Since the horrific killing of Samuel Paty in Conflans, the French government has been trying to revive its fortunes with a drive for national unity. But behind calls to defend free speech, the government is launching an extraordinary offensive of Islamophobia and reaction. Now the national education minister has suggested that anyone who denounces Islamophobia should be seen as part of the camp of "Islamo-leftists", guilty of intellectual complicity with terrorism.
The murder of Samuel Paty, a history teacher at Conflans Saint Honorine school, has aroused strong emotions. Teachers have complained for years that they feel isolated and exhausted; they were profoundly shocked by the event, which only seemed to reinforce those feelings.
In the country at large, widespread horror and shock have strengthened the government's call for national unity.
Thus Emmanuel Macron spoke of the importance of "unity" against "those who cultivate hatred of the other", of "Islamists that would steal our future". The president made a very ideological speech at the Sorbonne, invoking the legacy of figures like Jaurès, Victor Hugo, and Louis Pasteur: "In France... the lights [of the Enlightenment] will never go out."
Macron has played on the rhetoric of national unity: he counterposes the camp of freedom and the Enlightenment against obscurantism and violence. He's trying to unite the country around him and rebuild his lost sense of political legitimacy. But he is also trying to strengthen a political reaction.
In the same week, Gérald Darmanin, the interior minister, launched an offensive against two groups: CCIF, a campaign group that fights Islamophobia; and Baraka City, a charity for disadvantaged Muslims. Damarnin is trying to dissolve these organisations, and he explained the perspective behind his push when he spoke on BFMTV, saying: "To me, it's always shocking to go into a big supermarket and see there's a special section for communitarian cuisine; this is how communitarianism begins"–referring to halal and kosher food sections.
Under the cover of protecting free speech, the government is attacking the Muslim community, aided by its law against "separatism". This law allows the government to supervise civil society organisations, and dissolve any organisation that isn't seen to adhere to "Republican values" in the eyes of the government.
Macron's government has used the death of Samuel Paty to put in place a reactionary project, and reinforce anti-Muslim discrimination. But those who defend an alternative vision of society are also under fire in this right-wing turn. To defend Muslims and denounce Islamophobia is seen as political collaboration with Islamist extremism.
"We have to be really attentive to any intellectual complicity with terrorism. Our society has been far too permeable to certain currents of thought": so Jean Michel Blanquer, the national education minster, told Europe 1. With this statement, Blanquer drew a link between politics of the student union UNEF, Jean-Luc Melenchon's France Insoumise party, and terrorism.
"What we call 'Islamo-leftism' is wreaking havoc. It's wreaking havoc in the universities. It's wreaking havoc when UNEF conciliates this type of thing. It's wreaking havoc in the ranks of France Insoumise, who have people that are of that current, and they make that very obvious. People like this prefer an ideology that, sometimes, leads to the worst", Blanquer continued.
It was a scandalous statement, targeting youth organisations like UNEF. It recalled the public campaign against Muslim student activist and UNEF leader Maryam Pougetoux, a student unionist who was accused of "proselytising" for wearing a veil in the National Assembly. Behind attacks like this, the national education minister undermines the right to resist racist and Islamophobic government policy, and to fight against discrimination. At the same time, he can clamp down on the right to engage in activism in the universities.
On the other side, France Insoumise is under attack, even though they have broadly lined up behind the need for national unity. Behind the phrase "Islamo-leftism" lies an accusation that the left is complicit in terrorism. In the name of fighting for free speech and against Islamism, the government is trying to shut down debate and slander all critical voices.
Aurore Bergé, a parliamentarian from Macron's LREM party, even refused to attend a march paying tribute to the murder victim Samuel Paty–because, she said, she couldn’t march "side by side with people who have created a climate favourable to these ideologies, who have refused to fight it". Her words target people like Danielle Obono, the France Insoumise member of parliament who has already been targeted by the far right and subjected to racist caricatures in the press.
Macron's government is riding and strengthening a wave of reaction.
The activist Rokhaya Diallo was attacked on television by the right-wing anti-feminist intellectual Pascal Bruckner. In Bruckner's vicious words: "Your status as a Black Muslim woman gives you privilege. You can say any number of things. If I said them, especially the things you've said about Charlie Hebdo–which, alongside others, led to the death of twelve people..." The vile rhetoric, typical of the extreme right, is a provocation designed to intimidate anti-racists into silence. UNEF activists have also been called "collaborators" and asked to leave the rally for Paty in Paris.
The surge of hatred that we are witnessing is the result of government policy. The polarisation creates the possibility of violence; that was proven recently when two veiled women were attacked near the Eiffel Tower. Aggression like that is the result of the climate created by the government's ideological war. In addition to denouncing so-called "Islamo-leftism", the organisations and the personalities of the left, the government is at the same time attacking the media: Darmanin has lodged a complaint against the media outlet Médiapart.
The government knows very well that its policies can have consequences in the broader social struggle, and that it must try to silence dissenting voices. Above all, it has to try to clamp down on the anger of the working class neighbourhoods–a significant example being the Adama Committee, an anti-racist campaign group, which has created an important movement against racism and police violence. Today in a situation where Muslims, youth, and people from working class suburbs are increasingly stigmatised, the anger from the poor and outcast parts of society can spark explosive social confrontations.
In this situation, the left must not fall into the trap of national unity and the prevailing racist atmosphere. Leftist organisations and the workers' movement must side with the oppressed, not the government. We must oppose any attempt by the government to restore political stability by attacking our organisations and our right to fight Islamophobia and reaction.
First published on Révolution Permanente.