French President Emmanuel Macron has expressed dismay that international response to recent terror attacks did not match the support shown just years ago, in two interviews published Monday. The interviews vary greatly in tone, but convey similar messages about French secularism and European values.
In both interviews, each conducted on Thursday, Macron expressed disappointment that recent attacks in Conflans, near Paris, and in the southern city of Nice have not spurned similar international support as the January 2015 attacks on satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
“Five years ago, when those who drew the caricatures were killed, the whole world marched with Paris and defended those rights [of freedom of expression],” Macron told Le Grand Continent, a revue of prominent think tank Groupe d’études géopolitiques, in a wide-ranging interview translated into English and four other languages.
“Many condolences were discreet. And then we had political and religious leaders from some parts of the Muslim world who were intimidating, saying: ‘They should just change their laws,’” Macron said, in references to protests and calls for boycotts of France in some countries.
“I am for respect for cultures, for civilisations, but I am not going to change our laws because they cause shock elsewhere.”
Complaint to English-language press
Similar messages arose in an exchange with the New York Times, though the tone was very different, with Macron taking issue with English-language and especially American media coverage of France’s relations with Islam.
“When France was attacked five years ago, every nation in the world supported us,” Macron told media columnist Ben Smith, echoing his words to the revue.
“So when I see...journalists who write in a country that is heir to the Enlightenment and the French Revolution...legitimising this violence, saying that the heart of the problem is that France is racist and Islamophobic, then I say the founding principles have been lost.”
The attacks in Conflans and Nice, as well as the ensuing protests and debates, have come in the context of Macron seeking to crack down on what he has called “political Islam” and “Islamist separatism”.
Critics inside and outside of France have argued the government is using its policies to target the Islamic faith, and it was not the first time the president sought to address portrayals of the issue in the English-language press.
Earlier this month, Macron wrote a letter to Britain’s Financial Times rebuking an article, since removed from the business daily’s website, that accused France of discrimination towards Muslims.
‘Moral crisis in Europe’
Underlying the remarks of both interviews is a president seeking to affirm France’s vision for what Europe brings to a world stage influenced by US-China competition.
“There is a moral crisis in Europe, because it has fought all these historical battles, including the fight against barbarity and against totalitarianism,” the French president told Le Grand Continent. “Europe should take up the torch of its values. They are being forsaken everywhere.”
Macron spoke at length to distinguish defending European values from the terms of a clash of cultures or civilisations, of a Christian Europe versus the Muslim world.
“It is a Europe with Judeo-Christian roots, that is a fact, but one that has built two things: the coexistence of religions and the secularisation of politics, which have made it possible to acknowledge the inherence of the rational and free individual and therefore respect between religions," Macron said.
“What is happening in this ongoing debate, largely against France...is a colossal step backwards into history. The entire debate has basically consisted in asking Europe, and in this particular case France, to apologise for the freedoms it allows.”
French universalism vs multiculturalism
Speaking to the New York Times, the French president sought to cast matters in terms of different ways of understanding how people of different cultural backgrounds live together.
“There is a sort of misunderstanding about what the European model is – and the French model in particular,” Macron told the paper.
“Our model is universalist, not multiculturalist… In our society, I don’t care whether someone is black, yellow or white, whether they are Catholic or Muslim, a person is first and foremost a citizen.”
The French president did not reserve the distinction to his interview with the US paper.
“I want all citizens to be able to practice their faith as they wish. However, we are also a country where the rights of the Republic must be perfectly respected,” Macron told Le Grand Continent. “We are not multiculturalists, we do not stack the ways of representing the world one after the other, but we try to build one together.”