Samuel Paty, French laïcité and the crisis of the “Republic”

On October 16, 2020, Samuel Paty, a French schoolteacher, was beheaded in a northern suburb of Paris by a Muslim teenager who had been offended by the caricatures of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, which had been shown by Paty in his class. This brutal murder, which was followed, two weeks later, by a knife attack that killed at least three people at a church in Nice – the perpetrator of which reportedly shouted “Allahu akbar” at the police – has shocked French society. It indeed marks a recent resurgence of terrorist violence that reaches beyond France’s borders – further attacks were perpetrated a few days later in Vienna as well. Yet, in targeting a history and civics teacher who used caricatures to explain freedom of speech to his students, the murder of Samuel Paty also has a highly symbolic character. In fact, the event occurred shortly after the trial for the January 2015 attacks against the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, as well as a kosher supermarket, began in September. For this occasion, Charlie Hebdo reprinted the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad that famously motivated the gunmen to shoot into the newspaper’s editorial offices.

In his tribute to the memory of Samuel Paty, President Emmanuel Macron insisted on the importance of French secularism (laïcité) and the values of the Republic, thereby setting up this teacher as a symbol of the fight for freedom and reason. Macron’s speech quickly provoked a backlash within the Islamic world, especially from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who vehemently questioned French President’s mental health and called for a boycott of French goods and services. However, these measures need to be considered in a broader context than that of the murder of Samuel Paty. The French President had recently qualified Islam as a “religion in crisis” worldwide and expressed concern about the danger of what he called “Islamist separatism” in France. As a result, he announced plans for strengthening the 1905 law which established secularism in France, and for tougher control over foreign funding of mosques.

In this context, the murder of Samuel Paty has once more reignited public debates on freedom of speech and the right to blasphemy and, from there, the relationship between French secularism (laïcité) and the Muslim population, which consists of about six million people in France. When confronted with terrorist violence and extremism, discussions and political stances polarize quickly, giving rise to stigmatizing misperceptions of the Muslim religion and a particularly harsh rhetoric on behalf of the values of the Republic. This climate notably had interior minister Gérald Darmanin declaring ethnic food aisles in supermarkets to be promoting religious “communitarianism”. In a similar vein, education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer accused certain French universities of encouraging “intellectual radicalism” and, again, so-called “communautarianism,” as well as spreading what he tellingly called an “islamo-leftist” (islamo-gauchiste) ideology. His statement was reinforced by 100 French academics who published a manifesto in Le Monde which denounces the influence of “indigenist, racialist and decolonial ideologies” within the academy, blaming them for obstructing freedom of speech, denying “the threat of Islamism” and “spreading ‘anti-white hate’”. The signatories, while validating the term “islamo-leftism”, asked for a reaction from the Ministry for Higher Education and invited French universities to engage in “the fight for secularism and the Republic”.

In opposition to the manifesto, an open letter signed by intellectuals from around the world is circulating online to promote, in turn, the freedom of universities, denouncing the demand of political interference as “academic authoritarianism”.

The instrumentalization of the term “islamo-leftism” (islamo-gauchisme), which resulted from a different context than these recent events, is likely to further divide the French political arena and voters. But above all, these public debates reflect deep tensions in French society and its self-image. While the so-called French “integration” model is called into question, the neglect of public schools by the government in the last decades was criticized too. Just like calling for strong secularism, which has a historical significance in France, can be seen as an islamophobic or neo-colonialist tendency of the State, any criticism of racism or islamophobia, be it from journalists, left-wing politicians or academics, can now easily be considered to be contrary to the values of the Republic. While some cling to the latter and call on the State to take stronger measures, others speak of a French “identity crisis” fueled by the pandemic and the shock caused by recent atrocities. Still others denounce a fascist use of the term “Republic” that goes against its principles of equality, liberty and fraternity – or call secularism a “State religion”. If Samuel Paty has become a symbol of the Republic, his beheading is perhaps a bloody testament to the need to rethink the relevance of this term in relation to the different beliefs, political convictions and communities that coexist within it.

Text: Louise Décaillet


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