Hints at Coup as France's National Identity Crisis Deepens
When historians look back on the late 2010s and early 2020s, many will label the period as a challenging era for France. In the last few years, Paris has confronted sluggish economic growth, sustained terrorist activity and a global pandemic. Yet as French society grows progressively more diverse, the biggest crisis facing Paris appears to be France’s religious demography. Recent events have demonstrated the pressing need for France to reconcile its long-held secular values with the increasing prominence of Islam in day-to-day life.
While France’s identity crisis has dominated public debate in the last few months, the nation was nonetheless taken by surprise in late April when an open letter warning of “civil war” was published in a right-wing magazine. Signed by twenty ex-generals and more than a thousand other veterans, the letter demanded that the Government take immediate action to “safeguard the nation” from Islamist “hordes”. In the absence of an effective government response, they ominously threatened an “intervention” of active military personnel to “protect” what they called France’s “civilisational values”.
After the French Government initiated a crackdown targeting the letter’s authors, a second letter was released to the public in May, this time signed by thousands of active serving military personnel. The new letter has condemned the state for “silencing French citizens'' and has received over 250,000 signatures at the time of this article’s publication. According to the letter’s authors, who claim to have served on recent deployments in Afghanistan, Mali and the Central African Republic, the very “survival of [the] nation” is at stake.
Having been published exactly sixty years after France’s last attempted coup d’etat, the recent letters speak to the depth of the national identity crisis that is sweeping French society. With the crisis reaching a point where thousands of former and actively serving soldiers are talking of a civil war, it is important to ask what brought France to this point.
Why is the situation so tense?
Owing to its high living standards and colonial heritage, France has long been a prime destination for migrants and refugees from Islamic regions, particularly from the Arab world and Sub-Saharan Africa. However, France’s relationship with its Islamic population has grown increasingly strained due to the rise of Daesh-inspired lone wolf attacks.
Groups such as Daesh have a vested interest in radicalising French Muslims by giving them the impression that they are under attack from the rest of the country. It is no coincidence that Daesh-inspired attacks frequently target symbols of France’s secular and pluralistic values, including Jewish supermarkets, Christmas markets and provocative publications such as Charlie Hebdo. By attacking these symbols, Daesh strikes at the heart of the French identity, generating backlash which only increases animosity between France’s Islamic and non-Islamic communities. Anti-migration commentators also have an incentive to attribute Islamist terror attacks to migration flows from Africa and the Middle East. Doing so presents France’s six million Islamic residents as a threat to national security, placing pressure on politicians to reduce migration numbers going forward.
It is no surprise that perceived tensions between France and Islam are increasingly being painted in terms of a ‘civilisational’ clash. ‘Franco-Islamic’ animosity is in many ways a self-fulfilling prophecy. The longer terrorist attacks continue, the easier it is for France’s non-Islamic community to begin seeing the entire Islamic community as a threat. Naturally, treating the Islamic community in this way fuels a siege mentality among French Muslims, creating hostility between the two communities as a whole.
Representing these tensions as a civilisational clash is dangerous at the best of times, but it is particularly dangerous in the French context. While almost all Western societies view the separation of church and state as sacrosanct, in France, this separation is especially important. France’s unique concept of the separation between church and state is known as laïcité and lends itself to understanding why Franco-Islamic tensions have triggered a national identity crisis.
What is laïcité?
It is not uncommon for English speaking audiences to think of the French Revolution as a movement largely focussed on removing an authoritarian monarchy. In reality, revolutionaries were as opposed to the Catholic Church as they were to the monarchy. Through a process of ‘dechristianisation’, French revolutionaries sought to unwind the influence of the Church (which had previously wielded immense power over French society). Church property was confiscated, thousands of priests were banished or executed and the Christian calendar was replaced with a new, revolutionary calendar. These actions were carried out in the name of laïcité (i.e. the separation of church and state).
While the radical elements of ‘dechristianisation’ have long since faded into the history books, as with other revolutionary values such as freedom of expression and freedom of conscience, laïcité remains a uniquely important part of the French identity. It is an essential component of France’s ‘republican values’ and is a preciously guarded constitutional principle. In short, laïcité sits at the centre of the French identity.
It was the vital importance of laïcité to the French national identity which made the 2020 beheading of high school teacher Samuel Paty by a radical Islamist such a galling issue. Paty’s execution came after nearly two weeks of community backlash against his decision to show a satirical cartoon of the Islamic Prophet Mohammad to his class. The execution of Paty for exposing his students to satirical depictions of a religious figure was a source of immense outrage across the country. Even as the majority of French Muslims condemned the brutal assassination, public debate soon turned to how to combat ‘political Islam’. The beheading of Paty was therefore the culmination of mounting animosity between France’s Islamic and non-Islamic communities. According to many, laïcité itself was now unquestionably under attack.
Around this time, a controversial bill known as the ‘anti-separatism law’ was being debated in the French Parliament. The law was drafted to uphold France’s republican values (especially laïcité) in the face of the influence of political Islam, which was described as a “mortal enemy” by Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin. According to politicians such as Darmanin, political Islam rejects the national ethos of laïcité and is a form of separatism. Understanding political Islam in this context helps to explain why there is now talk of a military coup d’etat.
Speaking at Paty’s state funeral, President Emmanuel Macron promised “we will not give up our cartoons”. During a visit to Nice following a similar beheading in the days following, Macron built on civilisational ideas, stating that "if we are attacked once again, it is for the values which are ours: freedom, for the possibility on our soil to believe freely and not to give in to any spirit of terror”. Many French Muslims share President Macron’s sentiments, believing that rising radicalism within their community is largely the product of external Salafist influences, which are said to have “outflanked” the moderate majority.
The anti-separatism law has since passed both houses of parliament and is now in the committee stage. In its current form, it places strict controls on community groups believed to reject republican values, mandating that all associations sign a contract accepting the values of the French Republic before receiving public funding. Home schooling has largely been banned, the revenue streams of religious organisations have come under close supervision, independent private schools have been made subject to strict regulation and all public servants have been formally banned from sharing their political and religious views. The law is in many respects a systematic rejection of the influence of what French lawmakers see as political Islam. Yet arguably, it was the introduction of a measure that would ban all youth under the age of eighteen from wearing Islamic face coverings that serves as the clearest example of civilisational conflict now being built into French legislation.
A vicious cycle is at play. Many members of France’s Islamic community have expressed grave concerns that they have become targets of Islamophobic legislation. Some aspects of the law are objectively positive steps in the right direction (such as the ban on female virginity certificates). However, measures such as the ban on face coverings for minors will only deepen perceptions among France’s Islamic community that it is under siege. For their part, French voters looking to reinforce laïcité through the law will see any opposition to the legislation as evidence of a brand of political Islam that is fundamentally opposed to the nation’s republican values. With each side likely to see the other as seeking to undermine the very fundamentals of their belief system, it is not difficult to see how mere perceptions of a civilisational struggle are beginning to become reality.
Further afield in majority-Islamic nations such as Pakistan, Indonesia and Turkey, the increasing civilisational nature of France’s struggle with Islam is seeing domestic tensions reproduced at an international level. Anti-French protests have broken out across the Islamic world, as France finds itself not only having to publicly defend its republican values at home but also abroad.
At present, French Muslims make up approximately 8.8 per cent of the nation’s population. If migration continues at a moderate pace, by 2050, that number will rise to approximately 17.4 per cent. This means that in just under thirty years, nearly one in five French citizens will be a member of the Islamic community. The growing size of France’s Islamic community helps to explain why Islamophobia is on the rise, but it also speaks to the severity of the situation. Such rapid demographic change is destabilising enough without occurring against the backdrop of growing civilisational tensions fuelled by jihadist terror attacks and arguably Islamophobic rhetoric.
Going forward, France must find a way to reconcile its growing Islamic population with its fundamental republican values. If laïcité is to remain a part of the French identity, then it must be upheld in a manner that does not deepen tensions and generate a siege mentality within the Islamic community. The fact that thousands of French military personnel are now speaking of civil war and a possible coup d’etat underlines the urgency of the situation. France must resolve its identity crisis before the situation spirals further.
Hugh McFarlane is the Outreach and Research Officer and host of the fortnightly ‘Wrap-Up’ series within the Young Diplomats Society’s podcast team, ‘Global Questions’. He is in his third year of a Bachelor of Security Studies at Macquarie University, where he also studies French.