What was the context of the murder of a history teacher last week?

The horrific murder took place after the middle-school teacher, Samuel Paty, had shown in a civics class some of the infamous caricatures of Mohammed produced by a right-wing Danish newspaper some years back and popularised by Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine. The teacher was much appreciated by parents and pupils of all backgrounds. Not understanding that these caricatures are racist is common on right and left in France, and the caricatures are on the school curriculum, so showing them in class as illustrations does not mean that this was a racist teacher. He had shown them in previous years, but this year some parents complained, and the school inspectorate organised a discussion meeting of some sort. Naturally, no-one imagined all this would come to the ears of a teenage fanatic who lived 50 miles away and was ready to kill and die for this.

How has Macron’s government reacted?

This event happened at a time when the presidential elections of May 2022 are beginning to interest political parties. In the last elections, fascist candidate Marine Le Pen got ten million votes, so the pull to win over racist votes is extremely strong, in particular since all the traditional parties of the left and right are in deep crisis. President Macron is unpopular after the mass strikes of last year and his disastrous management of the COVID-19 crisis. Instead of opening more hospital beds and training more health staff in the few months respite between the two waves of the epidemic, the government has been going ahead with planned hospital closures!

Macron has four aims in his exploitation of this tragedy: to portray himself as the spokesman of a united nation, to give the impression that he can be effective against such terror attacks, to win voters from Le Pen by attacking Muslims, and to divert attention from his vicious neoliberal austerity programme, which he has slowed down this year but has certainly not given up.

So he organised a national homage to the murdered teacher, who has been awarded a posthumous Legion of Honour medal—the highest official order of merit in France. A minute of silence will be observed in all schools immediately after the school holidays. His government is banning Muslim organisations accused of being involved with “political Islam”, a usefully broad expression which allows charities, legal aid organisations and anti-racist groups to be targeted.

Interior Minister Darmanin is demanding the banning of several organisations. These include the Collective against Islamophobia, which helps provide lawyers for those defending themselves against Islamophobic discrimination at work or elsewhere. A mosque in Pantin, north-east of Paris, which in previous weeks had shown sympathy with criticisms of Samuel Paty’s teaching, has been closed—although there is zero evidence that the mosque leaders supported violence. In the days after the murder, Darmanin said openly that the interior ministry was hauling in many people unconnected with the murder investigation “because they wanted to get the message over”. Macron declared that “fear must now change sides”.

Last month, Macron began preparing a law “against separatism”, which is claimed to be about many groups, including white supremacists, but is in fact aimed at Muslims and creates a new crime of “separatism”. This is an invented danger. Muslims, for example, are far less keen on having separate schools for their children than are devout Catholics or Jews. There are in France 9,000 private Catholic schools, 300 or so private Jewish schools and around twenty private Muslim schools. This is theatrical gesturing hoping to retain or attract Islamophobic voters, (who may well have previously voted for the left or even the far left).

A number of political leaders from the traditional parties are now jumping on the racist bandwagon. The interior minister declared that he is shocked by halal or kosher sections in supermarkets. These, he said are based on people’s “lower instincts” and represent “the beginnings of communitarianism”. A few weeks ago, the same minister declared: “Islam in France must be certain that all its believers accept that the laws of the republic are superior to the laws of their god”. But it is common for believers in many religions to think of their god as superior to human institutions—this does not make them killers! Darmanin just wants a witch-hunt.

The traditional parties, both swept aside by Macronism in the last parliamentary elections, each has its own proposals. Ex-presidential candidate for the conservative Republicans, François Fillon, demands that Muslim headscarves be banned in universities. The leader of the collapsing Socialist Party, Olivier Faure, said that much firmer action against “Islamism” is required and that any parent “who questioned what was being taught” in school should be taken to court. The Socialist Party mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, wants there to be a special “secularism week” in every school in the country.

In the eastern region of France, a booklet of caricatures of religious figures (“those most remarked upon”) will be distributed in every high school. Other regions will probably follow suit. The booklet will include anti-Catholic caricatures, but its main aim is Islamophobia. Town halls in major cities have been projecting on the walls of their buildings Charlie Hebdo cartoons, avoiding the most insulting ones, but portraying the mocking of Islam as a brave blow for freedom. On the front page of Le Monde, a daily newspaper, the renowned cartoonist Plantu compared the strength of Islamic terrorism in France today with the Nazi occupation during the Second World War. Former left-wing novelist turned racist ideologue, Pascal Bruckner, denounced on live TV a Black anti-racist journalist and activist, Rokhaya Diallo, saying she “had armed the killers” with her ideas. As the French Jewish Peace Union put it in its press release:

From denouncing a few fanatics, the discourse has moved onto calling entire groupings Islamist. Then they denounce any independent organisation based on Islam (in the same way as the Catholic charity Secours Catholique is faith-based) ... Previously, the authorities spoke of “the enemy within”, now they accuse Muslims of “separatism”, of wanting in the long run to create spaces in the country where the laws do not apply, in which only laws inspired by the Koran will hold sway, replacing those of the republic. This accusation is just an old theme of the far right, dressed up in new rags.”

What has been the effect on teachers?

For many teachers, this feels like the last straw. For years, staff cuts, a pay freeze and constant curriculum changes have made working conditions ever harder. Everyone is shocked and many are frightened by this murder. Teaching unions called a series of successful rallies on Sunday. Most of these were made up of large numbers of people with almost no placards, banners or slogans. It was good to see only a few old people brandishing caricatures by Charlie Hebdo (and even these avoided the most insulting drawings). The declarations of the teaching unions have explicitly warned against the targeting of the Muslim community.

Sad to say, there is plenty of Islamophobia among teachers in France. An insignificant if brave minority opposed banning the hijab in high schools. In teacher activist forums today, many suggest that showing the caricatures of Mohammed should be compulsory in every school. One teacher recounted his amazement when all of his 20-year-old students thought it was better not to insult religion out of respect for believers. Multiple comments from old and bitter secularists ensued. Teacher activists who want to oppose Islamophobia have their work cut out, but some good initiatives and union motions are being prepared

What about the left? It is well known that fighting Islamophobia is not a strong point of the French left.

The most important of the Left reformist groupings is La France Insoumise (“Unbowed France”), which received seven million votes in the last presidentials on a Corbyn-style programme. The movement called last week for “All the people of France to gather around teachers and parents and join the rallies around the country”. It also underlined the fact that “this crime, committed in the name of god, has wounded millions of our fellow citizens who refuse to see their religion linked to such atrocities”.

France Insoumise is a real electoral danger for Macron, and he and the right are seizing this opportunity to smear the movement. In the present frenzied public debate, the reaction of the biggest radical group is important. France Insoumise is a rather heterogeneous movement that aims to win the presidency for a radical left programme. Some hardline secularists were among the original founders, so contradictory pressures are obviously present—the press release also calls for a fight against “obscurantism”. Leading figures, such as France Insoumise member of parliament Danièle Obono, have been in the forefront of the fight against Islamophobia for years, and persistent work by a minority has led to progress in countering Islamophobia in the organisation. Most notably, ex-presidential candidate Jean Luc Mélenchon, against considerable internal opposition, said that France Insoumise should officially support the first ever mass demonstration against Islamophobia in Paris last November. (Far left organisations also supported the demonstration, though only about half their members were convinced that they should.)

In a McCarthyite atmosphere, France Insoumise is now being attacked as “Islamo-leftist” and is accused of encouraging terrorism. Former Socialist Party Prime Minister Manuel Valls accused Mélenchon of being “complicit” in the rise of Islamism. Education Minister Blanquer added his voice to the fight against “Islamo-leftism”, which he claims is causing “enormous damage” in universities and in France Insoumise. It is crucial for left wingers to defend the organisation against these attacks, despite the fact that it, like all parties on the French left, still has a long way to go to become a consistent fighter against Islamophobia, and that its use of “left patriotism” is not something revolutionaries can agree with.

Although much of the left and the unions have declared that Muslims in general must not be blamed for the murder, they will probably not organise to defend Muslim charities and other groups from being banned: the leaders will tread carefully so as not to provoke sharp reactions among their members.

Marine Le Pen must be delighted. How has she reacted?

Le Pen’s fascists have had a bad couple of years. The Yellow Vest movement, involving poor workers and small businessmen, could have moved towards Le Pen’s ideas, but did not because of the work of left activists. The mass strikes to defend pensions were so popular that Le Pen did not dare openly oppose them. And the health crisis did not leave her any space for a distinctive position. This new political crisis is on her favourite terrain, and she is hoping people will vote for her because she hated Muslims before the others began to do so openly. This week, she has called for “wartime legislation” and demanded a freeze on all immigration and on all processes for immigrants to obtain French citizenship. A number of her fascist co-thinkers are regularly invited on prime-time TV or asked to write columns in establishment newspapers such as Le Figaro, the oldest national daily in the country.

What do you think anti-capitalists should be doing?

It is a bit of a nightmare situation in some ways. I think it was right to go to the big rallies called by the teachers’ unions last week, and I was not convinced by the many revolutionaries who said we should not go because the education minister and other bigwigs would be there.

The situation is in rapid flux and many questions are being thrown up. Some require patient explanation, and some require a sharp polemic. The most important task is to build as broad an alliance as possible to defend Muslims against Islamophobia. There have already been attacks on mosques this week. The oldest mosque in Bordeaux, in the south-west, was vandalised by a far-right gang, and a mosque in Montélimar, in the south-east, was also smashed up. There is a wider section of the French left ready to oppose Islamophobia than has been the case for several decades. If the McCarthyite atmosphere intimidates it into silence, we will have missed an opportunity that we will not see again soon.

We have to keep on with the general explanations about the role of French imperialism, the massive sales of arms to dictatorships that support terrorism, and the meaning of national unity. We need to explain political Islam and contest the idea that political Islam can only lead to terrorism, and so on. But unity against Islamophobia is the immediate task. The banning of the Collective against Islamophobia, of the charity organisation BarakaCity and others will be challenged in the courts (and at the United Nations), as will the closing of the mosque in Pantin. We must mobilise to defend them. This will be the test. It is good to see most trade unions and left groups insisting that Muslims should not be blamed, but will they be willing to defend Muslim organisations and mosques?

This interview first published at The Left Berlin.