France and the Arab World: A Tale of Tension

Tensions are rising between France and the Arab world. The last few weeks has seen protests in Libya, Syria and the Gaza Strip, along with calls for a boycott of French goods in many Middle Eastern countries. This growing tension comes in the wake of the brutal, horrific murder of a French school teacher named Samuel Paty. Paty, 47, was beheaded in the suburbs of Paris, close to the school at which he worked, for showing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad to his students in a class on freedom of expression. 

A woman in Marseille holds a sign (‘I am a teacher’) at a gathering in homage to Samuel Paty, October 18. (Credit: CNN.)

This assault on a French citizen and on a core French value was swiftly responded to by President Emmanuel Macron, who stated that this was an “Islamist terrorist attack”. The President also spoke on the issue of publications that may be insensitive towards the religion of Islam, passionately defending the right to show cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in the name of freedom of expression, and other civil liberties that the French hold on to dearly. The response to President Macron’s remarks suggests that this defence of secularism and France’s liberal values has been received as an attack on Islam by many in the Middle East and elsewhere. 

Whilst tensions may be rising rather sharply at the present time, this is not the first time President Macron, or previous French Presidents have enacted policy or made statements that have angered the Islamic community. 

In 2011 under the Presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy, France brought in a ‘Burka ban’, making it illegal for a Muslim woman to conceal her face behind a veil when in public, becoming the first European country to impose such a law . This new law was faced with strong backlash from the French Islamic community, being seen as a restriction on their freedom to practice religion. It also faced deep criticism from others, with the executive director of the Non-Governmental Organisation Human Rights Watch labelling the ban as Islamophobic . It was, however, defended as a stand for secularism and French societal values and norms, with the ban remaining in place even during the coronavirus crisis and the mandating of masks in certain areas. While the ‘Burka ban’ is one of the most commonly cited issues when looking at tensions between France and members of the Islamic community, there are other areas in which the tension comes to the fore. 

Islamist terror attacks inevitably spark division between communities, as animosity tends to rise towards Muslims in the wake of such attacks, but Macron has stressed the importance of distinguishing between the Islamic religion and radical-jihadism. What is clear is that Emmanuel Macron is going to face ongoing criticism for his defence of what he holds as core French values, namely freedom of expression, due to the potential offence caused to Muslims in France and across the world. But what is perhaps more apparent, following the string of terrorist attacks in France over the last few weeks and the President’s response, is that Emmanuel Macron is remaining steadfast in his commitment to upholding France’s freedoms and ensuring that France’s values remain.

Leo Cullis


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