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


Ireland’s New Government Shows the Limits to History in Politics

It has been a historic week for Ireland. After nearly 100 years, the Civil War divide appears to be coming to an end. Four months after a stunning election result, the newly formed government sees the two traditional parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, enter formal coalition with each other for the very first time.

The two are remarkably similar ideologically, sitting somewhere between the centre and the centre right. Yet, they have regularly rotated as government and opposition despite their little difference, something that is a political peculiarity.

For generations, Irish politics has been defined by a historical, rather than ideological, divide. On one side were those in favour of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, led by Michael Collins. On the other were those opposed to the Treaty, led by Éamon de Valera. This fracture in Irish politics was later translated into party politics. Fine Gael represented the pro-Treaty side, while Fianna Fáil represented those who were anti-Treaty.

This divide has prevailed long after the Civil War, with voting often following family lines rather than more common factors, such as class. There was some sense in this in the early years of the new Irish Republic. For many, the War of Independence and the Civil War were still raw. These were lived experiences for a number of generations and thus this divide ran deep. My Mum tells me the story of how my Grandad would demand the TV to be switched off if De Valera ever came on the screen. 

My grandparents’ generation, however, are no longer as large a group in the Irish electorate as they once were. To an increasing number, the old historic divide means increasingly little. Moreover, the ideological similarity of the two parties has led to frustration, particularly amongst the young, at a lack of progress on various issues. It is perhaps becoming clear the old system of Irish politics is no longer relevant or fit for purpose.

Image of Irish town with flags and banners. (Credit: Tamara Gurtler, via Upsplash).

The 2020 election and the rise of Sinn Féin revealed a large portion of the electorate eager for proper change and many for the first time willing to vote for Sinn Féin. Much has been made of the party’s history, such as its links with the IRA. However, under the leadership of Mary Lou McDonald the party has worked to modernise its image. Judging by the result in 2020, they’ve had some success. Though, there is still much to be done on that front to convince others – it was cited as a reason why neither of the other two major parties would contemplate coalition with Sinn Féin.

This raises the broader question of the role of history in politics. For generations, history has played the dominant role in Irish politics. The main two parties are built on a near 100-year divide, while challengers Sinn Féin are inextricably linked to Republican violence more recent in memory. Yet the 2020 election appeared to suggest that the Irish electorate is beginning to move on.

History undoubtedly plays an important role in politics. It shapes and informs where we are now and provides a rich archive from which to learn for future decision-makers and voters. But, it is not automatically relevant. In Ireland, the Civil War and the Troubles are becoming increasingly less salient. Voters appear to be far more worried by contemporary issues, such as Ireland’s housing crisis, and are voting to reflect that, rather than what side of the Civil War their ancestors were on.

James Reid