Roar writer Natalia Vasnier on French President Emmanuel Macron’s attitude toward terrorism, and how that attitude may affect France in the years to come.

The month of October 2020 has deeply shaken the French. October 16 marked the tragic beheading of a French school teacher, Samuel Paty, who was murdered for showing his students caricatures of Prophet Muhammad and teaching them freedom of expression. During Mr Paty’s memorial at the Sorbonne on October 21, President Macron said: “We will not renounce caricature, even if others move backwards […] we will continue the fight for freedom and for reason”. He holds his position that France will not fall to terrorism and that freedom of speech is a fundamental right in the nation. These terror attacks are happening in the middle of another crisis: France is in its second national Covid-19 lockdown since October 30.

France has been on the radar of Islamic terror attacks since its military interventions suppressing terrorist forces in North Africa and the Middle East began. Anti-French sentiment has also been fuelled by the Algerian War in the 1960s and France’s colonial past in North Africa, making such feelings easy to mobilise. In 2014, France adopted a law that banned the use of full-face veils for Muslim women across the country, a law that has been harshly condemned as a human rights violation by the UN panel. From the moment of the Charlie Hebdo affair in 2015, the publishing of Prophet Muhammad caricatures have been seen as profane by Muslims around the world.

The fact that President Macron allows this freedom of expression has caused major upheaval in the Middle East. Anti-French Muslim protests have taken place in Lebanon, Pakistan, and Bangladesh over the past few weeks, generally organised by hard-line Islamist groups. Thousands have marched under the binding quote: “Freedom of Speech is not Freedom to Abuse”. Turkish President Erdogan went even further, calling President Macron mentally unstable and advocating for the boycott of French products. The latter has taken effect in Kuwait’s non-governmental Union of Consumer Co-operative Societies, which pulled French products from their stores. Similarly, the public has called for French boycotts in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Qatar.

As a leading European country, boycotts of French products will not harshly affect the French economy. However, there is a national fear that antagonistic opinions will cause tensions on French territory.

Three distinct groups of opinion have emerged in reaction to President Macron’s statements. The first – and the most prominent – is what the French president calls the French ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity, serving as a safeguard for the greater national community. Secondly, the opinion prevailing in the MENA region that French values and laws degrade Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. The third group is the most feared now: the radical terrorists, whose attacks might become more intense in future.

France is currently at the highest threat level of a terrorist attack. In response to the recent attack in Nice killing three in a catholic church, an extra 4,000 army soldiers will be mobilised to protect places of religious worship, as well as the French people in general. The rise in the number of soldiers on French soil will ultimately not stop attacks; it will only dissuade them. Some citizens already fear that France will become a militaristic state due to this action. It is not a permanent solution.

Looking to the future, the risk of a terrorist attack is likely, but the French people are used to living with this threat over their heads. This episode, and many others like it, have sparked fear in other European nations – Vienna experienced an attack as recently as November 2 – but it has only brought the French people even closer together. However, we should not overlook the impact a second national lockdown will have on the French economy and the possibility of a “Gillet Jaunes” movement revival. The pandemic led to the loss of 600,000 jobs, and the unemployment rate of under 25 year-olds is the highest ever recorded. The future is very uncertain for this part of the population, who could easily become new members of a potential second “Gilets Jaunes” wave.

It is difficult to offer a solution to avoid terrorism,  which has and will always be a threat to France. At a national level, a better inclusion of the lower class in French society and more national solidarity would avoid, to some extent, the radicalisation of young people in French suburbs.

At an international level, Macron is now looking for defenders of liberal democracy to support him during this rise of protests from Bangladesh to Lebanon. His new ally could well be President-Elect Joe Biden, who seems to share more common values with Mr Macron than current US President Donald Trump. One thing is for sure, however: Christmas will not be the same in France this year.

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