On 2 October French president Macron presented a 5-point plan to address Islamist radicalisation. It is one of the most ambitious agendas to tackle Islamist radicalisation and extremism in Europe. The long-awaited speech did strangely avoid any serious reflection on the role that the Internet and social media dynamics play in radicalisation processes. This is problematic – but even the measures Macron proposed are ambivalent: many of them are promising, others, however, and the overall framing of the speech might be counterproductive in terms of stigmatisation and securitisation.
Macron gave his speech in the suburb of Les Mureaux, north-west of Paris: A meaningful place, since it is one of fifteen cities where French authorities have been taking stronger action against radical Islamist tendencies – a fact to which Macron referred in his speech, pointing first and foremost to efforts by intelligence services, security forces and the judicial system since 2017. The extensive strategy presented in Les Mureaux is the result of three years of evaluating and reflecting on these joint efforts. It lays the groundwork for a range of regulatory initiatives – among them a draft law to be presented on 9 December that is said to aim at strengthening secularism as well as at consolidating and reinforcing republican principles. Since similar plans to rethink failed banlieues policies have been discussed for decades, Macron’s attempt might not be that novel – it is, however, in the European context, currently the most ambitious agenda.
Main Premises of the Speech
For Macron, the underlying problem is “Islamist separatism” being a “conscious, theorised, politico-religious project that manifests itself in repeated discrepancies with the values of the Republic.” To counter this problem, Macron tries to both carve out the relevance of the problem in stark terms and introduce technocratic responses. This balancing act works only to some extent, since the two points tend to undermine each other: While in some parts, Macron soberly walks through key principles of the French republic and society (in particular, secularism and rule of law), the speech is quite combative at times: Macron stresses the necessity of “reconquering” specific districts with officials and civil servants serving as “fighters” against radicalism and of laying the groundwork for “[mobilising] the nation for a republican awakening”.
The speech centres only on Islamist separatism, while the plural (“separatisms”) was originally discussed within the government to acknowledge that there are many extremisms and ideologies that distance themselves and even fight the societal and political order. This narrative of Islamists being a fundamental problem of French society is brought up throughout the speech, with Macron occasionally conflating (radical) Islam, Islamism and extremism. The governmental prelude and follow-up of the speech did occasionally point to other ideologies that might run counter to the rule of law and social cohesion, but has hardly mitigated Macron’s focus on Islamism.
While Macron acknowledges the fact that the problem is (at least partially) homegrown (a political failure and inadequate integration policies led to “ghettoisation;” the formation of problematic milieus in banlieues; colonial past and traumas that the republic still needs to come to terms with), he also highlights transnational influences: foreign nationals, funding and ideas. At times, Macron portrays the republic and its main principles as being on the razor’s edge – thus undermining the more measured parts of the speech in which he outlines key measures of his plan.
Five Lines of Action
The centrepiece of the speech includes five points, whereof the first aims at restoring the neutrality of the public service and related actors as well as ensuring the maintenance of public order. Insisting on the principle of laicism and referencing the upcoming law, Macron announces a set of measures that will reinforce the obligation of neutrality for civil servants and expand it to further public employees and additional public spaces. With that Macron positions himself squarely in the French tradition of secularism but also nods to highly controversial, identity-based debates on headscarves and religious symbols in the public sphere – debates that are as controversial in France as in many other European countries and have mobilising effects in radical milieus as well, as we know from our research. Thus, whether Macron’s measures will be counterproductive depends on the precise wording and framing of the regulations.
Second, Macron targets associations and civil society institutions, making their public funding generally dependent upon their adherence to the republican principles of the French state. This results in financial monitoring and a repayment obligation in cases of non-adherence. As the laicist tradition is one of strict neutrality of the state, the scope of the regulations should be watched closely. There is the potential for bureaucratic overreach into an area that is crucial for the prevention of radicalisation: a vibrant civil society. Nonetheless, the main goal of tying federal funds to the adherence to basic principles of human rights and the rule of law is legitimate and important.
The third point, addressing schools and educational institutions as a whole, is contextualised by pointing to the fact that about 50,000 French children are home schooled – a number that is said to be rising each year. With this speech, Macron portrays schools as a “collective treasure” that need to be protected by any and all means, and introduces a strong intervention: Starting with the 2021 school year, public education will be compulsory for everyone from the age of three onwards. Again, this constitutes a clear break with a longstanding French tradition but is, in essence, in line with many other European countries.
Fourth, Macron focuses on the state’s role in enabling an “enlightened Islam” (“Islam des Lumières”) compatible with laicism and that can thus serve as a partner in regulating common affairs. He aims at reducing influences from abroad, for example by making it (to some degree) mandatory for Imams to be partially trained in France and by curbing the influence of radical religious leaders from abroad. He proposes to closely monitor foreign financial influx into mosques and Islamist groups. Further, Macron announces new funding of cultural and scientific initiatives to broaden knowledge and deepen the understanding of Islam in France. In many other European countries, like in Germany, the approach is rather one of creating incentives and alternatives instead of control and bans. We know that traveling Imams and foreign financial investment can indeed be a source of trouble in radicalisation dynamics. However, the role of conservative religious leaders is ambivalent and sometimes even helpful in disengagement and deradicalisation processes. In all of this, the dynamics of the Internet and social media platforms are of importance for they constitute the backbone of most of the transnational communication and even mobilisation into radical milieus on the local level. It remains a worrisome and awkward omission in the grand strategy Macron outlines.
As for the fifth and final argument, Macron points to the necessity of enforcing existing law(s) and restoring respect: Connecting back to radicalisation and radical Islamist tendencies in specific milieus and banlieues, Macron announces the need to reclaim the “lost neighbourhoods” and calls for a republican presence everywhere, understood mostly in terms of security. Again, the speech turns combative, as he states: “Where we have withdrawn, we must return.” The banlieues and ghettoisation certainly are fundamental challenges for France. Indeed, the aspect of state presence and authority within these partially isolated milieus is an important measure in this regard. However, a grand strategy would engage more critically and directly with rethinking past measures that led to the very emergence of those banlieues in the first place. Any corrections will be painfully slow, but this is where the emphasis should lie when countering separatism: creating cohesion and integration, rather than further entrenching separation.
Helpful Ambition, Ambivalent Measures
The measures Macron outlines are useful on the surface, in particular with regard to those parts that link to the centrality of the education sector and the reassessment of former policies, such as measures against discrimination in employment and housing. However, much will depend on their ultimate implementation, as the speech conceivably lays the groundwork for both reasonable approaches and counterproductive overreach.
Many European societies and actors engaged in prevention work have learned the lesson that an overemphasis of control, bans and security-related measures and approaches and rhetoric that lead to the (unintended) stigmatisation of single groups are not helpful. Related to this, years of focusing more on Islamist groups resulted in tendencies to lose sight of a much larger societal problem, the one of right-wing extremism as well as co-escalation dynamics in between various extremist groups. Macron’s agenda falls yet again into the same trap. A plurality of approaches as put forward by a vibrant and colourful civil society, the focus on the education system, and an acknowledgment of the transnational nature of so many societal dynamics are key in curbing the influence of extremists of all kind and coping with the challenges to liberal democracies.
Lastly, it remains striking that Macron does not engage substantially with the challenges and opportunities that arise at the nexus of the virtual dynamics like communication on social media platforms and radicalisation dynamics from the local to the transnational. Separatisms of all kind are aided by the interconnectedness of the Internet – the virtual space is an integral part in understanding and influencing radicalisation and mobilisation efforts. Filling this wide gap is key, when implementing the various measures in this French agenda. Nonetheless, Macron’s speech is helpful in its holistic ambition: proposing a set of measures, balancing them in one agenda and weaving them into a principled and historic narrative is important for legitimacy, reflection and for communication.
An edited version of this Insight was also posted on the PRIF Blog.