The spectre of a coup d’etat in France: An ugly manifestation of Islamophobia

Thousands joined the Paris march saying they were fed up with anti-Muslim discrimination, Paris, Nov. 10, 2019. (Lisa Bryant/VOA)

Muhammad Mahmood |  May 09, 2021

A political crisis is brewing in France over an open letter written by 20 retired generals in the neofascist magazine Valeurs Actuelles (Current Values) on April 21 this year. The letter is also co-signed by another 80 retired officers from the armed forces and the gendarmerie. They have warned of an impending “civil war” with political Islam, resulting in “intervention by our comrades on active service”. They further claimed widespread support in the military and called upon the elected government of Emmanuel Macron be replaced by “politicians who take into account the safety of the nation”.

It is very interesting to note that the these retired generals couched their threat in the Islamophobic rhetoric of President Macron’s own Islamophobic “anti-separatist” law targeting what is described as political Islam. Echoing President Macron’s view, they claimed France was “disintegrating with the Islamists of the hordes of the banlieue (suburbs) who are detaching large parts of the nation and turning them into territory subject to dogma contrary to our constitution”. So far, President Macron has maintained a deafening silence on the Generals’ letter, but his minister for Armed Forces, Florence Parly described the letter as “irresponsible”.

In a thinly veiled support for neofascist Presidential candidate Marine Le Pen in the 2022 election, the letter stated “ready to support” politicians who focus on the “safety of the nation”. Marine Le Pen lost no time to seize the opportunity and said, “I invite you to join our action to take part in the battle which is opening, is certainly a political and peaceful battle, which is above the battle of France”.

The date of the letter surprisingly coincided with what is known as the Algiers putsch, also known as the Generals putsch exactly on the day 60 years ago. The failed coup d’etat took place on April 21, 1961 and it was intended to force French President Charles De Gaulle not to grant independence to Algeria. It was also organised by a group of retired army generals.

The term coup d’etat is a French invention and the country has had quite a few bouts of experiencing coup d’etat since its invention. France is celebrating the bicentenary of Napoleon Bonaparte’s death this year. In fact, this month (May, 2021) is full of celebratory events in France to commemorate the Emperor’s death. Surpassing many controversies of Napoleon’s legacy is the fact that he came to power by staging a coup d’etat overthrowing the First republic. His nephew Louis Napoleon, the first President of France, staged his own coup d’etat in 1852 and made himself Emperor Napoleon III, a reign that ended in national disaster. Now it appears the Fifth republic is in the throes of a coup d’etat if President Macron fails to rise to the occasion not only to save his presidency but also to save France.

France is already facing health, economic, political, social and environmental crises and also endured a series of terrorist attacks. To deal with multifrontal crises President Macron introduced a series laws which are very restrictive and limiting civil liberties. He tells these restrictions are time limiting when the virus and terrorism are defeated and better times come back, these will be withdrawn. But the better time he anticipates may not come back and under these conditions the society may crack.

France is politically also a very bitterly divided country between two movements– Macron’s centrist La Marche and Le Pen’s far right National Rally. Now is the time the army can pose itself as the compromise unity alternative by putting up a general as its candidate in the forthcoming presidential election.

In his political battle, President Macron has taken unprecedented steps to appeal to far right voters by introducing the anti separatist law and allowing police to track suspects with computer algorithms and making it also an offence to share images that identify police officers in operation by face or by name. All these legislations have been overseen by his Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, a former member of the far right Action Fracaise to show toughness on Islam. Darmanin also distinguished himself by accusing the far right leader Le Pen of being “too soft on Islam” to place himself to be far more right wing than herself.

President Macron’s Higher Education Minister Frederique Vidal also launched an unprecedented attack on French academia and denounced them as pursuing “Islamo- Gauchisme” or “Islamo-Leftism”. This neologism, in fact, is applied to a fantasised political alliance between leftists and Islamists. She chose CNews, a news channel known for presenting far right political views ( like Fox News in the US) to vent her own Islamophobic views on French academia.

Vidal’s statements did not appear in vacuum. President Macron also accused French academics for encouraging secessionists (read Muslims) to breaking down France. What Macron and his ministers like Darmanin and Vidal are doing is just aping and outbidding the far right on its traditional issues of Islam and its associated issue of immigration.

France’s fifth and current Republic was established in 1958, and with it a new constitution. Article I of the constitution states that “France shall remain an indivisible, secular, democratic and social republic”. The main message of the constitution, France is “one and indivisible”. Despite such lofty declaration in the constitution, discrimination against minorities, especially North African Arabs continue.

In fact, the French style of democratic order does not command much confidence in minority communities in the country. The French laws and courts do not respect minorities. Disrespect for diversity is deeply rooted in the political system of France which now has transcended into the society also.

The immigration of North African Muslims to France prompted cultural conflicts over Muslim issues surrounding hijab, homeschooling, mosque building and Prophet of Islam’s cartoons. French Muslims reeling under widespread anti-Muslim sentiments led to sporadic violence perpetrated by Muslim juveniles. Such acts always invite stricter laws and state oppression. Sometimes alleged perpetrators of terror acts are killed in “police encounters.”

Yet, when it comes to race , the French establishment is in complete denial and argues that France is a “colour blind Republic”. Jean Bauberot, a preeminent French Scholar in an article recalled during a conference on minorities at UNESCO, the French representative proudly claimed, “Minorities do not exist in France”. No wonder President Macron described anti-racist demonstrators in a historic anti-racist march in Paris as “separatists”. He even went further describing them as “communautaristes”, a pejorative term reserved for those who reject the “laws and traditions” of the Republic and instead pursue their own “community driven” values and life style.

At the heart of the “laws and tradition” espoused by the French establishment is “laicite” (pronounced lie-EE-see-tay) which started its life as a humble law in 1905. France’s Third Republic enacted a law separating church and state. This separation of religious and civil life is know as laicite, usually translates as secularism. In brief, the secular principle assures everyone the freedom to worship as they choose, although the state remains strictly neutral and does not take part in any religious practices.

However, in to-day’s France laicite has acquired the status of an ideology, a timeless norm that defines Frenchness. The dogmatic application of laicite promotes the idea of the singular French Republic disregarding a plural reality and it only helps to perpetuate discriminations rooted in its colonial history. In fact, today laicite in France has only one meaning, and it is anti-Islam. French academic Rim-Sarah Alouane argues that laicite in France has become a tool for political identity, and Muslim women are paying a high price for it. She then adds that this new form of illiberal laicite is a threat to human rights and religious freedom.

In France to-day, political parties from the extreme left like the Parti de Gauche and to the extreme right like the National Front hold the same fundamentalist vision of laicite. The world according to their vision is a world without headscarves. Yasser Louati, a French Human Right Advocate is of the view that using Islamophobic reasoning is “a high return and low risk political positioning” that helps politicians from the far left to the far right gain electoral advantage. Author and Political Activist Tariq Ali is also of the view that France tries to mask its Islamophobia behind secular values.

Joseph Massad, Professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University, New York wrote in the Middle East Eye that France’s crisis with Islam is a legacy of 200 years of French colonial brutality. He also pointed out that by the very start of the 20th century as the French concern about their “crisis” with Islam increased with the acquisition of colonies with large Muslim population, the colonial quest for knowledge on Islam became necessary to understand its (Islam) future in the 20th century. This is what Edward Said detailed in his book Orientalism and showed us how colonial necessity drove the study of the orient in general and Islam in particular in the West with the sole objective to dominate colonised people. This was the root of the emergence of the academic “Orientalists Industry”, or more precisely “Islamic Studies Industry” in the West.

However, with all the understanding of Islam by mostly lslamophobic French orientalists and French colonial settler (pied noir) Arabists in North Africa, Professor Massad opined, “the project of transforming Islam into something European Christianity and French laicite can tolerate continues, but with unsatisfactory results as far as Macron is concerned, especially as France’s funding of Jihadist groups in Syria has not so far brought about Macron the French-sought after Islam”.

France has a long history of undermining Islamic civilisation from Syria to Morocco. In fact, French Christians and so called seculars’ hatred for Islam and by implication Muslims is part of everyday speech of French government functionaries, politicians, scholars and the media. France’s long history of brutality and genocide in its Muslim majority colonies like Algeria Tunisians and Moroccans are well documented.

French politicians for a considerable period of time have been denouncing what they describe as “communalism” of France’s minorities, in the name of defending laicite. In doing so, they have turned the French concept of secularism into a slogan for those pushing racism and in particular, Islamophobia.

It is also of interest to note that it was in Clermont in France on November 27, 1097, Pope Urban II, called for a crusade for the first time against the Muslims to capture Jerusalem. So anti-Muslim hatred in France has a long history stretching over a millennium.

In Algeria alone, French soldiers committed a host of atrocities including torture and more than 300,000 Algerians died in the process. In Algeria, Professor Massad further wrote, in 1830 on conquering the country France robbed Algiers’ treasury clean, stealing more than 43 million Francs in gold and silver, aside the sums that disappeared and those that were spent on the French occupation army. The conquering French army also took over mosques and converted them into churches and cathedrals.

Even in contemporary times, France is involved in military operations from Afghanistan to Libya, Mali, Chad and Cote d’ Ivore killing thousands of people in those countries. France is still bombing Syria and supplying arms to Saudi Arabia to commit an endless war crimes and destruction in Yemen, all predominantly Muslim countries.

Now the military has re-entered the French political arena and claims the loyalty of the armed forces to wage war against the “Islamists of the hordes of the banlieue (suburbs)”. France is now entering into a new phase of more advance form of spreading Islamophobia with the armed forces– politically being an active partner in this drive. It is time for the French political establishment to heed to Edward Said’s warning against speaking of such as Islamism when speaking about a vast array of social, political and ideological phenomena. Such generalisation as political Islam or Islamism is not only problematic but also can be self-defeating. Therefore, to cast young Muslims of the banlieue as hostile to laicite is a dangerous generalidation that overlooks the complexity of their views and frustrations.

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