PARIS—On October 16, French history teacher Samuel Paty was walking home after a day at school in the Paris suburb of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine when he was attacked by an 18-year-old, who beheaded him in broad daylight and posted a photo of his body online.
The attacker, Abdullakh Anzarov, a Chechen who had lived in France for over 10 years, had traveled to the town looking for Paty after hearing about him online. The teacher had shown his 13-year-old pupils a cartoon mocking the Prophet Muhammad, angering some Muslim parents who denounced him in an online video.
The topic of the class was freedom of expression.
His murder, alongside two other attacks by Islamist militants in just over a month, reignited a fierce debate on the country’s secularism laws and sparked a heavy-handed response from President Emmanuel Macron, drawing criticism at home and abroad.
Macron was once seen as one of few remaining liberal leaders of Europe who could, with his German counterpart Angela Merkel, stem the tide of populism rising elsewhere on the continent and in the United States.
“It is crazy that we would reawaken debates around Islam every time there is a terror attack,” Macron once told French newspaper Mediapart during his election campaign in 2016. “Those who use secularism to fight Islam are fundamentally wrong: they exclude from the Republic those who identify as Muslims.”
Kaoutar Harchi, a researcher at France's CERLIS center on social cohesion, explained: “Emmanuel Macron, at the start of his term, had a classic liberal take on secularism and religion: people can do what they want, secularism is important, but we have to focus on the economy.”
Four years later, his stance has changed radically.
A relentless defender of the European Union against its detractors in the U.K. and elsewhere, he now plans to double police and military presence at France’s borders and has proposed to overhaul the Schengen area to increase security.
He has announced new policies to fight “Islamist separatism,” which will restrict homeschooling and ensure Imams are trained in France.
“Islam is in crisis,” he claimed as he announced the new measures. “The problem is an ideology which claims its own laws should be superior to those of the Republic.”
His comments, and his persistence in defending the right to publish caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad which have offended many Muslims, unleashed a fierce backlash.
Tens of thousands of conservative Muslims took to the streets from Bangladesh to Lebanon and Pakistan and called for a boycott of French products.
When asked about the right to publish such cartoons, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in opposition to the French stance, said: "We will always defend freedom of speech. But freedom of speech has limits. We have to be aware of the impact our words, our actions have on others, especially on communities who are being discriminated against."
According to a survey published in September, 59 percent of French people supported the publishing of the caricatures in the name of freedom of speech, but only 19 percent of Muslims agreed. Nearly three-quarters of the Muslims polled said newspapers were wrong to publish the cartoons as it was an unnecessary provocation.
In France, three terror attacks linked to Islamist militants in the space of a month have re-opened a long-standing debate over the meaning of laïcité, or secularism, as embodied in a 1905 law which asserts the strict separation of the state and the church to ensure religious freedom.
“What the government is now promoting is not the 1905 law on secularism, it is something a lot more violent,” said Rokhaya Diallo, a French journalist, director, and commentator on social issues.
“Instead of bringing people together, [Macron] created a climate of fear. The consequence of this is it dehumanizes people who are seen to be Muslims, and makes them feel like they are not seen as trusted citizens,” she added.
The increasingly tense public debate left many of France’s Muslims, an overwhelmingly moderate and highly heterogeneous bloc of nearly six million, feel alienated. France has the largest Muslim population in Europe, largely due to immigration from its former colonies in North and West Africa in the 1960s and ‘70s.
In response to Samuel Paty’s murder, recently appointed Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin ordered a mosque to be shut down, dissolved several Muslim aid groups and police raided the homes of dozens of suspected Islamist militants.
Many of the people questioned had nothing to do with the attacks, but the government wanted to send a strong message, the former conservative politician who joined Macron's centrist government in July said.
“Not a minute’s respite for the enemies of the Republic,” he tweeted at the time.
Last week, four schoolchildren, all aged 10, were taken from their homes and questioned for hours after they allegedly praised the teacher’s killing at school.
He also blamed ethnic food aisles in supermarkets for contributing to the division among France’s communities, sparking a mix of outrage and mockery. “It’s always shocked me to go into a supermarket and see that, when entering, there would be one type of ethnic food selection here and another one next to it,” Darmanin told BFMTV.
Eighteen months before the presidential election, Macron’s shift to the right may seek to appeal to far-right voters. In 2017, he won in the second round in a landslide against the far-right Front National's Marine Le Pen, beating her with 66 percent of the vote.
Yet Le Pen’s party has had a growing influence on French politics since 2000, and she has recently called for broader legislative powers “to go on the attack against Islamism.”
“Of course, there is the issue of terrorism, and it is a real problem in France, but this is above all a competition between the right and the extreme right shaping the debate,” said Amel Boubekeur, a sociologist at the School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences and a specialist of Islam in Europe.
“France's universalist model has been jeopardized by its inability to fight discrimination and to make terrorism a matter of security, not ideology. The race against the far right has played a big part in this,” she added.
Seeking to appease the situation, the government has launched a communications offensive. Macron has sought to clarify several times he is clamping down on radical Islamism, not Islam, including in the international press. After anti-France protests across the Middle East, Asia and Africa, he notably granted a rare interview to Qatar-owned channel Al Jazeera to dispel what he called “misunderstandings.”
“What I would like to make clear, as opposed to what I have heard bandied about over the last few days, is that our country is one that has no problems with any of the world’s religions whatsoever, because they are all practiced freely in our country,” Macron said.
“To all French people of the Muslim faith, and indeed to citizens from anywhere else in the world whose religion is Islam, I should like to say to them that France is a country in which this religion, too, is freely practiced.”
French Muslims polled in 2017 largely seemed to agree with him. The Ipsos Institute found that 81 percent of people polled had a positive view of French secularism, but 44 percent of French Muslims believe the rest of society has little regard for them. That figure rose to 61 percent among those who earned less than the minimum wage.
If the president wants the world to believe that France has no religious problems, he has some more convincing to do.