Thursday’s attack in Nice was qualified as an Islamist terror attack by President Emmanuel Macron and comes as a major challenge at the end of his mandate. On the afternoon of Thursday 29th October, three parishioners were strangled by a young Tunisian in a church. This crisis has not only crystallized underlying tensions of the French domestic political theatre but has also galvanized various transnational reactions.
President Emmanuel Macron said “If we are attacked once again it is for the values which are ours: freedom, for the possibility on our soil to believe freely and not to give in to any spirit of terror. I say it with great clarity once again today: we won’t surrender anything.”
The attack arose in a highly tense context. The recent beheading of Samuel Paty in a Parisian suburb was seen as a symbolic attack against the core values of the Republic, freedom of expression, and laicité. The number of military personnel deployed to protect schools and places of worship has increased from 3,000 to 7,000. But the events also opened the door to debates about the contemporary evolution of the boundaries set around the rigid principle of laicité.
Domestic opposition groups from both sides have voiced their discontent over the way Macron dealt with the events. Right-wing extremists have called for more concrete actions to be taken against “massive immigration,” as Marine Le Pen said on BFM-TV. Seeing immigration as the “problem that kills” stems from a biased interpretation of the events through a “cultural shock” lens. Leftist parties and activists have warned against an amalgam of Muslim communities with radical Islamists, and some have denounced Macron’s rigid reaction as imposing a low tolerance threshold among the French population concerning the definition of laicité.
The French crisis also had a substantive transnational reach. On the same day, an attack of a guard outside the French consulate in Saudi Arabia was reported. The context of Samuel Paty’s death had previously fostered debates around freedom of speech and that of a cult, especially controversial among Middle Eastern countries. A boycott of French import products has been called in some places. Specifically, Turkish President Erdogan’s comments about Macron’s robust defence of secularism have been on the front page of the international press. Bangladeshi street protests denouncing blasphemy have also gathered international attention.
The senior UN official who oversees the protection of religious sites and advocates for religious tolerance, Miguel Aìngel Moratinos, strongly condemned the “barbaric attack,” stressing that any attacks targeting civilians, including worshippers, were “intolerable and utterly unjustifiable, whenever, wherever and by whomsoever committed.” He also noted that “the freedom of religion or belief and the freedom of expression are interdependent, interrelated and mutually reinforcing rights rooted in the articles 18 and 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).”
At both domestic and international levels, the temptation to interpret the galvanizing events along religious or cultural lines is strong. However, the international media should refrain from framing the conflict in these terms. Focusing on the religious and cultural claims used by proponents from different sides maintains the illusion that this is a religious or cultural conflict. Root cause factors such as domestic socio-economic inequalities and contextual factors such as inter-state power competitions on the international arena should not come as a mere backdrop to the events, but rather should be the primary focus of all parties involved, whether domestic civil society activists from left and right, international society actors, national government officials and foreign states.
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