President Macron’s response to Muslim extremism looks like an updated version of the efforts of previous French leaders. It is time for a new approach
It’s happened again: a Muslim extremist, angered by the Charlie Hebdo caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, has beheaded a French teacher who showed them in class. Samuel Paty was murdered as he left his school in a suburb of Paris.
And it’s happened again: the French state has launched a crackdown on Muslim extremists, rounding up contacts of the killer and vowing to shut down radical groups. It has also reached out to the law-abiding majority of French Muslims with proposals to create an “enlightened Islam”.
So what will happen next? French leaders have tried and failed to reshape Islam along more Gallic lines for the past three decades. Muslim extremists have taken over 250 lives here in the past five years, and there is no end in sight to the bloody series of killings. Criminals must be prosecuted; the French justice system is doing that. But so far the strategies designed to prevent further attacks have failed to address the roots of the phenomenon.
The French political class looks like a victim of its own success. In 1905, secularists won a long struggle against the then-powerful Catholic Church, separating it from the state. The resulting system, known as laïcité, has since become a template for defending liberté, égalité, fraternité by keeping religion out of the public sphere. Laïcité basically worked. Its legalisms could be awkward, at times infuriating, but they set down guidelines most of the French – whether secularists or people of faith – are ready to follow.