What do the French think about Islam?

Opinion: Emmanuel Macron's risky course towards Islam

It is actually not customary to play pop songs in the courtyard of the time-honored Parisian Sorbonne. But when Samuel Paty's coffin was carried out on Wednesday last week (October 21st) and "One" was heard from U2, no one was surprised any longer. It was the favorite song of the teacher who was brutally killed by an Islamist terrorist. And on this evening of the memory of Paty one suspected that "One" - "We are one" - will now become a battleground for Emmanuel Macron. The confrontational course towards radical Islam that the French president has been pursuing since then harbors its own dangers.

The horrific murder of Paty unsettles an already divided society. Little is left of the beaming smile of the young president on the evening of the 2017 election victory, of his announcement that the French voted with him for "hope and lust for the future". It was a victory over the "Front National" of Marine Le Pen, a party that above all stirs up fear and hatred. But "crisis" became the true catchphrase of the Macron era. The protests of the "yellow vests" were followed by strikes that paralyzed the country for months. Now the corona pandemic with its 35,000 deaths so far. The country has fallen to its knees. The French currently have to sit at home in the evening, they are not allowed to leave the house. In this situation, France needs social cohesion more than ever.

An attack on French identity

And now the downright execution of Samuel Paty. The teacher was beheaded by his murderer on the way home. Paty had shown controversial Mohammed cartoons in class. But the fact that his death provoked such violent reactions cannot be explained by the barbaric manner of killing alone. For many, the murder is an attack on the foundations of the French nation. Because nothing is more sacred to the French than the "Laïcité", the separation of religion and state on the one hand and the public education system on the other, which has shaped generations of students with the values ​​of the "République".

DW editor Luisa von Richthofen

Macron takes up the fight against the common enemy of all freedom-loving people, Islamic fundamentalism. In the past few days, he announced a series of measures to reform Islam in the country and prevent foreign influence on mosques. His aim is to protect the French from further religious terror. That is understandable and makes sense.

But insisting on laicism makes the debates difficult. The murdered teacher had offered the students, who might be offended by the cartoon, to leave the classroom or look away. Macron, on the other hand, has loudly postulated a "right to blasphemy", announced a law against "Islamic separatism" - and has broadly described Islam as a religion that is in crisis worldwide. His interior minister recently said he was shocked to see kosher and halal meat counters in the supermarket. There, said Gérard Darmanin, it is already beginning for people to entrench themselves in parallel societies.

Where did the republic fail?

Since the massacre in the Charlie Hebdo editorial office in January 2015, 260 people have died in Islamist attacks in France. The country thus occupies a macabre top position in Europe. So France lived with the danger of Islamism even before Macron. Fighting this successfully now requires more than just sharp words and symbolism. Because nowhere else in Europe do so many young Muslims live without prospects on the fringes of society. Islam gives them an identity that the French nation does not offer them for granted even after two generations - regardless of the public school system. This is not a justification or an excuse, but it remains important for problem analysis. Thought must be given to why the Islamist lure is so great. And where the republic failed.

Macron's task is like a tightrope act: he has to get the influence of political Islam in France under control without making the 5.4 million Muslims living in France feel that they are under general suspicion. It's about uniting all of society again. This is a challenge that Emmanuel Macron cannot fail to face. It is much more difficult for him than his opponent in the upcoming elections in a year and a half. Because Marine Le Pen usually peddles much simpler solutions.