Garvan Walshe: Macron is against the clock defending French Republican values after the latest terror attack

22 Oct

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party.

Last week Samuel Paty was beheaded in another Islamist terror attack in Europe. He was killed after showing his class pictures of the cartoons of the prophet Mohammed that had motivated other Islamist terrorists to attack the offices of the satirical Charlie Hebdo magazine, and in the middle of a campaign by President Macron to reinforce France’s concept of republican secularism.

What we call religious fundamentalists are in French known as integristes, a term that derives from nineteenth century Catholic attempts to insert (or perhaps maintain) Catholic doctrine into civil government. The French term gets to the core of the issue. The problem integrisme poses is not, in itself, that these people hold very tightly to the tenets of their religion, but that they try to integrate it into the country’s politics in a way that weakens or threatens the rights of other citizens.

It is also a different from understanding it as extremism; that is, as a view held with excessive intensity. Islamist ideas create difficult challenges for liberal democracies, just as fascist and communist ideas did. They are all based on dividing people into the elect and the damned based on something other than their own actions. A racially-hierarchical government, or one that prevented private enterprise, would still be objectionable even if it came to office by gradual constitutional means.

Macron understands that the French state, and not just the government of the day, needs to argue for republican principles. Where this needs skill is knowing which battles to pick. Even France should not elevate food to a constitutional principle: the minister who professed to be “shocked” by ethnic food aisles needs a stronger stomach).

Because there is one area in which what we probably should not refer to in this context as the Government’s new bête noire, critical race theory, has a point. The main culture in France or Britain exercises power over minorities, and sets norms they are forced to comply with by social convention as well as legislation. This dominance means it needs to seduce them into the mainstream if it’s not to become overbearing and create resentment for the integristes to exploit.

For all our faults this ought to be something that Britain and France should be able to do. They are far better places to live than — indeed better places for Muslims, the working class, and even blonde blue-eyed Germans to live in — than any Islamist Communist or fascist society has ever been.

Robust counter-terrorism measures are essential, and of course they need to be extended to force social media platforms to take pro-terrorist content as seriously as they take copyright infringement. It is not a violation of freedom of speech to require them to limit even inflammatory content that is not in itself illegal. This is not censorship any more than a bookshop choosing not to stock inflammatory radical texts is. Inflammatory, but legal, content would still be available, but only to the smaller number of people willing to put in extra effort.

These steps however need to be accompanied by a campaign of persuasion and education about liberal democratic values richly expressed in national contexts, that learns from two major mistakes made so far.

The first has been to make the argument that people should believe in certain values because they have come to a certain country. This is first of all unpersuasive to a native British or French Islamist. It also doesn’t provide a reason in itself to accept the principles of liberal democratic society (and in any case in France is not consistent with the universalist ideals of the French Revolution). Rather, the arguments for liberal democracy need to be made on their merits.

The second has been to target this effort at, to use the language of the government’s PREVENT strategy, groups deemed “vulnerable.” Though this appears efficient, it is actually shortsighted. Most obviously because the people singled out feel targeted not helped, but also because long dormant radical ideologies, like right- and left-wing extremism can make a new appearance. The task ought to be to strengthen people’s general resistance to them. A strict analogy to infectious disease, where an “antibody” against Islamism would not work against communism, is wrong. The positive argument for liberal democracy works against them all.

Nowhere is this more necessary in France, where the popularity of Islamist ideas is outmatched by that of both the extreme left and the extreme right, and Macron has less than two years to prevail against all three.