France has seen growing religious tensions after a priest was seriously wounded in Lyon last Saturday and two women and a man were killed in Nice last Thursday, both in separate terror attacks. It is not yet known if these incidents were related. They come off the back of several other violent incidents in the last two months, including the stabbings of several people outside offices once belonging to Charlie Hebdo in November and the public beheading of a history teacher on the streets of Paris recently.
Samuel Paty, the history teacher in question, had reportedly been targeted following criticism for showing a caricature of the prophet Muhammad to his pupils. It appears that Charlie Hebdo was also targeted for publishing what may be considered similarly blasphemous images. Images of the Prophet are strictly prohibited in Islam.
In response to these incidents Emmanuel Macron has taken a firm, but arguably divisive stance, telling the country it is under attack by “Islamist and terrorist madness” in a recent national broadcast. ‘Getting tough’ on Islamic extremism has been a central talking point for Macron, who commented last October that Islam was “a religion which is experiencing a crisis today, all over the world.” President Macron has also previously shown his public support for the often-inflammatory content Charlie Hebdo publishes.
While Macron later clarified his statement on Al-Jazeera saying the ‘crisis’ lay only in the extremist elements in Islam, these general comments have been judged as provocative and divisive by Muslims globally. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation stated that “We condemn the constant systematic attack on the feelings of Muslims by insulting the religious symbols represented by the person of the Prophet Muhammad.” Macron’s stance on the need to ‘reform’ Islam was also harshly criticized by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s president, who has called him ‘mentally unbalanced’ and even suggested boycotting French brands.
These violent acts are heinous and represent the majority of peaceful Muslims poorly. All necessary resources should be used to investigate and prosecute those responsible. However, as secular tensions rise in France, it appears that Macron’s handling of the situation, following his comments on Islam and his publicly staunch attitude towards France’s freedom of expression, may increase tension, rather than diffuse it. By championing these values, Macron has incensed a large proportion of his Muslim population while apparently giving extremists an opportunity to exploit current French tensions. One cannot forget that in 2017, one third of the French electorate voted for La Pen, leader of the National Front party, who held largely anti-Islamic views. Macron is in danger of fuelling extremism on both sides while seemingly trying to prevent it.
France’s tradition for freedom of expression originates from the French belief of ‘laïcité,’ a secular society in which religion and the state are separate. Laïcité has meant that the limits in place to mock religion are much looser than France’s Western counterparts. This belief allowed caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad to be projected onto the walls of several French cities after Paty’s death. While this was understandably inexcusable, so too were the horrendous acts of violence in Paris, Nice and Lyon.
Considering the shocking flurry of attacks within France that we have seen within the last few days, it appears that, without a new tact from the president, the situation will only get worse. In a country with a widening divide between its religious populations, Macron appears in danger of jumping straight down the middle of this divide into a situation he cannot control.