Simon Heffer: Defence of laïcité is cultural not political

It is a delicate balance for President Macron, says The Connexion and Telegraph columnist Simon Heffer

1 December 2020
By Simon Heffer

France approaches Christmas under two considerable clouds.

The first is the pandemic, which is likely (as across Europe) to prevent Christmas being what it ought to be. Families may remain apart; friends may be forbidden to meet; and those who wish to exercise the right to engage in religious observance may even be prevented from doing so.

France's traditions are overwhelmingly those of Christendom

There may have been a legal separation of church and state in France since 1905, when the loi de laïcité was enacted, but the country remains one in which most who practise religion are Christian, and mainly Roman Catholic; and the country’s traditions are overwhelmingly those of Christendom.

Indeed there were demonstrations by Catholics angry that religious services have been banned during the lockdown; not because they pretend that France is a Catholic country (even though in the sense of what constitutes the majority religion, it is), but because of the importance, under the loi de laïcité, of allowing freedom of worship irrespective of which religion or denomination wishes to do it.

The second cloud is the rising tension between this ‘lay’ state and the Islamic world. Following the shocking murder of the school teacher Samuel Paty on 16 October the French political class, led by President Macron, has been vehement in its profession of traditional French values – not so much Christianity or Catholicism, but freedom of expression – in the face Militant Islam.

Read more: 12 million French students remember teacher Samuel Paty

Militant Islam does not merely seek to close down this freedom, taken for granted since the Second World War, but it seeks to do so in the name of a religion. It seeks to establish a Caliphate, which is about as far from a system in which the state and religion are separated as is possible. It would be quite happy to impose this on France, and among the country’s considerable and growing Muslim minority there are some who support such a prospect, passively or actively. It was one of the latter sort who murdered M Paty. This movement, ideological rather than theological, chills the blood of the President and his colleagues.

In this Christian season of goodwill, relations between France and the Islamic world are perhaps worse than they have been since the Algerian war in the 1950s

Seizing an opportunity to goad the West and to boost his standing among his own restive Islamist faction, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the President of Turkey, has been attacking France and, more specifically, ‘this person called Macron’.

Erdogan has accused his fellow head of state of requiring mental health treatment because of his belief that extremists in France were trying to establish a form of ‘Islamic separatism’. That particular absurdity caused France to recall its ambassador from Ankara. M Macron responded by saying that France and Turkey (who, remember, are allies in Nato) would get on better if Erdogan did not tell lies and treated other leaders with respect. He might have added that Erdogan’s reference to M Macron’s allegedly divisive treatment of France’s Muslims was tantamount to an incitement.

Erdogan, like M Macron, rules a secular country but, unlike him, he has taken every possible step in his 18 years in office to incorporate Islamic doctrine into his government. What he would like to see is something similar happening in France, and not M Macron’s energetic attempt to keep religion – any religion – out of French political considerations.

Using the bully’s traditional method of accusing his victim of deploying his own tactics, Erdogan called Macron’s defence of his country’s own culture ‘a provocation’.

That, however, was before M Macron increased the stakes by meeting eight leaders of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, along with his interior minister Gérald Darmanin, to demand they accept a ‘charter of republican values’.

A government monitor of the maintenance of laïcité is to be revamped and strengthened

The Council also agreed to draw up a accredited list of imams, from whom endorsement could be withdrawn if they became engaged in radicalism: and M Macron made it clear that French Muslims had to reject Islam as a political movement and to avoid external political interference. All that can mean is that the French government has resolved to take firm steps against any Muslim country that seeks to turn French Muslims against France.

Also, a government monitor of the maintenance of laïcité is to be revamped and strengthened, because the attempt by fundamentalists to make France into an Islamic state rather than a state that has no official religion threatens, in the government’s view, ‘republican’ values. This is not so much a political point as a cultural one.

Everything Macron and his ministers have said since Paty’s murder suggests politicians see it as their job to protect French values and a French culture that is, however they seek to skate around the subject, fundamentally Christian.

Read more: France will defend freedom of expression

It will be hard to make some Muslim countries believe that that does not mean alienating their co-religionists, but simply having them treat Christians with the tolerance with which they expect Christians to treat them with. As well as Erdogan’s cutting up rough, there have been protests against France in Pakistan, and the problem appears to be spreading.

M Macron cannot let France be walked over by foreign meddlers; his own stature would crash, and he is plainly aware of that as well as appearing genuinely motivated by instinct to defend the French way of life.

However, in the interests of calm he must also aim to improve inter-communal relations. This will best be done by offering improved housing and job opportunities to Muslims and talking of a shared, more integrated future for them and Christians in France that respects both cultures but never forgets which is the predominant and indigenous one.

It is a delicate balance. If he goes too far in one direction rather than another, the alienation of one group or the other that would result could prove fatal: not just for M Macron, but for the equanimity of France itself.

Simon Heffer, the renowned political commentator and historian, turns his gaze to French politics with his regular column in The Connexion. Simon Heffer is also a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs.

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