaims. 

France's constitution (4 October 1958) states in its Article 1 that "France shall be an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic. It shall ensure the equality of all citizens before the law, without distinction of origin, race or religion. It shall respect all beliefs". Article 2 states "The motto of the Republic is "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" and Article 5 outlines that "The President of the Republic oversees to the respect of the Constitution…" 

Where is laïcité when the president of the Republic meddles in religious affairs? When millions of Muslim girls have to choose between their religious freedom and their education in public schools following the 2004 ban on headscarfs?

Where is equality when Muslims face
discrimination at work, and in housing, are 20 times more likely to be racially profiled? Where is liberty when minorities face indiscriminate state violence as witnessed during the state of emergency that became permanent in October 2017? Or when the Minister of Interior orders warrantless police raids just to send a message?

Clearly, French values, if based on the French constitution itself, are not being upheld by Macron given his positions on Islam, Muslims, the Banlieues and immigration.

Read more: An unpopular Macron invokes the anti-Muslim playbook

Maybe Emmanuel Macron was referring to human rights when speaking of "French values". After all, France prides itself in being the "country of human rights" and it would be inconceivable for religious minority leaders to not abide by them.   

The 1789 declaration of human rights that hangs on the walls of all our public buildings proclaims that "The aim of all political association is the preservation of the natural and inalienable rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, safety and resistance to oppression" (Article 2), and that "Nothing that is not forbidden by Law may be hindered, and no one may be compelled to do what the Law does not ordain." (Article 5). 

Where are these "French Values" when NGOs are arbitrarily shut down by the executive branch of power based on the accusations by the Minister of Interior who refuses to take the matter to court? Not only is the government feeding Islamophobia, but they also criminalise those fighting it.

Not only is Macron contemptuous of "French values" but he is also turning France into a rogue state. He recently called the Financial Times to have an article critical of him removed. His scolding of foreign news outlets for disagreeing with him raised eyebrows for some, but further confirmed this tendency for those familiar with French politics.

Macron either does not believe in French values or has a very personal definition of them

Indeed, when in 2015 France warned it would withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, many commented as if it were a surprise. In fact, through its law on mass surveillance, France officially dismissed the very Universal declaration of human rights, that it signed in 1948, and which proclaims that "No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy" (Article 12). 

This tendency to violate the liberal values it claim to uphold is further accelerated by Macron's ambition to tighten the state's grip on Muslim religious affairs which also violates Article 18 of the same convention. "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others, and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance."

Macron either does not believe in French values or has a very personal definition of them. Apparently, the natural right of a white man in power is to tell minorities what they can and cannot do, according to his own vision of the world.

But rather than addressing the blatant contradictions between Macron's claims to protect the Republic and his track record, and rather than questioning his legitimacy to even make such demands, the French Council of the Muslim Faith, composed of individuals who represent only themselves and the interests of the countries they come from, has come up with a series of vague and lame proposals that include the setting up of another organisation.

The "
National Council of imams" would would "offer training to "approved imams" without clarifying  who will approve them, as the Republic is secular and the CFCM is notorious for being disconnected from the broader Muslim communities. The same National council of Imams would also assist such "accredited" Imams in preventing "radicalisation"; the same radicalisation that no one has ever defined, least of all the French Senate.

How can this council tackle radicalisation, which, if defined as resorting to political violence, can only be tackled through social justice and giving up on the primitive reflex of scapegoating minorities for failed government policies? No one burns down the house where he belongs.


Yasser Louati is a Human rights and civil liberties activist based in Paris. He is head of the Justice & Liberties For All Committee (CJL) and host of the podcast Le Breakdown.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.