When Macron gets tough on protecting ‘Frenchness’

For all the rhetoric of three years ago about how he would break the mould of French politics, Emmanuel Macron has some pretty orthodox methods.

26 February 2020
By Simon Heffer

Faced with a serious test in March’s local elections, he has decided to go down a familiar route to ward off the threat from the only other party that shows signs of coherence, the Rassemblement National, led by Marine Le Pen.

As the campaign moved out of first gear in mid-February, M Macron decided to do what many politicians have done when faced with difficulties, and promised to get tough with those threatening the French way of life.

An opinion poll conducted by Ifop in February suggested that 65 per cent of French people think that within 20 years traditional western civilisation will have collapsed.

Possibly even more worrying is the finding that a third of those who believe in this expect that, when the end comes, it will be ‘brutal’. Much of this ‘collapsology’ has to do with environmental factors – global warming notably, and the end of sustainability. But there are also political factors.

A leading doomsayer, the former Ecologist minister Yves Cochet, argues that by 2035 ‘there will be no United Nations, no European Union, no French republic’ and that living in Paris will be ‘difficult, even impossible’.

Others, however, have a view of what may cause the end of French civilisation, and it has nothing to do with global warming. It is the same fear expressed in Michel Houellebecq’s best-selling 2015 novel Soumission, which I have written about here before: it is about France losing its culture because of the spread of Islam, and the reluctance of politically correct French political leaders to safeguard it.

As with the idea of France becoming uninhabitable in 15 years’ time, the idea of it becoming a largely Islamic country is almost certainly nonsense. However, it is nonsense that rattles many French voters, and the people for whom they will soon have the chance to vote.

M Macron is one of these. He has recently banned the teaching of Arabic in France funded by foreign governments; and he has also announced he is stopping the nomination by Islamic countries of 300 imams a year to French mosques.

He has also tightened the rules for those seeking to acquire French nationality (page 4), and has done so in a fashion that brings French culture to the heart of the ideal of citizenship, by raising the standard of spoken and written French that an applicant will have to prove before he or she can become French: applicants will need to be as good at the language as a student at school leaving age. Those simply seeking a non-EU citizen’s residency card [not Brexit-deal cards] will also need to attain a higher level of French than previously.  

The wave of public support for Mila, the 16-year-old girl who used Instagram to label Islam ‘a religion of hate’ may also have rattled M Macron’s cage.

France has, since 1905, been by official decree a secular society, in which, by definition, there can be no crime of blasphemy. But that is precisely what Mila has been accused of for expressing her own views about the religion. She did not make her remarks gratuitously, but after she received homophobic abuse from a Muslim youth for another post she had made, in which he had called her ‘a dirty lesbian’.

In the storm that followed she and her family have had to have police protection – which one might think to an extent proves her point – even though she has apologised to Muslims who practise their religion in peace, and for what she called the ‘vulgarity’ of her expression.

However, she said she sincerely believed in the truth of what she had said and had ‘absolutely no regrets’ about it. Meanwhile, the death threats against her continue to pile in. In giving her round-the-clock protection, and trying to find a way in which she can continue her education, the French state has – so far – gone to lengths to defend her right to freedom of speech.

M Macron has also used his campaign to strike out against what he has called ‘separatism’ in many French cities, where whole districts become overtly Muslim and resist integration with the mainstream of French life. This lay behind his refusal to allow foreign governments to supply imams to French mosques, or to teach Arabic – it is estimated that 80,000 people attend such classes – because such activities create what he called ‘a vector of separatism’.

He alleged that some of the imported imams preached against the French republic and its laws.

For him, enough was enough. The predominantly immigrant areas of French cities are already combustible, and the President has decided that some of the imams coming from abroad are simply stoking up trouble still further. Whether they are or not, the large swath of French people who feel their culture in all its forms is being run down will be relieved by the steps he is taking.

France handled its Muslim minorities appallingly in the past. When mass migration was allowed in the 1960s it was for male labourers only, and they were housed in poor conditions in often unpleasant parts of the outskirts of cities. When, towards the end of the 1970s, their families were allowed to join them, conditions barely improved. Separatism was thus fostered without any help from Muslims themselves.

This is the damage France is now having to repair; and it is doing so without transparency as to the nature of the problem, or its scope – many French believe the official figures about the size of the Muslim population are wildly wrong.  

The matter may have reared its head in these local elections, but it looks certain to acquire even greater ugliness by the time of the presidential campaign in two years’ time.

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

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