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The parliamentary allies of French President Emmanuel Macron were forced to backtrack this week over a controversial bill that sparked mass protests across the country. The proposed security law carried a provision that would ban recording police on active duty. Critics saw it as, among other things, a vehicle to punish journalists and activists attending protests, not least at a moment when a number of shocking incidents of police brutality have come to the fore. On Monday, Christophe Castaner, head of Macron’s La République En Marche party in parliament, said the legislation would be “completely rewritten.”

The concession was prompted by hundreds of thousands of people defying pandemic-mandated restrictions and taking to the streets in dozens of cities and towns. The protests were largely peaceful and drew dozens of local elected officials in Paris, channeling the broader disquiet stoked by recent political and legal maneuvers by Macron’s government. Macron’s “legislators have shown that they’re not necessarily against shutting down the free circulation of information — it just has to be in their interest to do so,” wrote Paris-based journalist Cole Stangler. “Contrary to the image that France projects abroad, freedom of the press does, in fact, appear negotiable at home.”

Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, a right-wing politician who joined Macron’s centrist movement, has also fanned the flames: Last month, he appeared to suggest that journalists covering protests ought to clear their coverage with the police to avoid the risk of detention, sparking an immediate backlash. And, even as the country battles a pandemic, he declared that the real “cancer” facing French society was the “lack of respect for authority.”

Little of this is happy news for Macron. After images of a violent police assault on a Black French music producer circulated Thursday within the country and beyond, Macron reportedly declared at a meeting with ministers Monday that “illiberalism is not our identity.” But analysts also see some of his recent steps, including his government’s efforts to “reform” the practice of Islam within France in the wake of Islamist terrorist attacks, as a bid to outflank the French far right.

“Mass unemployment, frustration with COVID-19 shutdowns, and fear caused by renewed terrorist attacks can only exacerbate unrest and division,” wrote Mira Kamdar in the Atlantic. “All of which is a boon, of course, to the country’s populist far-right leader, Marine Le Pen, Macron’s likeliest challenger in the 2022 presidential elections. Macron’s strategy appears to be three-pronged: Impose harsh order, readying mechanisms to put down mass protests; tame critical reporting in the press; and co-opt some of the language and policies of the far right to steal enough voters to vanquish it.”

That political calculus may make sense, but it comes at a moment when Macron and his allies have been vigorously posturing over France’s liberal values. The French president was angered by outside criticism of domestic politics, particularly in the English-language press, that placed emphasis on the alienation of some ethnic minority communities in the country. Some French commentators insisted that Anglo-American observers were both downplaying the scale of the security threat within the country and imposing their societies’ views on identity in a context where such views don’t necessarily translate.

“There is a sort of misunderstanding about what the European model is, and the French model in particular,” Macron told New York Times media columnist Ben Smith in a recent interview. “American society used to be segregationist before it moved to a multiculturalist model, which is essentially about coexistence of different ethnicities and religions next to one another.”

“Our model is universalist, not multiculturalist,” Macron added. “In our society, I don’t care whether someone is Black, yellow or White, whether they are Catholic or Muslim, a person is first and foremost a citizen.”

Macron’s juxtaposition of American “multiculturalism” against French “universalism” may raise some eyebrows. “Since the end of World War II — during which French authorities identified Jewish citizens and, thereby, facilitated their deportation to Nazi concentration camps — the French government does not keep statistics on race, ethnicity or religion,” wrote Washington Post Paris correspondent James McAuley. “France considers itself a ‘universal’ republic in which all citizens are equal in the eyes of the state. But racial discrimination has been repeatedly documented in the actions of the police force, an institution run by the state.”

Moreover, anti-racism campaigners in France explicitly drew inspiration from this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests in the United States. And for all the Gallic emphasis on the unique values of the French republic — and its “universalist” roots as the abode of the Enlightenment — Macron has himself in the past stressed France’s need to better grapple with its own colonial legacies abroad, which are intrinsically connected to France’s post-colonial Black and North African communities at home.

Macron’s own government is testing how enlightened French society really is. Darmanin stoked confusion when he said stores selling halal or kosher food were enabling “communitarian cuisine,” rhetoric that essentially aligned daily Muslim customs with the extremist “separatism” Macron seeks to expunge. Macron’s education minister decried the threat of “Islamo-leftism” — a rather abstract concept that posits a phantom link between neo-Marxist American academia and Islamist extremism in Europe and the Middle East — while Macron’s parliamentary allies attempted to push through legislation that could curtail freedom of inquiry and expression on university campuses.

And many ordinary French Muslims are bothered by the pretensions of their own leaders. “There is broad agreement on both sides that extremism has to be addressed,” Rim-Sarah Alouane, a French legal scholar, told McAuley. “But what is concerning is the lack of nuance from the government that results once again in Muslims feeling as if they are guilty until proven innocent.”

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