Terrorism and secularism: five minutes to understand the controversy between Macron and the Anglo-Saxon press

Emmanuel Macron and the Anglo-Saxon press, new round. In a long story published this Sunday, the New York Times returns to the controversy between the Head of State and several American or British media, born at the end of October after the various terrorist attacks which struck France.

Feeling accused of “stigmatizing French Muslims for electoral purposes”, the French president made a point of responding in person on several occasions. “I am for the respect of cultures, civilizations, but I am not going to change my law because it shocks elsewhere”, he insists again this Monday in the New York Times, accusing the Anglo-Saxon media of “legitimizing the violence ”against the country he presides.

We take stock.

Where does this controversy come from?

It all started specifically on October 16, the day Samuel Paty was assassinated. The history-geography teacher, who presented his students with caricatures of Muhammad during an exchange on freedom of expression, was savagely beheaded by a jihadist.

In the process, some voices abroad criticized the reaction, very firm, of France and its government. Calls to boycott French products have been launched in several Arab countries, while several Anglo-Saxon media have taken up the subject. On October 23, Washington Post correspondent in Paris, James McAuley, points out in an article the refusal of the French government to “measure the systemic discrimination that fuels both separatism and (the) seeks to fight ”.

VIDEO. Macron: the boycott of French products is “unworthy” and “inadmissible”

Two forums will then fuel the controversy. On October 29, the day of another attack which caused the death of three people in Nice, the European version of the American site Politico published a text by sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar, entitled: “The dangerous French religion of secularism”. The author, director of studies at the École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), explains that France is particularly the target of jihadist attacks because of “radical secularism and its blasphemy, which fueled radicalism. of a marginalized minority ”. Three days later, on November 1, the text is withdrawn and replaced by a note from the editor-in-chief of Politico Europe, Stephen Brown. The forum “does not respect our editorial requirements,” writes the latter.

On November 3, it was the turn of the Financial Times to publish a text in its opinion column. The author, Mehreen Kahn, correspondent for the British daily in Brussels, accuses Emmanuel Macron, described as “liberal president”, of maintaining a “hostile environment (for Muslims) “. Several factual errors are identified by Internet users, as well as a poor translation of a quote from Emmanuel Macron (“Islamic separatism”, therefore referred to Islam, instead of “Islamist separatism”, which refers to Islamism). Here too, the text is finally withdrawn, the same day.

How to explain these positions taken by the Anglo-Saxon press?

This can be explained by the cultural differences which separate France from the United Kingdom and the United States. We generally oppose two integration models. On the one hand, the French one, focused on assimilation. On the other, that of the United States and the United Kingdom, often described as communitarian.

“There is, in France, a universalist republican ideal of the values ​​of the Republic which must transcend religious or ethnic affiliations, while these are not at all seen as a threat in the United States“, decrypts the political scientist Amandine Barb, researcher at the University of Hanover and specialist in the relationship between religion and politics. In an analysis note published in 2015 on the vie-publique.fr website, the expert recalled that “the hexagonal tensions around Islam and the temptation – not always materialized – of the French legislator to further privatize religious identities have been strongly criticized in the United States, some observers going so far as to present the French laws of 2004 and 2010 as the expression of secular fundamentalism ”.

“When we approach the question of integration models, the Franco-American dialogue quickly turns to misunderstanding for a major reason, rarely mentioned, namely that this notion, common in France since the end of the 1980s ‘has no equivalent in the United States‘, wrote in 2005 Jim Cohen, professor of American studies at the Sorbonne-Nouvelle Paris 3 University.

In this context, the Anglo-Saxon press is also much more scrupulous in the way it deals with certain events relating to religion. No question of using the drawings of the Prophet Muhammad, for example. The New York Times even decided to stop publishing caricatures in April 2019, after a sketch deemed anti-Semitic by some. He represented Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Star of David around his neck, Donald Trump’s guide dog, wearing a kippah.

This decision was taken “by virtue of a sort of theory of feeling and in the name of the will not to hurt”, estimates the media historian Alexis Lévrier, judging that “it becomes almost a kind of self-censorship”.

How does the Elysee react?

The entourage of the Head of State says he does not “want to suggest that France is engaging in a war of civilization” or that there would be “a French policy targeted against Muslims”. The aftershock took place in several stages. On October 31, Emmanuel Macron gave a long interview to the Arab channel Al Jazeera in order to address all Muslims. While saying “understand that one can be shocked by caricatures”, he hammered home his wish “that one can write, think, draw freely in my country because I think it is important, that it is a right, these are our freedoms ”.

Emmanuel Macron then wanted to address the media directly, not hesitating to take up the pen. In response to the Financial Times column, he wrote a text entitled “France is fighting against the Islamist separatism – never against Islam ”. This one appeared on November 4 on the site of the British daily and, in French, on that of the Elysée. “I will not let anyone say that France, its State, cultivates racism vis-à-vis Muslims”, he insists.

How did the controversy rebound?

Monday, The New York Times published in turn a long account by its media columnist, Ben Smith. The author retraces chronologically these last weeks of incomprehension. “The president has some scores to settle with the American media: about our bias, our obsession with racism, our points of view on terrorism, and our reluctance to express our solidarity, even for a moment, with his besieged Republic, ”begins Ben Smith, recounting having been called by the Head of State. The entourage of Emmanuel Macron indicates on the contrary that he simply accepted a request for a telephone exchange, stalled at 7:30 pm last Thursday and which went “very well”.

Likewise, the Elysee ensures that it did not intervene in the decisions of the Financial Times and Politico to unpublish the two disputed texts, indicating that it simply asked for details on the factual errors. “When the president is quoted, we must be careful not to put false things in his mouth,” argues a relative.

These episodes recall the tensions that may have appeared, in France too, between journalists and the Head of State since his election. “Somehow there’s a sort of skill on the part of The New York Times to prioritize form over substance in this article. This gives credit to the rather tumultuous relationship that Emmanuel Macron maintains with the press, ”concludes Alexis Lévrier.

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