The meeting, initially scheduled for late last year, was set up largely as a means to foster dialogue with “la presse anglosaxonne,” the English-language media outlets such as The Washington Post at whom Macron has pointed the finger over coverage of France’s reaction to a recent string of terror attacks.
The gruesome beheading in October of Samuel Paty, a middle school teacher who had shown his students caricatures of the prophet Muhammad, added urgency to the government’s plans to fight what it calls “Islamist separatism,” the rejection of the secular values of the French republic by a small number of Muslim fundamentalists. This week, France’s National Assembly began debating a bill to address that phenomenon.
In the aftermath of the attacks, foreign journalists like me elicited the ire of the French establishment when we raised our eyebrows over its apparent confusion on the differences between Islam and Islamism, a distinction some of Macron’s own ministers have failed to make on numerous occasions, and one that’s quite important in a country with one of Western Europe’s largest Muslim populations.
“We have a real crisis with the integration model in France,” Macron said. “How do you expect us to be successful if we let this set in?”
A fair question. In some communities, there has indeed been an Islamist withdrawal into an alternate universe hostile not only to the values of France but also to modernity itself. Surprising numbers of teachers say they self-censor when teaching about religion and secularism and that some students refuse to learn about the Holocaust. Female genital mutilation sometimes occurs. Anti-Semitic killings have increased in recent years.
But the question has never been whether some French citizens are extremists. The question is why, and why their numbers appear to be greater than in France’s European neighbors. France is far from the only country that struggles with Islamist terrorism, but it is also the country that has borne the brunt of Europe’s recent struggle with jihadist violence. Muslim immigrants have come to France in large numbers since the 1960s, but the vast majority of today’s extremists are French, not immigrants, products of the same educational system that produced Macron.
For years, an ongoing academic and public debate has examined whether Islamist extremism has any relation to Islam or whether it’s a function of social and economic alienation. It seems clear that Macron leans on the side of Gilles Kepel, a French political scientist who argues the former, that the attacks France has endured since 2012 are evidence of a deeply rooted Salafism that sees European civilization as the enemy.
But Macron has also gone further than any French president before him in acknowledging the culpability of the French state in fostering this “separatism.” He commissioned a report examining France’s colonial crimes in Algeria. And he said in October, just before the beheading of Paty, that part of the reason France loses so many young people to radical Islamism is that public discourse is too harsh toward them: “If our language is reductive, we’ll be sending a simple message to all young people in these neighborhoods: ‘We don’t love you. You have no place in the Republic.’”
But these statements may turn out to be an empty promise. Macron’s pledge to fight “separatism,” in part by fighting the discrimination that young people from immigrant backgrounds face, especially in the employment and housing sectors, has largely vanished from public debate, although the French government plans to have a new anti-discrimination platform up and running later this month. The report on Algeria, which Macron referred to during his 2017 presidential campaign as a “crime against humanity,” will likewise stop short of formally apologizing for any colonial crimes.
Too often in France, politics is a game of semantics, and the recent media standoff with foreign journalists is no exception.
In a room full of American and British journalists — often seen by French elites as seeking to impose our multicultural social model on “universalist” France — Macron defended the French model, which rejects what many see as the excesses of American "identity politics” to foster equality before the law.
“Universalism is not in my eyes a doctrine of assimilation — not at all,” he said. “It is not the negation of differences. I believe in plurality in universalism, but that is to say, whatever our differences, our citizenship makes us build a universal together.”
I agree, but this is essentially the definition of a multicultural society. As Macron correctly points out, societies founded on difference can very well be universal in their aspirations.
France ought to give itself more credit for being a successful multicultural society, not a failure. It is one of the most ethnically diverse societies in Europe, and this is ultimately its power. Two of its most prominent representatives on the global stage are the soccer star Kylian Mbappé and the actor Omar Sy, whose Netflix series “Lupin” has delighted audiences around the world. Sy happens to be Muslim; his series elegantly depicts racism in France. His emphasis is not the “universal,” but the particular, and the particular turns out to be quite universal after all.
But Macron refuses to use the term "multiculturalism" to describe the country he governs. As he put it, referring to his plans: “It’s not a multiculturalism,” he said. “It’s a policy of recognition in a universalist framework.”
In the French model, difference is all too often seen as a dangerous concept, and admitting France’s multicultural character is seen as a sign of defeat, and even of surrender. But this need not be viewed as an “anglosaxon” importation.
Multiculturalism is simply France’s reality, and it should be a source of pride.