While all countries are grappling with coronavirus, France is also facing another profound crisis. JASON WALSH reports
As France hunkers down for its latest coronavirus confinement, or lockdown – announced last week by Emmanuel Macron – the country knows it is heading into a period of unease, angst, economic devastation and death. And yet the French can at least comfort themselves in the knowledge that they are not facing this grim prospect alone.
As other European countries try to get to grips with the virus, they are heading down the same road, encountering the same dangers and risks.
Yet as the country entered into its new measures, there did feel something different and unique about its situation. Something that it seemed to be facing alone.
Or at least, it did until the attack in Vienna on Monday night showed that the problems France is facing are shared by other European countries, even if hers do possess some uniquely Gallic aspects.
For France has been reeling not only from the pandemic but a string of terrorist attacks by radical Islamists, a raging national debate over what many consider to be not just of the soul of the country, but of Western civilisation itself, and an international furore in which the country feels wounded, and isolated.
The catalyst has been those terrorist attacks, starting with the murder, last month, of teacher Samuel Paty.
His killer, Abdullakh Anzorov, an 18-year-old of Chechen descent, acted after the teacher showed his students, in a class on freedom of expression, copies of cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad.
Then, last week, a man entered Notre Dame basilica in Nice, shouting “Allahu Akbar”, and killed three people – Nadine Devillers, 60, Simone Barreto-Silva, 44, and Vincent Loques, 55 – before being shot and arrested by police. Officers have identified him as Brahim Aouissaoui, a 21-year old Tunisian refugee living in Italy.
The response to these killings has been a determined a full-throated defence, led by Macron, of France’s state secularism – or laïcité – which is central to its national identity, and a determination to fight radical Islamism.
Under the ‘system’ of laïcité, any curbs on freedom of expression to protect the feelings of one particular community, the state says, undermines the country’s unity. As Macron put it, France “will not give up our cartoons.”
His words, uttered in response to national tragedies, have gone ‘viral’ around the world, prompting strong reaction in many Muslim countries, with the president accused of Islamophobia.
To the incredulity of many in France, as the country mourns its murdered, it has found itself cast as the aggressor.
Added to that incredulity is a sense of hurt that other normally supportive countries have been conspicuously muted in their backing for France.
The security response to the murders has been as robust as the political one. As the country juggles with everything that its latest confinement brings, Macron has more than doubled troop numbers guarding schools and religious sites from 3,000 to 7,000 and moved the country back to its highest terror alert level.
Foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has warned French citizens abroad to take care because “the threat is everywhere”, underscoring the widespread feeling that France is being singled out among European countries precisely because of its commitment to secularism.
Some spoke harsher words.
Interior minister Gérald Darmanin, said France was at “war against an enemy that is both inside and outside”, as if the pandemic and attendant economic downturn wasn’t enough for the beleaguered population to worry about.
As temperatures fall, France continues to heat up, then. But if France is at war, this poses the questions: with whom and for what?
The simplest answer would be ‘in defence of Western values’, but the term has an uneasy ring about it and falls squarely into the culture wars trap.
And yet, radical Islamism and France have undeniably been on a collision course for years.
In fact, from a French point of view something else is at stake: not merely ‘Western’ values, but universal philosophical ideas that found their first expression in France. France, in defending secularism and integration, feels it is defending not only itself but the legacy of republicanism that springs from the Enlightenment, the historic moment when reason began to triumph over belief and concepts we now take for granted – freedom, tolerance and equality – finally stepped into the limelight.
And in France the Enlightenment is not a subject only for philosophers or historians; it is at the core of French republican self-conception.
Macron’s campaign to defend such values began before the recent murders. In an October 2 speech he described his hope for an “Islam of the Enlightenment” that would be a “partner” of the Republic.
He also acknowledged France’s failure to live up to its own ideals and, not for the first time, noted its dark colonial past, notably the Algerian war.
And yet both he and France as a whole now stand accused of chauvinism, primarily by the Muslim world – but also by liberals from the US and elsewhere.
The country, viewing itself as not only the starting place of the Enlightenment but the inheritor of its legacy (in a very real sense emblematic of the rights of the individual, and individual rather than group is the key) has, naturally, been startled by the international response to its troubles.
Following the murder of Samuel Paty, France once again wearily mustered in support of its republican traditions; traditions that include no right to be protected from offence. The Mohammed cartoons, now well over a decade old and originating in satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, were widely shared and French politicians and public figures lined up to defend freedom of expression.
Other countries soon made it clear they did not see things the same way. Leading the charge against France was Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
No fan of France – it’s fair to say the feeling is mutual – he saw in Macron’s particularly strong words following Paty’s murder an opportunity and he seized it.
“What is the problem of this person called Macron with Muslims and Islam? Macron needs treatment on a mental level,” he said.
In fact, Erdogan had already been on Macron’s case, criticising his October 2 speech in which Macron said, among other things, that Islam was “in crisis” as “a clear provocation”.
Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan accused Macron of encouraging Islamophobia.
The rhetoric piled on following the Nice basilica attack and boycotts of French goods have been called across parts of the Middle East and parts of south Asia.
Egyptian president Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi said freedom of speech does not extend to offence: “And if some have the freedom to express what is in their thoughts I imagine that this stops when it comes to offending the feelings of more than 1.5 billion people.”
Perhaps most shockingly, Mahathir Mohamad, former Mayaysian PM, posted on Twitter saying: “Muslims have a right to be angry and kill millions of French people for the massacres of the past”.
Mahathir claims his remark was taken out of context.
In a bid to explain France to the Muslim world in particular, Macron sat down with Al Jazeera, saying that no-one was being forced to like images mocking religious figures, but they have to accept them.
“I understand the sentiments being expressed and I respect them. But you must understand my role right now, it’s to do two things: to promote calm and also to protect these rights,” he said.
From a French point of view much of the rest of the world, too, has questions to answer.
International condemnation of the attacks appeared weaker than after previous ones, with less widespread public solidarity from abroad.
The noted French love of provocation and tolerance of frank exchanges of views apparently now seeming jejune abroad is one thing, but accusing France of being the aggressor or in some way responsible for its woes is entirely another.
And yet, right across the West, the feeling of “Je suis Charlie” seems to have dissipated, replaced by a sense of irritation and complaints that Macron is stirring the pot.
As the Anglophone world once again asks “why must you offend people” an increasingly tired France seems to reply “because a principle is at stake”.
Yet there are signs that it is not only internationally where unity is fraying and attitudes shifting. In September, pollsters Ifop revealed France was perhaps no longer quite so unanimously Charlie.
Support for free speech seems to vary according to age: 59% of the general population polled defended freedom of expression, but only 35% of 15-24s.
Teenagers in particular show an evolving attitude. Ifop reported that 61% of 15-17 year-olds “totally condemned” the attack on Charlie Hebdo, noting that in a 2016 survey this figure was 93% (though the pollsters did warn that due to differences in sample size this comparison should be interpreted with caution).
Nonetheless, even looking at Ifop’s numbers alone the general trend seems to be that younger people are more concerned about causing offence than their elders.
As Charlie itself put it in a wry editorial: “If you want to defend freedom of expression, you have to stop being young”.
Whether such attitudes among the young are a sign of ‘cancel culture’ and ‘no platforming’ crossing the Atlantic – or perhaps the Channel – it remains to be seen whether they could herald a long-term loosening of laïcité, achieving something that terrorism has thus far failed in.
One thing is certain, though, whether France’s lockdown lasts for its scheduled four weeks or longer, the pandemic will one day be over. How this other national crisis will resolve itself is less clear.