View from Paris: Nightmare in France

Murder, McCarthyism and Islamophobia


After the brutal murder of a schoolteacher who had shown caricatures of Mohammed to his pupils, and the exploitation of the event by Islamophobic forces, we asked Paris activist John Mullen (JM) for his views on the situation and what should be done.

Left Berlin: What was the context of the murder of a history teacher last week?

JM: The horrific murder took place after the middle-school teacher, Samuel Paty, had shown in a civics class some of the infamous caricatures of Mohammed produced by a right-wing Danish newspaper some years back and popularized by Charlie Hebdo. The teacher was much appreciated by parents and pupils of all backgrounds. Not understanding that these caricatures are racist is very common indeed on right and left in France, and the caricatures are on the school curriculum, so showing them in class as illustrations does not mean that this was a racist teacher. He had shown them in previous years, but this year some parents complained, and the school inspectorate organized a discussion meeting of some sort. Naturally, No one imagined all this would come to the ears of a teenage fanatic who lived 50 miles away and was ready to kill and die for this.

LB: How has Macron’s government reacted?

JM: This event happened at a time when the presidential elections of May 2022 are beginning to interest political parties. In the last elections the fascist candidate Marine Le Pen got ten million votes, so the pull to win over racist votes is extremely strong, in particular since all the traditional parties of Left and Right are in very deep crisis. Macron is unpopular after the mass strikes of last year, and his disastrous management of the Covid crisis. Instead of opening more hospital beds and training more health staff in the few months respite between the two waves of the epidemic, the government has been going ahead with planned hospital closures!

Macron has four aims in his exploitation of this tragedy: to portray himself as the spokesman of a united nation, to give the impression that he can be effective against such terror attacks, to win over votes from Le Pen by attacking Muslims, and to divert attention from his vicious neoliberal austerity programme, which he has slowed down this year but has certainly not given up.

So, he organized a national homage to the murdered teacher, who has been awarded a posthumous legion of Honour medal. A minute of silence will be organized in all schools immediately after the school holidays. His government is banning Muslim organizations accused of being involved with “political Islam”, a usefully broad expression which allows charities, legal aid organizations and antiracist groupings to be targeted.

The Interior Minister, Darmanin is demanding the banning of several organizations. These include the Collective against Islamophobia (CCIF), an organization which helps provide lawyers for those defending themselves against Islamophobic discrimination at work or elsewhere. A mosque in Pantin which in previous weeks had shown sympathy with criticisms of Samuel Paty’s teaching has been closed down although there is zero evidence that the mosque leaders supported any violence. In the days after the murder, the Interior Minister Darmanin stated openly that they were hauling in many people unconnected with the murder investigation “because they wanted to get the message over “. Macron has declared “fear must now change sides”.

Last month, Macron began preparing a law “against separatism”, which claimed to be about many groups including white supremacists but is in fact aimed at Muslims and creates a new crime of “separatism”. This is an invented danger. In fact, Muslims are, for example, far less keen on having separate schools for their children than are devout Catholics or Jews. There are In France 9 000 private Catholic schools, 300 or so private Jewish schools and around 20 private Muslim schools. This is theatrical gesturing hoping to retain or attract Islamophobic voters, (who may well have previously voted Left or even far Left).

A number of political leaders of the traditional parties are now jumping on the racist bandwagon. The Interior minister just declared he was shocked by halal or kosher sections in supermarkets. These, he said are based on people’s “lower instincts” and represent “the beginnings of communitarianism”. A few weeks ago, the same minister declared “Islam in France must be certain that all its believers accept that the laws of the Republic are superior to the laws of their God”. But it is common for believers in many religions to think of their God as superior to human institutions – this does not make them killers! Darmanin just wants a witch hunt.

The traditional Conservative party and the Socialist Party, both swept aside by Macronism in the last parliamentary elections, each have their own proposals. Ex presidential candidate for the Conservative Républicains, François Fillon, demands that Muslim headscarves be banned in universities. The leader of the collapsing Socialist Party, Olivier Faure, said that much firmer action against “islamism” was required and that any parent “who questioned what was being taught” in school should be taken to court… The Socialist Party mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, wants there to be a special “secularism week” in every school in the country. In the Eastern region of France a booklet of caricatures of religious figures (“those most remarked upon”) will be distributed in every high school, and other regions will probably follow suit. The booklet will include anti Catholic caricatures too, but its main aim is Islamophobia. Town halls in major cities have been projecting on the walls of their buildings Charlie Hebdo cartoons, avoided the most insulting ones, but portraying mocking Islam as a brave blow for freedom. On the front page of Le Monde the renowned cartoonist Plantu compared the strength of Islamic terrorism in France today with the Nazi occupation during the second world war. Former left-wing novelist turned racist ideologue, Pascal Bruckner, denounced on live TV the Black antiracist journalist and activist Rokhaya Diallo, saying she “had armed the killers” by her ideas.

As the French Jewish Peace Union put it in its press release

“From denouncing a few fanatics, the discourse has moved onto calling entire groupings Islamist. Then they denounce any independent organization based on Islam (in the same way as the Catholic charity Secours Catholique is faith-based). … Previously the authorities spoke of “the enemy within”, now they accuse Muslims of “separatism”, of wanting in the long run to create spaces in the country where the laws do not apply, in which only laws inspired by the Koran will hold sway, replacing those of the Republic. This accusation is just an old theme of the far right, dressed up in new rags.”

LB: What has been the effect on teachers?

JM: For many teachers this feels like the last straw. For years, staff cuts, a pay freeze and constant curriculum change have made working conditions ever harder. Everyone is shocked and many are frightened by this murder. Teaching unions called a series of successful rallies on Sunday. Most of these were made up of large numbers of people with almost no placards banners or slogans. It was good to see only a few old people brandishing caricatures by Charlie Hebdo (and even these avoided the most insulting drawings). The declarations of the teaching unions have explicitly warned against the targeting of the Muslim community.1

Sad to say, there is plenty of Islamophobia among teachers in France. An insignificant if brave minority opposed banning the hijab in high schools. In teacher activist forums today, many suggest that showing the caricatures of Mohammed should be compulsory in every school. One teacher recounted his amazement when all of his 20-year-old students thought it was better not to insult religion out of respect for believers. Multiple comments from old and bitter secularists ensued. Teacher activists who want to oppose Islamophobia have their work cut out, but some good initiatives and union motions are being prepared

LB: What about the Left? It is well-known that fighting Islamophobia is not a strong point of the French Left…

JM: The most important of the Left reformist groupings is the France Insoumise, which got seven million votes in the last presidentials on a Corbyn-style programme. The movement called last week for “All the people of France to gather round teachers and parents and join the rallies around the country”. It also underlined the fact that “this crime, committed in the name of God, has wounded millions of our fellow citizens who refuse to see their religion linked to such atrocities”.2

The FI is a real electoral danger for Macron, and he and the Right are seizing this opportunity to try to smear the movement. In the present frenzied public debate, the reaction of the biggest radical the France Insoumise, is important. This is a rather heterogeneous movement, aiming at winning the presidency for a radical Left programme. Some hard-line secularists were among the original founders, so contradictory pressures are obviously present – the press release also calls for a fight against “obscurantism”. Leading figures such as FI Member of Parliament Danièle Obono have been in the forefront of the fight against Islamophobia for years, and persistent work by a minority has led to real progress on Islamophobia in the organization. Most notably, Jean Luc Mélenchon, ex-presidential candidate of the FI insisted, against considerable internal opposition, that the FI should officially support the first ever mass demonstration against Islamophobia in Paris last November. (Far left organizations also supported, though there too, only about half their members were convinced they should).

In a McCarthyite atmosphere, The FI is now being attacked as “islamo-leftist” and guilty of encouraging terrorism. Ex Socialist Party -Prime Minister Manuel Valls has accused Mélenchon of being “complicit” in the rise of Islamism. The Education minister, Blanquer added his voice to the fight against “islamo-leftism” which he claims is causing “enormous damage” in universities and in the France Insoumise. It is crucial for Left wingers to defend the organization against these attacks, despite the fact that the FI, like all parties on the French Left, has still a long way to go to become a consistent fighter against Islamophobia, and that its use of “left patriotism” is not something revolutionaries can agree with.

Although much of the Left and the unions have declared that Muslims in general must not be blamed, they will probably not organize to defend Muslim charities and other groupings from being banned: the leaderships will be treading carefully so as not to provoke sharp reactions among their members.

LB: Marine Le Pen must be delighted. How has she reacted?

Le Pen’s fascists have had a bad couple of years. The Yellow Vest movement, involving poor workers and small businessmen, could have moved towards Le Pen’s ideas, but did not, because of the work of left activists. The mass strikes to defend pensions were so popular that Le Pen did not dare openly oppose them. And the health crisis did not leave her any free space for a distinctive position. This new political crisis is on her favourite terrain, and she is hoping people will vote for her because she hated Muslims before the others began to do so so openly. This week she has called for “wartime legislation”, and demanded a freeze on all immigration and on all processes for immigrants taking French nationality. A number of her fascist co-thinkers are regualrlyinvited on prime-time TV shows or asked to write columns in establishment newspapers like Le Figaro

LB: What do you think anticapitalists should be doing?

It is a bit of a nightmare situation in some ways. I think it was right to go to the big rallies called by the teaching unions last week, and I was not convinced by the many revolutionaries who said we should not go because the education minister and other bigwigs would be there.

The situation is in rapid flux and many questions are being thrown up. Some require patient explanation, and some require a sharp polemic. The most important task is to build as broad an alliance as possible to defend Muslims against Islamophobia. There have already been attacks on mosques this week. The oldest mosque in Bordeaux was vandalized by a far-right gang, and a mosque in Montélimar was also smashed up. There is a far wider section of the French Left ready to oppose Islamophobia than has been the case for several decades. If the McCarthyite atmosphere intimidates it into silence, we will have missed an opportunity which we will not see again soon.

We have to keep on with the general explanations, about the role of French imperialism, the massive sales of arms to dictatorships which support terrorism, and the meaning of national unity. We need to explain political Islam and contest the idea that all political Islam can only lead to terrorism, and so on. But unity against Islamophobia is the immediate task. The banning of the CCIF, of Barakacity and others will be challenged in the courts (and at the United Nations), as will the closing of the mosque in Pantin also. We must mobilize to defend them. This will be the test – is good to see most trade unions and Left groups insisting that Muslims should not be blamed, but will they be willing to defend Muslim organizations and mosques?

LB: What can we do in Berlin?

As well as fighting Islamophobia where you are, official declarations of support from trade unions and political organizations are very important. These can be sent to the CCIF and to Barakacity, or to the mosque in Pantin.

John Mullen is a revolutionary activist in the Paris region and a supporter of the France Insoumise.