When the news came of the murder of Samuel Paty, the feeling was both terrifying and familiar. Since 2012, this kind of event has been happening on a regular basis in France. The horrific Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher (kosher supermarket) killings of January 2015, and the even more horrifying attacks of November 2015 which left 130 dead are still present in everyone’s mind, and there have been a number of smaller attacks. For a big part of the French population, especially Muslims, the horror is compounded by the fear of the backlash, heightened repression, and discrimination that always follows such tragedies.
Paty was a secondary school geography and history teacher in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, a multiracial town on the outskirts of Paris. He was beheaded by 18-year old Abdoullakh Anzorov, who in turn was shot by police. Anzorov was born in Russia of Chechen parents, having come to France with his family as a 6-year old. He was not a student of Paty, nor did he live in Conflans. The apparent reason he chose the teacher as his target was because Paty’s name circulated on the Internet for having shown his 8th grade students two cartoons depicting Muhammad, taken from the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
This was in the context of a class on freedom of expression – although at least one of the cartoons is clearly offensive, the teacher had done the same in previous years without any outcry. Paty was seeking to foster an open discussion in class, while Anzorov considered the showing of the cartoons as an insult to Islam.
The exact motivations of either are not, in any case, what should guide our analysis. In 2015, a woman killed her husband with an axe because he mocked her Catholic faith, but this did not become headline news, nor was the political landscape changed by it. In order to understand why this particular murder has had a major impact on the political climate, we must look at the history of Islamophobia in France, and what parts the school system and the “war on terrorism” play in it.
Islamophobia in its modern form has been a force in French politics since the 1980’s and schools have been its central locus, as the place where “republican values”— i.e. the French variety of bourgeois ideology—is hammered into young people’s brains. The difference with the old style colonial Islamophobia is that Muslims were now targeted as part of the French population, not as indigenous people in the colonies, nor as migrant workers fated to go back to their country of origin. The 1980’s were the decade when many “second generation migrants”, i.e. French citizens born in France of migrant parents from North or Subsaharan Africa, many of them Muslim, were starting to demand respect for their rights, with huge marches in 1983 and 1984 and a number of organizations springing up.
It is in this new context that the first ideological attacks, around the wearing of the hijab in schools, took place in 1989. Islam became a respectable target for the right and a whole section of the left. The arguments behind it goes something like this: now that a sizable proportion of the population of France is composed of Muslims, a battle is raging for their allegiance, either to the republic or to a foreign religion. In this framework, terrorism is considered a sign of extreme religiosity, therefore any public manifestation of Islam is somehow a pathway to terrorism, and a threat to public order and the cohesion of the nation, etc. The more “left-wing” version of these arguments will paint Islam as uniquely reactionary, a threat to women’s and LGBT rights, etc. while the more right-wing will speak of allegiances to foreign countries, and threats to the security of the nation and/or its Christian identity. But the two converge and have the same effect: casting suspicion over all Black, Arab, and Muslim people.
Along with this development of this modern Islamophobia, a shift in the meaning of “secularism” has occurred. The separation of the church (meaning here the once all-powerful Catholic church) and state has been a long and fraught process in France, lasting from the French revolution to 1905. While the Left has always demanded separation and pioneered it during the Paris Commune, important bourgeois forces have also pushed in this direction. Since the 1980’s however a “conservative revolution in secularism” has occured, whereby the historically antireligious instincts of the Left have been retargeted at the Muslim minority. This is all the more galling as some vestiges of the special status awarded to the Catholic church remain in law (there is no separation in Alsace and Moselle for instance, and many public holidays are Catholic feasts), and the Catholic church can still play a major conservative political role (as was seen in 2013 with massive protests against gay marriages). For the right and the far-right, the historically progressive French word for secularism (“laïcité”) has become a codeword for Islamophobia.
Islamophobia does not affect only those Muslims who wear a hijab or have other visible religious practices, it also puts pressure on all people who are identified as Muslim to show they are loyal to the French state: that they agree with the attacks on the public expression of (Islamic) faith; won’t criticize its foreign policy, its support for Israel, or its racist police, etc., on penalty of being considered Islamic extremists of one kind or another. Furthermore, it designates all left-wing and human rights activists who stand in solidarity with Muslims as “useful idiots” at best, knowing accomplices with terrorism at worst.
In fact, there is no correlation between religiosity and violence. Most of those engaged in acts of terrorism on French soil who have also claimed a link with Islam were not particularly devout, many had a history of petty delinquency, drank alcohol, rarely went to mosque, etc. What has motivated them—beyond the anger and disenfranchisement so common to a similar demographic of young men everywhere—has been the foreign policy of France in the Middle East and the discrimination against Muslims in France. The best estimates show that there are approximately 4 million self-identified Muslims in France, i.e. about 7% of the population. At most, only a few dozen individuals engaged in acts of terrorism have come out of this community.
Islamophobia nonetheless endures, as it serves a dual purpose for the ruling class: it divides the working class, and makes its struggles for social rights more difficult, and it rallies the white majority to an ideology of a purported classless republic, falsely painted to be the best protector of the right of free expression, of the rights of women, public order, etc.
A refraction of this, of no little interest to the Right, is the bitter division over Islam in the organized Left. This is why, for instance, the right wing government under president Chirac pushed the law prohibiting the wearing of the hijab in school in 2003 (the law was passed in 2004). This came straight after a massive revolt over pension reforms and a huge strike movement among teachers. Instead of discussing how to start the fight again, in the fall of 2003 activist teachers were bitterly divided on the question of the hijab. This included important parts of the far left which bought the “feminist/secularist” argument hook, line and sinker and found themselves on the side of the government against young Muslim women. In the reformist Left there has been even deeper espousal of reactionary views, be it from Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Parti de Gauche and then France Insoumise, or from the Parti Socialiste which was in power from 2012 to 2017.
It is important to note that things have changed on the Left since the early 2000’s—not fast enough, but they have. Younger activists in particular have become vocal in opposing Islamophobia as the 2000’s turned into the 2010’s and the real effect of even “left-wing” trends of Islamophobia became blatant. Most young feminists, LGBT activists and anticapitalists have no time for the “left-wing” Islamophobic arguments that were common in the 1980s and 1990s.
This evolution is also reflected in organizations. On the far left, whereas the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR) in 2003 took an abstentionist position on the hijab law—and some of its cadres actively took part in repression against students wearing the hijab—its offspring, the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA), has consistently opposed Islamophobia in recent years. Even Mélenchon’s France Insoumise and the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) trade union confederation have been pushed to oppose the most naked manifestations of anti-Muslim racism. This slow but steady shift has culminated with the landmark November 10, 2019 demonstration where tens of thousands of Muslim and non-Muslims marched together despite intense pressure from the government and the media. This march united Muslim organizations and most of the Left including the CGT and France Insoumise. It is therefore no accident that the current unleashing of Islamophobia, after Paty’s murder, also targets many left organizations and individuals.
The opportunistic, Islamophobic offensive by the French state is conected to the broader political difficulties of French President Emmanuel Macron. Macron campaigned in 2016-2017 on a liberal platform which kept a distance from Islamophobic tropes. He presented himself as a young and cosmopolitan adversary to the far right Marine Le Pen, criticized the prime minister Manuel Valls’s obsession with Islam, called colonialism a “crime against humanity”, etc. Since then his government has become more markedly right-wing, and now includes many politicians who used to be supporters of Sarkozy. In a desperate effort to distract attention from his haphazard handling of the Covid-19 crisis, and the ongoing social discontent which became manifest during the Gilets Jaunes movement, Macron launched an offensive against what he called “separatism”, i.e. visible Muslims. The bill was proposed with much fanfare on October 2, 2020. The Left was overwhelmingly opposed.
It was at this moment, on October 16, 2020, that Paty’s horrific murder happened. What followed was an opening of the floodgates of reaction.
For the far-right Rassemblement National and much of the right-wing media, the murder was proof of what they have been asserting all along: jihadis are vying for control of France as the armed vanguard of a militant Islam supported by the broad majority of French Muslims, and therefore war has to be waged to ensure their submission or expulsion. A mosque in Bordeaux was defiled with racist graffiti, and fascists have called for the burning of the mosque in Béziers, while a racist attack on women wearing the hijab took place in Paris.
The war-mongering is not limited to the far-right: even the supposedly centrist Marianne magazine put a picture of a beheaded Marianne (the personification of the French republic) on its front page with the headline “Until when will we lie down?”
Macron also took on a martial tone, willing a “fight to the death” and wishing to “decapitate Islamist organizations.” The Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin has ordered the closure of the Pantin mosque (one of its leaders had posted a video against Paty before his murder), causing 2,000 Muslim people to have no place of worship for six months.
Darmanin also wishes to disband the Islamic charity Barakacity and the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF), although judicial barriers may stop him from doing this. Neither of these organizations have anything to do with Paty’s murders, but they are both active and vocal opponents of Islamophobia. The CCIF took part in the November 2019 march against Islamophobia. The opening of the floodgates has also led to accusations against those left-wing organizations which have taken a stand against Islamophobia. The November 2019 march is often singled out by reactionary politicians and media. In particular France Insoumise is accused of being “Islamo-leftist”, a slur which many have noted to be an echo of the old “Judeo-Bolshevik” canard.
Unfortunately Mélenchon at first reverted to his old orientation of “national unity against terrorism.” In a cowardly run to distance himself from accusations of “Islamo-leftism” he has declared “I think there’s a problem with the Chechen community in France” and suggested every single Chechen refugee should have their case reviewed, adding that those active on social networks and connected to Islamism should be “captured and expelled.”
The efforts towards a common candidate of the reformist Left for the presidential elections of 2022 have also been hit as the Greens are divided and the Parti Socialiste holds a firmly Islamophobic line. But with each day passing and each statement from the government milking the horror at Paty’s murder for political ends, resentment grows. Teachers’ unions note that while Paty is now feted as a hero of the nation, the state of schools and their working conditions show the government’s lack of concern. Mélenchon has now said he regretted his words on the Chechen community, and he and other France Insoumise spokespeople have started hitting back. Even university chairs have had to protest after Minister of Education Blanquer declared “Islamo-leftism causes great harm in universities.”
It is not clear how much of the French population is going to be swayed by the warmongering discourse coming from the government and the media. The experience of the 2015 attacks and the Hollande government’s response to them are still fresh in people’s minds, and many are wary of the government making use of such an opportunity to stifle dissent and foster racism, especially at a time when the health situation and the economic situation are the top worries. The latest outbursts from Darmanin have made even those who were swept up in the spirit of national unity question the government’s capacity for a rational response. In a live television interview, Darmanin stated : “I’ve always been shocked to see a department for the food of such and such a community when I enter a supermarket … ” In Darmanin’s mind, it seems eating halal or kosher food is a gateway drug to terrorism. This Trumpian level of stupidity is all the more galling at a time when the trial of those responsible for the 2015 antisemitic killings of customers in a Hyper Cacher Kosher supermarket is taking place.
A march on the scale of that of November 2019 could bolster our side. At the time of writing there is no coordinated plan for a fightback on the streets, but there are signs this can be done: Jewish, Black, and Roma organizations have put out a statement in solidarity with Muslims, the local branches of the NPA and the anarchist Union Communiste Libertaire (UCL) have protested against the closure of the Pantin mosque, and a connection with the growing resentment at the government’s attacks on the Left and Muslim organizations can be made. That part is up to us.
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Sylvestre Jaffard is an activist in Paris and a member of the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA).