In recent days, two perennial controversies have flared up once again in France. Their Parliament is considering two bills aimed at solving the two issues: one, a security bill that aims to protect police officers, and the other, a wide-ranging bill that seeks to impose a series of regulations aiming to bring Muslims more in line with “French republican” values. If not handled properly, these twin social crises threaten to derail French President Emmanuel Macron’s agenda.
France has a long-troubled history when it comes to issues of race and multiculturalism. The country is among the top offenders when it comes to colonizing and plundering countries across the world. Perhaps unsurprisingly, when those same people come to France to seek a better life, they are always met with staunch resistance. It’s a familiar story that has played out again and again in places like the United Kingdom and the United States. How these issues are handled could determine whether France retains its leadership role in the wake of the UK leaving the European Union or whether it stays mired in controversy and condemnation.
A crusade against police brutality in France.
Assa Traoré, a 35-year old special-ed teacher of Malian descent, was galvanized four years ago when her brother, Adama Traoré, died in French police custody in July of 2016. While a legal battle is still playing out to determine specific facts about the case as well as potential liability for the police officers, the death of Assa’s brother offers a familiar story: three policemen pinned Adama down. Hours later, after exclaiming that he was having trouble breathing, Adama was dead.
Ever since then, Assa has carried on the fight to get justice for her brother. The protests started small but have grown exponentially in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. And while she is still demanding accountability from the police for her brother’s death, her mission has expanded to encompass all the ways police mistreat minorities and especially men of color in France. In her words she says, “France has not come to terms with its history, with slavery, with colonization…These are unsaid things that leave traces, and we suffer the consequences.”
According to a profile of her in the New York Times, her group assembled “at least 20,000 protesters in front of a Paris courthouse early in June despite a police ban, then a crowd of 15,000 just 11 days later on the Place de la République.” Additionally, “Ms. Traoré’s activism has infuriated French right-wing news media, which accuse her of trying to tear French society apart by pitting Black and white communities against each other. It has also put her at odds with the French authorities.” Sound familiar?
Recently, Traoré’s group packed the Republique plaza with almost 50,000 people in protest of a new widely-condemned security bill that’s being debated in France’s Parliament. Controversial provisions include a ban on sharing images of police officers, authorization for the use of drones to surveil the public, and the live streaming of police bodycam footage to authorities. To Macron’s credit, the government does seem to be backtracking a bit. He has asked the government to come up with proposals for restoring the public’s confidence in police and to explore ways to reconfigure some of the key recommendations of the security bill.
The legacy of Charlie Hebdo.
No stranger to controversy and conflict, Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine publisher, has courted criticism and outrage for years over its satirical caricatures of prominent figures in global society. Perhaps most controversially, its history of satirizing and caricaturing aspects of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad in particular, earned the magazine widespread condemnation from Muslim countries abroad. In January of 2015, the simmering tensions between Charlie Hebdo and Islam boiled over when two gunmen invaded their offices and killed twelve people working there, including several prominent cartoonists and editors at the publication.
In the years following, several other high-profile terrorist attacks have been carried out by Islamist extremists in France, including several stabbings and the gruesome beheading of a teacher a few months ago for showing the Charlie Hebdo caricatures to students. Now, across the country, fear is being stoked on both sides as France’s Parliament debates Islamaphobic regulations, and protests dot the landscape in the name of secularism.
France has struggled for years to manage its relationship with the sizable Muslim community that lives within its borders. Like many countries in Europe and elsewhere, once homogenous populations are getting more and more diverse every year. These attacks have only shown a bright spotlight on how bumpy multiculturalism can be if it’s not handled the right away, and part of the tension comes from the French constitutional concept of laïcité, which means secularism. Traditionally, this idea is seen as similar to the US’s version of separation of church and state combined with freedom of religion. It essentially enshrines as sacred the secularism of the French government and the prohibition of any laws promoting any religion or group over another.
In recent years, despite the irony of secular presidents telling a specific global religion how to conduct itself, laïcité has been used as a cudgel against the Muslim community in France leading to dress codes, dietary restrictions, prohibitions against religious education, and most recently, according to the New York Times, regulations surrounding “online hate speech of the kind that led to Mr. Paty’s killing; punish doctors who provide so-called “virginity certificates” for traditional religious marriages; clamp down on home-schooling for children over three years old; and rein in community associations by obliging them to sign declarations of allegiance to the “values of the republic” at the same time as imposing strict controls on their funding.”
Let’s be clear first. Murder as a response to offensive imagery is unquestionably wrong. Nevertheless, many critics of these types of laws often rightly predict that this boxing-in of Islam in France could very well have the opposite effect. Instead of working with the Muslim community in France, dictating how it should act in public and private seems rife for breeding resentment and protest. A rigorous debate is still to be had as the French Parliament is scheduled to debate this law in the coming weeks. It remains to be seen what final form these regulations will take. Whatever happens, these pulsing divisions in France don’t seem to be going away any time soon.