By Ilan Scialom and Susan Corke
From his commanding victory to his bold first days in office—which led to a emphatic majority in yesterday’s National Assembly elections— French President Emmanuel Macron wields potentially transformative power. Optimists on both sides of the Atlantic view him as a symbolic leader who defied rather than accommodated the forces of xenophobic nationalism. Voters’ willingness to get behind an untested leader and his new party suggests considerable support for an open Europe and a pluralistic France. This is particularly remarkable when seen in the context of an election that revealed deep divisions.
It would be naive, however, to think those divisions have evaporated. French society is fractured after years of coping with violent terrorist attacks, economic woes, and structural challenges. And voter turnout for both rounds of the parliamentary election were below 50 percent; this means that while Macron will have the votes to push through his agenda, if those who abstained or opposed him don’t find a way to have their voices heard in the political arena, they may do so outside of it.
Laïcité (secularism), especially as it relates to Muslims, remains an explosive issue. The Hollande government tried to balance competing visions of laïcité—without much success. When it applied a more restrictive approach, it deepened divides; when it applied a more inclusive approach, critics such as Marine LePen gained political traction by accusing the government of being lax on terrorism. A political leader’s resolve to unite the country may last only until the next terrorist attack.
Macron’s enormous challenge is to ensure that all groups feel protected and respected. So far, whenever there has been doubt about his capacity to navigate tricky terrain and succeed against the odds, he has proven the pessimists wrong. It seems small-minded to bet against him now. Yet it’s not clear that the new president—despite his demonstrable commitment to a united France—is on a path for success. Both during the campaign and since his victory, he has sent mixed signals and made missteps that, if uncorrected, could doom his effort to foster social cohesion.
France is deeply protective of secularism as a core value. During the campaign, Catholic leaders struck a cautious line; the head of the Bishops’ Conference of France, said the church’s role, particularly in a “hysterical climate,” was not to “take sides” but “to remind each voter what our faith invites us to take into account.” The president of the Protestant Federation of France, the chief rabbi of France, and the head of the French Council of the Muslim Faith wrote a joint letter endorsing Macron, saying that only he guaranteed a “France confident in its future.
Macron was similarly noncommittal. In his debates with Marine LePen, he avoided being defined by any particular position on this issue, and some of his remarks confused rather than clarified, such as his statement that, “Our mission…will be to act in such a way that French people of the Muslim faith are always more proud of being French than of being Muslim…”
He has also, however, signaled that he will embrace a more tolerant version of laïcité. He’s cited France’s colonial history in Algeria as a cause of current day discrimination against Muslims and stresses the need to examine the “roots” of why French-born children are growing up to become enemies of their own country. He also embraced ethnic minorities as parliamentary candidates and seeks to create “social mobility” for members of marginalized groups.
And yet, a bill he has already drafted for consideration at a cabinet meeting on June 21 would permanently legalize much of the state of emergency, which restricts citizens’ rights and disproportionately harms Muslims. The hope for a more tolerant and inclusive France would become even more elusive if racial, ethnic, and religious profiling becomes permanent. As Macron faces the tough task of governing and uniting a nation, we offer our views on four important, yet thorny issues, which he should address in the early days of his presidency:
Demonstrate that a constant state of security is not the new normal. A state of emergency is supposed to be a short-term response to a specific, imminent threat. A perpetual state of emergency normalizes expansive police powers and has proven to be of little utility in combating terrorism. Macron should scrap his bill to codify the provisions of the state of emergency and instead work with lawmakers to roll it back. This will set an example that responses to terrorism must respect human rights and rule of law. It will also help Muslims believe that they have a chance of fair treatment. To further combat alienation among Muslims—which, in turns, leads to radicalization—Macron should ensure that security forces are better trained to avoid discrimination and to distinguish extremists from law-abiding citizens.
Ensure that citizens of all religions must feel respected and protected equally under law.In principle, laïcité includes three elements: freedom of religion or belief, state neutrality, and respect for religious pluralism and separation of church and state. Yet in recent years, exclusionary interpretations have gained a foothold. The debate over the “burkini” ban revealed widespread support for the view that laïcité should limit acceptance of differences, which has fueled anti-Muslim sentiment and conveyed to Muslims that they are not welcome. Macron should ensure that laïcité, which is supposed to entail respect for religious pluralism, means just that in practice. People shouldn’t have to choose between practicing their religion and being French. Macron has perhaps an unprecedented opportunity to embrace laïcité in a way that emphasizes the positive contributions to French society of all communities, from Catholics and Protestants to Muslims and migrants to Jews and nonbelievers.
Recognize that antisemitism, anti-Muslim bigotry, and racism are related, and act accordingly. While a recent decline in antisemitic, anti-Muslim, and other racist incidents is promising, this will not remain a long-term trend unless the government wages a smarter, more holistic battle against this problem. Leaders should acknowledge the interrelationship between these hatreds as well as their specific characteristics. Hatred of one minority leads to hatred of other minorities, and in France, supporters of ISIS and other violent extremist groups are symbiotic allies of the far right, which exploits terrorist acts to push policies that harm Muslims and migrants. Macron should update the National Action Plan to Fight Racism and Antisemitism and the Interministerial body headed by the Delegate for the Fight Against Racism and Antisemitism (DILCRA) to employ a broader, more inclusive approach. In its current form it tackles antisemitism without a similar emphasis on other forms of hatred; Macron and other officials should recognize the value of combating racism more broadly to prevent antisemitic attitudes and acts. What’s needed in the fight against hate and hate crime is a coalitional approach that unites Jews, Muslims, other religions, and nonbelievers.
Champion democratic principles across Europe: Macron has offered a much-needed pledge of support for the European Union, while recognizing the need for reform. He has alsospoken out with tough rhetoric on the democratic backsliding of Poland and Hungary and their broader failure to abide by the values of the EU. He should now follow up with specific advocacy on why commitments to EU values matter in how countries can work together to raise costs for those countries that reject them.
It wasn’t so long ago that people were pondering the possibility of President Le Pen. Macron trounced her and in so doing exposed the political limits of xenophobic nationalism. Yet the divisions laid bare by the campaign persist. For Macron, the work has barely begun.
Ilan Scialom is member of the French interfaith movement Coexister, Susan Corke is director of Human Rights First's Countering Antisemitism and Extremism program.