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Will France try to legalise apartheid against Muslims?

Comments by Edouard Philippe, a potential future presidential candidate, have raised the stakes for state Islamophobia
Former French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe is pictured in Paris on 17 September 2023 (AFP)

Barely a week after the abaya ban in public schools, a new threshold has already been crossed in France’s out-of-control state Islamophobia.

The latest attack against Islam as a religion, and Muslims as an integral part of the French population, is particularly grave. For the first time since the end of the country’s colonial era, a French politician has advocated in his book, then reaffirmed on the main public radio channel France Inter, that it may one day be necessary to impose a different set of laws and obligations on Muslims.

He is neither a far-right politician nor a fringe one, but rather President Emmanuel Macron’s first prime minister, Edouard Philippe. In 2021, Philippe created his own centre-right party, Horizons, and has since remained close to the Macron government. He is now a top contender for the leadership of the conservatives and a presidential candidate for 2027.

Although he said during his interview that he would prefer not to reach that situation, Philippe nonetheless maintains that differential treatment for Islam and its practitioners is a likely inevitability in the near future. But why?

The reason, for him, is simple - and from his casual tone, self-evident: Islam is a dangerous, toxic religion that in his view is plagued by “obscurantism”, radicalism, and extremism. Evidently, none of these trends exists anywhere else; they are apparently absent from Judaism, Christianity, and the political far right, to name just a few. 

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For Philippe, only Islam is problematic to the extent of representing an existential threat. He deems it unlikely that French secularism ("laicite") and the country's famous 1905 law on the separation of church and state will be strong enough to tame, control, or reform that religion. 

Here, Philippe activates and capitalises on all the common anti-Muslim tropes. His proposal and comments are objectively those of an extremist. Yet in France, he risks nothing, and he knows it.

Ugly truths

Like Education Minister Gabriel Attal, himself a contender for 2027, Philippe is likely making cynical electoral calculations to try to bridge the gap between the far right, the conservative right, and the centre right, in an effort to enlarge his potential support base.

Philippe must at least be given credit for unveiling some of France’s ugly truths; unlike his Islamophobic peers, he does not speak about "Islamism", but about "Islam and Muslims".

Rather than invoking various “isms” - “separatism”, “fundamentalism”, "Salafism", "extremism", “radicalism”, etc. - as alibis to justify attacking Muslims’ rights, while claiming to defend France’s cherished principles, Philippe has ditched the smokescreens, clearly naming the “enemy from within”.

Imposing different laws and obligations on one religion only, and on its practitioners, would ultimately eliminate France's laicite and all of its fundamental pillars

His proposal is nonetheless shocking for several reasons.

Firstly, he is suggesting that France must be ready to implement nothing less than legal apartheid for Muslims, as defined by establishing a separate law pertaining to Islam.

Secondly, implementing such measures - which in the present state of France’s “egalitarian” constitution is impossible, as much as special laws for an ethnic minority would be - would mark a return to the colonial era’s Code de l’Indigenat, with laws, legal obligations and statuses that varied according to the ethnicity or religion of France’s colonial subjects.

Such a system would abolish the most fundamental principles and values of a French Republic that Philippe claims to defend - namely, its egalitarian principles, by which everyone is equal under the law, regardless of religion or ethnicity.

Thirdly, imposing different laws and obligations on one religion only, and on its practitioners, would ultimately eliminate France’s laicite and all of its fundamental pillars, including freedom of religion, the separation of church and state, and strictly egalitarian treatment of all religions by the state.

Weapon against Islam

Here, we see the realities of the French state’s attachment to its supposedly sacred laicite, which politicians invoke only to twist into a weapon to use against Islam.

They are now apparently willing to trash it altogether, as it limits how far Islamophobia can go. 

Finally, and even more surprisingly given the extremist and openly anti-Republican nature of Philippe’s declarations - even former presidential candidate Marine Le Pen never advocated anything like this - there has been little reaction from the political class, media, and public intellectuals, with the notable exception of an open letter by a handful of academics. The general public has remained largely silent.

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Macron has not rebuked Philippe’s comments. The main centre-left daily newspaper Liberation dedicated a lavish half-paragraph to covering this, spending more time on Philippe’s facial hair and the skin condition that has changed his physical appearance.

This gives a measure of how deeply Islamophobia has penetrated France, and how extensive “Zemmourisation” goes when it comes to Islam and Muslims.

Of course, it has long been argued that different rules, criteria, standards, and obligations are routinely applied to Muslims and Islam in violation of the French constitution and that Muslims have always been treated as second-class citizens, with different statuses and different obligations.

But until now, no major state official has dared to suggest as public policy the legalisation of religious discrimination against Muslims.

France thus seems ready to demolish its own Republic and abolish its democracy, including its major constitutional principles of equality, liberty, indivisibility, and laicite - no need to talk about fraternity when it comes to Muslims - all in order to attack Islam and hurt Muslims further.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Dr Alain Gabon is Associate Professor of French Studies and chair of the Department of Foreign Languages & Literatures at Virginia Wesleyan University in Virginia Beach, USA. He has written and lectured widely in the US, Europe and beyond on contemporary French culture, politics, literature and the arts and more recently on Islam and Muslims. His works have been published in several countries in academic journals, think tanks, and mainstream and specialized media such as Saphirnews, Milestones. Commentaries on the Islamic World, and Les Cahiers de l'Islam. His recent essay entitled “The Twin Myths of the Western ‘Jihadist Threat’ and ‘Islamic Radicalisation ‘” is available in French and English on the site of the UK Cordoba Foundation.
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