Even as France grapples with concurrent health, economic and security crises, President Emmanuel Macron has taken time out of his busy schedule to criticise the English-language press for its coverage of his fight against “Islamist separatism”, accusing British and US media of “legitimising violence”.
In November 2016, just days before officially launching his run for the Élysée Palace, Emmanuel Macron lamented the French habit of reviving painful debates every time terrorists shed blood in the name of Islam.
“All too often, when debating Islam, we confuse everything,” Macron told the investigative news website Mediapart. “It’s madness to reignite these debates every time there’s a terrorist attack.”
Four years on, those debates have come back to haunt the French president, rekindled by commentators, politicians and members of his own government amid a new wave of attacks perpetrated on French soil by Islamist radicals.
Adding insult to injury, the discussion this time has gone global, with everyone from US-based analysts to Macron’s Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan weighing in on the debate and lecturing France on the need to respect religion and better integrate its large Muslim population.
While Erdogan’s taunts came as no surprise, many in France have been shocked and angered by a perceived lack of solidarity from Anglo-American commentators – none more so than Macron, an avid reader of the English-language press, who has taken time out of his busy schedule to berate the media for their coverage of his country.
Macron’s office arranged an interview with The New York Times last week to criticise the Anglophone take on his battle against Islamist extremism. Ben Smith, the paper’s media editor, published excerpts from their conversation in his column on Sunday.
“When France was attacked five years ago, every nation in the world supported us,” Macron said, referring to the multiple terrorist attacks of 2015 that included a deadly assault on the Charlie Hebdo offices and the November 13 attacks on Paris cafés and entertainment venues that left 130 people dead.
“So when I see, in that context, several newspapers which I believe are from countries that share our values – journalists who write in a country that is the heir to the Enlightenment and the French Revolution – when I see them legitimising this violence, and saying that the heart of the problem is that France is racist and Islamophobic, then I say the founding principles have been lost,” the president added.
More than 250 people have died in terror attacks in France since 2015, by far the heaviest toll in any Western country. The last two months have seen a new spike in attacks, including the gruesome beheading of history teacher Samuel Paty in a Paris suburb and a deadly stabbing at a church in Nice. They followed Macron’s announcement of plans to combat “Islamist extremism” on French soil – plans the French president says have been distorted by some in the English-speaking media.
Macron’s conversation with the NYT came exactly a week after the Financial Times published a letter by the French president in which he complained about an opinion article in the British daily.
“The piece misquoted me, substituting ‘Islamic separatism’ – a term that I have never used – for ‘Islamist separatism’, which is a reality in my country,” Macron wrote in his letter. By then, the FT had already taken the highly unusual step of unpublishing the original story, citing “factual errors”.
Days earlier, Politico had also removed an op-ed by French sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar published under the headline, “The dangerous French religion of secularism”. The article, which elicited a storm of criticism online, did not meet Politico’s editorial standards, the news website explained.
In lieu of the offending piece, Politico published a letter by Gabriel Attal, the French government spokesperson, who accused Khosrokhavar of blaming French secularists for the terrorist attacks in “an unthinkable reversal of roles between the attackers and the attacked”.
‘Fanatics have no right to censor, but neither does Macron’
In written exchanges with FRANCE 24 on Monday, the New York Times media editor confirmed that the interview last week had been arranged by Macron’s office. He said he was not surprised to see the French president actively soliciting his and other prominent publications, adding: “Anglo-American coverage influences a lot of how elites all over the world see France, so it’s important.”
But Scott Sayare, a former reporter at the newspaper’s Paris bureau, sees a disconcerting pattern in Macron’s interventions.
“It’s stunning that the leader of one of the world’s most powerful nations, a leading democracy, should take the time to repeatedly let it be known, in a direct manner, to Anglophone publications that they are behaving inappropriately – so much so that it requires intervention from on high,” he said.
“It’s both absurd and potentially dangerous for the journalistic tradition of freedom of expression and open inquiry,” he added. “And it’s disturbing that publications are agreeing to take down their stories.”
On November 8, the British Sunday paper The Observer ran a column under the title, “Fanatics have no right to censor critics. But neither does Emmanuel Macron”. Its author, Kenan Malik, said he disagreed both with Khosrokhavar’s Politico op-ed and the decision to remove it. He lamented the fact that removing offending articles after criticism “is becoming an acceptable part of our culture”.
“The struggles for free speech, in defence of secularism, against racism and to counter terrorism are inextricably linked,” Malik wrote. “Self-censorship in response to Islamist threats needs resisting. So does self-censorship in response to the displeasure of democratic leaders.”
Opinion pieces are not the only ones to have incurred French wrath.
In the days following Paty’s brutal murder, the New York Times was lambasted on social media for publishing a story under the headline, “French Police Shoot and Kill Man After a Fatal Knife Attack on the Street,” before swiftly correcting the title. As a screenshot of the original title circulated widely, angry French readers said the American newspaper had missed the point entirely, treating the incident as though it were a case of trigger-happy police rather than an Islamist terrorist attack.
Two weeks later, following the attack in Nice, the Associated Press was roasted for a tweet that asked why France “incites” anger in the Muslim world. Coming in the midst of angry protests against France in parts of the Muslim world, the post was lampooned by commentators in France and abroad, prompting AP to replace the contentious word in a follow-up tweet.
“This is not only disgraceful but dangerous. The Associated Press is inciting hatred against France and its people,” journalist Agnès Poirier wrote on Twitter.
As Smith wrote in his New York Times column on Sunday, French complaints have also targeted “careful journalism that questions government policy”. He cited a Washington Post analysis from Paris correspondent James McAuley: “Instead of fighting systemic racism, France wants to ‘reform Islam,’” an assertion that was sharply criticised for suggesting that the French government seemed more concerned with influencing the practice of Islam than “addressing the alienation of French Muslims”.
In a Twitter thread on November 3, McAuley said he and other US reporters did not deny the problem of Islamist separatists fostering a “counter-society” and hatred of French values.
“We aren’t denying its seriousness; we’re asking why it’s so severe in [France],” he wrote. “But venturing even slightly into the realms of possible structural explanations that may contribute to this problem – none of which is presented as definitive! – seems to be dismissed as ‘victim blaming’ or ‘denial.’”
But venturing even slightly into the realms of possible structural explanations that may contribute to this problem — none of which is presented as definitive! — seems to be dismissed as “victim blaming” or “denial.” But many in France will tell you exactly the same thing.🤷🏻♂️
— James McAuley (@jameskmcauley) November 3, 2020
Contacted by FRANCE 24, McAuley declined to discuss the matter further.
‘A siege mentality’
In truth, much of the criticism published by the English-speaking press mirrors debates raging in France itself. Khoroskhavar is French, and so are many of the experts quoted by the serious Anglophone press. But the fact that the criticism is voiced in a foreign language that has greater global reach – and thus more potential to inflame passions in faraway countries – makes it all the less tolerable in France.
Sayare, the former New York Times reporter, said French susceptibility needs to be understood against the backdrop of Europe’s worst Covid-19 outbreak, years of terrorist attacks, decades of debate on Islam in France and a looming electoral cycle – all of which means the country is “very much on edge”.
In this tense climate, he added, “even level-headed thinkers tend to adopt a siege mentality regarding the way the rest of the world looks at them.”
Anne-Sophie Bradelle, Macron’s international communications adviser, has lamented the lack of support for France from its traditional friends and allies.
“When the Washington Post or the New York Times say we’re at war with Islam, it’s extremely violent. (…) Particularly coming from countries that supposedly share certain values with us,” Bradelle told French daily Le Monde earlier this month.
“It’s as though we were in the smoking ruins of ground zero and they said we had it coming,” she added, referring to the site of the 9/11 attacks in New York.
Contrary to her claim, neither the Washington Post nor the New York Times has suggested that France is “at war with Islam”. Nor has any credible English-language press argued that “the heart of the problem is that France is racist and Islamophobic”, as claimed by Macron in the NYT.
Instead, the Anglophone media has frequently criticised French leaders for failing to recognise and address widespread discrimination.
Macron went a step further in his interview last week, accusing American media of “legitimising violence” – which, as Smith noted, is “as serious a charge as you can make against the media, and the sort of thing we’ve been more used to hearing, and shrugging off, from the American president”, Donald Trump.
Others in the French president’s entourage have levelled similar accusations with greater abandon, claiming – without offering evidence – that Muslim charities, opposition politicians and left-wing academics have their share of responsibility for the atrocities committed by terrorists.
Gérald Darmanin, the interior minister, has used incendiary language to justify a crackdown on Muslim groups suspected of Islamist sympathies, accusing a prominent anti-racism watchdog of being “manifestly complict” in the chain of events that led to Paty’s beheading on October 16.
Meanwhile, Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer has repeatedly railed against a supposed “Islamo-leftism” in French academia that he accuses of “fostering intellectual radicalism” and certain nefarious “ideas that come from abroad”.
According to Nada Afiouni, who teaches British studies at the University of Le Havre in Normandy, Blanquer’s remarks were primarily aimed at cultural criticisms popular in academia, including post-colonial reassessments, that flourished in British and American campuses before crossing the Channel and the Atlantic.
“Cultural, ethnic and gender studies have been around for some time now, and they are certainly not a breeding ground for radicalisation,” she said.
There are also shades of France’s long-standing fear of American cultural “imperialism” in the way the country has reacted to the foreign criticism of its current challenges.
In his interview with the New York Times, Macron said the English-language – and particularly, American – media were guilty of imposing their own values on a different society. Specifically, the French president argued that “foreign media failed to understand ‘laïcite‘”, or state secularism, a pillar of French policy and society.
According to Sayare, Macron’s complaint reflects a wider French tendency to exaggerate the country’s uniqueness when it comes to secular principles.
“You have to be very disdainful to think that the rest of the world cannot possibly understand that church and state have to be separate,” he said, noting that this is “also the case in most developed democracies”.
The trouble, he said, is that laïcité has come to mean something quite different to many people in France, shifting from the original requirement of state neutrality in religious affairs to the removal of any vestige of religious affiliation from public life. This has led to a number of high-profile incidents, including French lawmakers storming out of the National Assembly in September in protest at the presence of a student union representative who wore a hijab.
On these and other issues, “France hasn’t yet decided which direction it wants to take,” he said, adding: “In this respect, it is perfectly legitimate for foreign observers to probe and interrogate.”
Surveys have shown that the French public itself has only a partial understanding of laïcité – though more than 80% believe it is under threat. This sketchy understanding of what is meant to be a cornerstone of French law and vivre ensemble (national cohesion) has left plenty of room for rival interpretations to thrive and collide, leading to fierce and often acrimonious debates.
According to Rim-Sarah Alouane, a legal scholar specialising in religious freedom at the University of Toulouse, French secularism is increasingly being “weaponised” to silence Muslim voices – and not only the radical ones.
“Politicians, pundits and commentators are using laïcité to remove any visibility [of religious minorities from the public sphere], and at the moment it is being used against Muslims,” Alouane said.
She pointed to a discrepancy between Macron’s concern not to lump together moderates and radicals, and the more hardline rhetoric coming from members of his government. That discrepancy, and Macron’s failure to rein in his ministers, has blurred the message both at home and abroad, according to Afiouni of Le Havre University.
“For many Anglo-American observers, the distinction between the fight against terrorism and the prevention of radicalisation is simply not clear enough in France,” Afiouni said.
She cited the widely held perception that the French government is not serious enough about addressing the overlapping social, geographical, ethnic and religious discriminations suffered by many French Muslims – which radical Islamists are known to exploit.
“The English-speaking press says yes to liberté and freedom of expression,” she added. “But it also says yes to égalité.”