For the second time in two weeks France is mourning a national tragedy, after a knife-wielding attacker killed three people at a church in Nice. The suspected terrorist attack followed the horrific murder of a schoolteacher by an Islamist radical. Samuel Paty, who had shown his pupils cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in a civics class, was beheaded in the street on October 16. Between the two events, French president Emmanuel Macron prompted outrage in the Muslim world for allegedly insulting Islam. In his homage to Paty last week, Mr Macron said: “We will not renounce cartoons or drawings even if others recoil.”
The president was earlier criticised by some for stigmatising Muslims after laying out a strategy for tackling radical Islamism in France. Mr Macron’s resort to a “separatist” rhetoric was unfortunate. He had been under pressure from the centre-right and far-right opposition for allegedly being too lax against extremist forms of “political Islam” and not aggressive enough in defending France’s tradition of secularism.
But the notion that Mr Macron is out to denigrate all Muslims is itself a caricature of both of his interventions. Some ministers, however, have lamentably used terminology favoured by the far-right, showing it is easy to veer into stigmatisation. Too many in France’s political elite seem ill at ease with the private choices of a large minority. They are unwilling to reconcile their secularism with the sentiment of Muslims who see denigration of the prophet as an attack on their religion.
Mr Macron set out measures in early October that included a ban on home schooling and tighter controls on religious and cultural associations. He balanced his message by admitting the French state had too often failed to give Muslim communities the opportunities they deserved, leaving ghettos on city outskirts. The murders showed France does indeed have a problem with a small minority whose distorted interpretation of Islam can be used to justify or inspire acts of violence. The motivation of Paty’s killer was easy to establish. French authorities say the assault in Nice bore the hallmarks of an Islamist attack — albeit apparently not a homegrown one.
Even for a country traumatised by recent terrorist outrages, the latest incidents have shocked. Teachers have an elevated status in public life. They helped form the nation in the late 19th century, cultivating the values of a secular republic among children. The attack on Paty was an attack on the republic itself. Understandably, it spurred Mr Macron and others to defend secularism, including the right to blaspheme. Although born out of anticlericalism, French secularism, enshrined in a 1905 law, is not about battling faith but separating religion from state institutions and so protecting individual freedom of religious expression. The same principle of putting individual rights before collective ones is reflected in a law protecting the right to blaspheme. Insulting a faith is permitted, but not an individual on the basis of their faith.
The right to blaspheme is best exercised with self-restraint and sensitivity. Paty told pupils who might be offended to look away. Many French Muslims have learnt to live with it, but do not like it. Mr Macron might have made both points in his homage. But he was right to exalt freedom of expression as the enemy of obscurantism and ignorance. That is all the more so against criticism from governments that themselves deny religious freedom or ignore the repression of Muslim communities where it does not suit them to speak out.
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