Allāhu akbar!” These were among the last words heard by the three Catholics killed by a knife-wielding jihadist in Nice’s Basilique Notre-Dame de l’Assomption on October 29. The same was true of Samuel Paty, a French middle-school teacher who was decapitated by another jihadist just thirteen days earlier in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, a Parisian suburb.
That France has a severe problem with Islamist jihadism is hardly news. I suspect, however, that many in France are reflecting on the symbolism of these two sets of killings only two weeks apart, and what it means for France’s future as a nation.
The attacks struck at what are often called “the two Frances”—the France of the Revolution and the France called “eldest daughter of the Church.” To understand why this is the case, it’s important to appreciate the image of the schoolteacher in post-1789 France. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, teachers came to be seen as (and often understood themselves to be) evangelists of the secular Republic and the ideals of the Revolution. Long into the twentieth century, French novelists routinely portrayed schoolteachers in the lycée as heirs of Voltaire engaged in an ongoing struggle against the local curé for the soul of each successive generation. In the same literature, the village priest often functioned as the symbol of an older, Catholic France—one with a very different view of French history after 1789.
In twenty-first-century France, the significance of this long-standing cultural fracture has faded. That’s partly because of decades of efforts on the part of Catholic bishops and French politicians to de-escalate church-state tensions. We have also seen the emergence of less-stridently secularist interpretations of what laïcité means. Intense conflicts occasionally flare up around issues like state subsidies for Catholic schools, and fierce debates about marriage laws and bioethics continue. That said, today’s France is many times removed from the harsh polemics that surrounded the bitterly-contested 1905 law that formally separated church and state.
But if the recent killings in Nice and Paris have underscored anything, it is that these older divisions have been thoroughly supplanted by the burning question of the relationship between France—the France of 1789 and France as la fille aînée de l'Église—and the Muslim world inside and outside its borders.
For political Islamists, distinctions between the France of le professeur and the France of monsieur le curé are trivial. In their view, they are just different expressions of the same France: the France that prioritizes freedom of speech over Muslim sensitivities about images of the Prophet Muhammad; the France whose army has been fighting for seven years against jihadists in its former colonies in Francophone Africa; the France that maintains close ties with the Middle East’s Christian communities; and the France that is now the leading opponent of efforts by Turkey’s Islamist president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to expand his country’s influence over the eastern Mediterranean.
A further provocation in the eyes of Islamists is surely President Emmanuel Macron’s recent decision to outline, perhaps more directly than any previous French head of state, his country’s opposition to political Islam.
In an October 2 speech, Macron underscored the French Republic’s commitment to freedom of religion and his respect for France’s Muslims. He referenced French colonialism’s mixed legacy in the Islamic world. But he also unambiguously condemned what he called an “islamisme radical” and “le séparatisme islamiste.” This, Macron went on, is “a conscious, theorized, politico-religious project . . . which often results in the creation of a counter-society and whose manifestations are the dropping out of school of children, the development of sports, cultural and communal practices which are the pretext for the teaching of principles which do not conform to the laws of the republic.” “We don’t believe in political Islam,” Macron bluntly stated. He then outlined several proposals for regulating the activities of France’s mosques and imams. Politicians in countries such as Turkey and Pakistan accused Macron of Islamophobia.
The dominant theme of Macron’s address, however, was the primacy of France as a nation over and above religious differences. Macron repeated the point in remarks he delivered in the aftermath of Samuel Paty’s murder and emphasized it even more in the statement he issued following the slaughter in Nice. “Today,” he wrote, “the whole Nation stands alongside our Catholic fellow citizens.”
The presently-unpopular Macron may be trying to better position himself vis-à-vis the nationalist-leaning and security-minded French right, which will be his main opponent in France’s presidential elections in 2022. Nonetheless, it’s as if Macron has decided that, while he must make the standard references to republican values, which are de rigueur for any French politician, much more is required to ensure France’s cohesion as a society. Ergo, the new Gaullist-like stress on la Nation.
That’s quite a step for someone seen as a leading advocate of liberal order and European integration. I don’t think Macron is abandoning either of those commitments. But the challenge of political Islam and the ongoing problem of jihadist terror—which doesn’t discriminate between the two Frances—may be forcing him to reemphasize the idea of the nation as a glue that helps hold the country together. That implies some recognition that la Nation française embodies more than simply la république française.
The unanswered question is how French Muslims can embrace this identity in a country whose national self-understanding remains largely defined by its Revolutionary and Catholic heritages, however attenuated they may be. Both traditions express quite different conceptions of the relationship between religion and politics compared to those reflected in almost all Muslim-majority nations’ political arrangements. What is clear is that neither the heirs of Saint Louis nor those of Rousseau can answer this question. Only Muslims can do that. And it is not just France that awaits that response, but the West as a whole.
Samuel Gregg is research director at the Acton Institute.
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