While the vast majority of Muslim voters supported left-wing candidates Benoît Hamon and Jean-Luc Melenchon in the first round of the French presidential election, Islamic organizations in France were unanimous in calling on their followers to vote for Emmanuel Macron in the second round which was held on May 7.
This is not surprising since Marine Le Pen made the threat of radical Islam one of the main issues in her campaign. Nevertheless, President-elect Macron’s policy on radical Islam merits close examination.
The key to understanding Macron’s view on Islam is a statement he made during an interview on RTL radio on October 5, 2016: “In France no monotheistic religion poses a problem.”
Macron believes that Islam is fully compatible with the secular values of the French Republic.
This is confirmed in his election manifesto, which states that “the place of Islam, the second religion practiced in contemporary France, does not require a revision of the 1905 law that laid the foundations of French secularism.”
For Macron, the principle of secularism is not to exclude religion from public life, but to guarantee freedom to practice all religions, albeit within certain limits such as the maintenance of public order and the efficient operation of public services.
He does not regard the Islamic veil as a problem, since “at least two thirds of Muslim women” do not wear it. He is in favor of maintaining the ban on the veil in schools, but is against banning it in universities.
Islam in the Public Sector
Users of public services should be free to manifest their religious convictions and this liberty should extend to public spaces including beaches, an obvious reference to the burkini controversy that shook France in the summer of 2016.
In an interview with Ouest France in September 2016, he declared that it was “a remarkable failure to see police officers arrive on a beach and, in the name of secularism, ask a woman not to wear a burkini.”
Islam in the Private Sector
As for the private sector, he advocates that companies should be guided by the principle of religious freedom and that the “peaceful expression of personal convictions” should not be confused with “proselytism, aggressive or otherwise, which has no place at work.”
This vague and non-committal policy does not seem to be sufficient to tackle the multitude of problems, in addition to proselytism, that French managers in both the public and private sectors have to face on a daily basis: wearing of religious garments, individual and collective praying during breaks and on the job, unauthorized absence and underperformance during Ramadan, refusal to carry out tasks, refusal to work with or take instructions from women and colleagues of a different religion, demands for leave of absence and scheduling accommodation.
‘Structured’ Islam for France to Combat Radical Discourse
Another policy objective concerning Islam is to create “a more structured Islam of France to combat radical discourse.”
Macron believes that French Muslims are “misrepresented” and that the creation of the Foundation for French Islam by the Hollande administration in 2016 is not working out because it is restricted by the 1905 law on secularism to subsidizing social and cultural projects but not places of worship.
In practice this is not strictly true, since Islamic organizations circumvent the law by setting up publicly-funded cultural centers and that subsequently contain prayer rooms and mosques within them.
Macron wants to amalgamate the existing local Islamic associations into a National Federation of French Islam funded by tax-exempt donations and bequests. In a February 2017 interview with Protestant journal Réforme, he stated that the objective of this organization will be to “foster a modern Islam in our contemporary society.”
The funds managed by the federation will be used to build new mosques, renovate existing ones and pay for the education of French Imams, leading to a university degree. For Macron, the spread of radical Islam in France is due to the lack of homegrown Imams and the presence of 300 or so Imams from Algeria, Morocco and Turkey, many of whom do not speak French.
He believes a university education of Imams will guarantee mastery of the French language and familiarity with the values of the Republic, women’s rights, French society and other religious and philosophical beliefs present in France. It will also ensure respect for intellectual neutrality as well as the development of analytical and critical faculties.
The problem with this policy is that it demonstrates a total inability to understand the nature of Islamic doctrine, which is not only antithetical to Enlightenment rationalism but diametrically opposed to it.
Macron also wants to set up a unified corps of chaplains contracted to and paid by the State, with Muslim chaplains being paid an additional stipend by the proposed National Federation of French Islam.
The pendant to this optimistic belief that there is a French Islam that can perfectly coexist with French society is a determination to combat deviant Muslim identity politics and radicalization.
Social and Economic Integration
Macron claims that radical Islam is gaining ground in France because of social and economic difficulties in areas with large Muslim populations. Acknowledging the findings of a 2016 report by the Institut Montaigne that 25% of French Muslims wish to live in a parallel society that rejects fundamental values such as religious tolerance and gender equality, he sees the solution to jihadism as the assertion of the French Republican virtues of liberty, equality and fraternity through co-operation between the State and local Muslim opinion leaders and associations.
In concrete terms, this means providing facilities to these associations (including local authority subsidies for the construction of mosques) in return for a commitment to respect the secular values of the French Republic. Islamic associations and mosques that advocate jihad will be shut down.
On the question of Islamic terrorism, Macron proposes the creation of a centralized agency to process intelligence data and dedicated prisons for returning jihadists. He is opposed to the deportation of foreigners and binationals flagged by the authorities for links to jihad as well as the incarceration of French nationals, measures proposed by Marine Le Pen. Macron holds that the 20,000 individuals flagged as having links with Islamic radicalism should be allowed to remain at liberty, claiming they are a useful source of intelligence.
Many French counter-terror experts rebut this argument, firstly because only a small number are under 24/7 surveillance and it is physically impossible to monitor all of them. Macron himself admits that “only” a quarter of recent attacks have been perpetrated by flagged individuals so they should not all be put out of commission, but if they had been put out of commission those attacks would not have happened.
Although his predecessor and political mentor François Hollande declared after the Islamic terror attacks in 2015 and 2016 that France was “a country at war,” Macron’s campaign policy hinged on the duty of the state to “protect” French citizens by hiring more intelligence and law enforcement officers.
At no point during the campaign or in his victory speech did he speak about defeating the enemy, which is what one would expect from a wartime president.
Macron and the Union of French Islamic Organizations
During the pre-election debate, Marine Le Pen accused Macron of his complacency towards and links with the UOIF (Union of French Islamic Organizations), which has close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Macron’s reply was not an outright denial: “I do not know the leaders of the UOIF, I have never met them and I have no relations with them.”
The UOIF was founded in 1983 by two students from Iraq and Tunisia and inspired by Fayçal Mawlawi, a Lebanese Muslim Brotherhood religious chief. In 1992 it set up the European Institute of the Humanities to train Imams and Muslim cadres.
The UOIF is a subsidiary of the Union of European Islamic Organizations and is the apex of a pyramidal network of over 250 local associations covering all aspects of social life, in accordance with the globalizing model of the Muslim Brotherhood.
In February 2017, the UOIF rebranded itself as MDF (Muslims of France) to rid itself of its reputation as the French spearhead of the Muslim Brotherhood. It advocates an “authentic and open reading of Islam” and purports to develop thinking and positions “compliant with Islam while integrating French Republican principles.”
Its members cover a spectrum ranging from liberal Bordeaux Imam Tareq Oubrou to more hardline Imams. It holds an annual rally at Le Bourget that attracts tens of thousands and Tariq Ramadan (grandson of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna and Islamist apologist) is a regular speaker. Several invited speakers have been refused entry to France because of their extremist views.
The UOIF called on its members to “vote massively” for Emmanuel Macron in round two of the election, as did the CFMC (French Council of Muslim Worship) and the Grand Mosque of Paris.
During a presidential debate, Marine Le Pen justified her accusation of Macron’s complacency with the UOIF by referring to the case of Mohamed Saou, a member of Macron’s political party En Marche:
“You have been blackmailed. Either you keep Mr. Saou, a radical Islamist, or the UOIF will call on its members to vote against you.”
Saou was the subject of a controversy in March-April when it emerged that he had posted a message on Facebook saying he “was never and never would be Charlie,” referring to the “Je Suis Charlie” slogan that followed the murder of the Charlie Hebdo magazine staff and was a statement made internationally in solidarity with the controversial magazine.
Saou attempted to edge his way out of the controversy by saying he meant that he “did not subscribe to the editorial line” of the magazine but did not condone the attack.
Macron’s party suspended Saou from his functions pending an ethical inquiry, but Macron was caught off-air during a radio interview saying that although Saou’s post was “doubtful,” he was basically a “great guy.”
This compliment was reciprocated by Muslim voters on May 7, who voted en masse for Macron.
Leslie Shaw is an Associate Professor at the Paris campus of ESCP Europe Business School and President of FIRM (Forum on Islamic Radicalism and Management).