On February 18, 2020, French President Emmanuel Macron gave a long-awaited speech on Islamism. Speaking in the city of Mulhouse, Macron declared that "political Islam has no place in the Republic" and that the French Republic would battle "separatism." Some of the announced measures appear likely, however, to strengthen and legitimize the influence of organizations close to the Muslim Brotherhood and the autocratic Turkish Regime, while weakening the separation of church and state in France, which, many critics argue, has been an important barrier against the further spread of Islamism in French society.
Macron's measures are intended to repress Islamism while, at the same time, encourage better integration of Muslims into French society. Along with the provision of better social services for French Muslim communities, Macron wants to reduce "foreign influences" on French Islam by putting an end to "seconded imams" (Algeria, Turkey and Morocco send 300 imams to France every year to lead mosques and other Islamic organizations).
Once the current seconded imams' visas expire in 2024, according to a government source, "France" will start training imams with the support of the Conseil français du culte musulman (CFCM), an organization established by France's Interior Ministry in 2003 to represent French Muslims. The details of Macron's training program are yet unclear, but the ultimate objective is to create a new generation of moderate home-grown clerics.
The presence of foreign-sponsored imams on French soil has always been controversial, and many critics have warned about their deleterious effects on the problems of radicalization. But not all agree with Macron's proposed changes. Some point out that the French government is at least familiar with the religious background of these imported imams, in contrast to French imams, many of whom leave the country privately for unknown religious education elsewhere.
Most problematic is Macron's decision to involve the government and the CFCM in clerical training. While it may be prudent for government to monitor such training, it is another step entirely for the government to lead efforts to train imams. Following Macron's speech, a working group of elected officials from Macron's party has now proposed the creation of a national clerical school, to assist in the "theological counter-offensive in the struggle against fundamentalism." At this institution, officials proposed, the French state would teach secular subjects, while the CFCM would manage the theological training. The proposals also advocate a greater degree of regulation over existing Islamic educational institutions, and government authorization for the creation of new ones.
But the involvement of CFCM is troubling. It has long been criticized for not being truly representative of French Muslims. Indeed, the CFCM is already seen by many as an archaic institution whose democratic procedures, or lack thereof, one critic mused, resembles that of "Arab autocracies." Only half of the CFCM assembly-members are elected, and these delegates are chosen by only 40 percent of France's mosques, with the rest refusing to take part. Under the CFCM system, larger mosques – often Islamist-run or funded – are afforded greater voting power.
The other half of CFCM members is appointed by Islamic institutions involved with the organization's establishment, which includes prominent political bodies. For example, the Musulmans de France organization, which was founded by Muslim Brotherhood officials, has ten CFCM members, of which nine are appointed and only one is elected. Other sponsoring institutions with this power include French branch of the Turkish Islamist Millî Görüş movement, and the Comité de coordination des musulmans turcs de France, which is regarded as a proxy for the Erdoğan regime.
If CFCM were to be responsible for managing Islamic clerical education, this would lead to a homogenized form of French Islam partly prescribed by foreign states and theocratic movements. Although Ankara appears to be resisting Macron's decision to end the import of foreign imams, either way, the Turkish regime will continue to exert influence.
In his speech, Macron insisted on the importance of an Islam that is compatible with the French Republic. But CFCM officials do not appear to share his view. Abdallah Zekri, General Delegate of the CFCM, was the subject of widespread media condemnation after he excused death threats sent to a teenager who expressed criticism of Islam. When asked for his opinion about the threats of violence, Zekri replied that "who sows the wind, reaps the whirlwind."
Macron declared that "Islamist separatism is incompatible with liberty and equality, incompatible with the indivisibility of the Republic and the necessary unity of the nation." While this appears to welcome, forceful rhetoric, Macron's decision to use the term "separatism" frames the issue of Islamism in a way that minimizes the dangers posed by lawful Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood. These Islamists pose a much more pernicious threat than the typical French experience of separatists such as the Basque nationalists in the south of France. Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood predominantly seek to Islamize the societies in which they live; not withdraw from them.
Macron's determination to reduce foreign influence in France is understandable. But this is not limited to extremist foreign imams sent by extremist foreign powers - which at least takes place under regulated agreements. Islamism is more than its clerical advocates. In recent years, Qatar has focused its efforts on opening Islamic centers that serve as mini-societies of their own – they feature shopping malls, pools, fitness centers, schools and even morgues. These centers discourage Muslims from leaving to use equivalent secular services; instead encouraging non-Muslims, through outreach and proselytization efforts, to come in. Curiously, Macron made no specific mention of Qatar.
Macron's other announcement, which was well-received, was a commitment to end the "enseignements de langue et de culture d'origine" (ELCO). Also regulated by bilateral agreements, ELCO allowed an array of countries to send language teachers to France to teach the children of emigrant workers to retain fluency in their parents' languages. ELCO does not exclusively involve Muslim countries, but the associated problems of extremism and radicalization certainly do.
Many ELCO teachers, it has emerged, were not qualified to provide language lessons at all. And with little government oversight, teachers were free to use their classes as opportunities to proselytize in secular schools. The French President's harshest words were reserved for Ankara, stating: "we cannot have Turkish laws on French soil." Indeed, new agreements were reached with all the ELCO countries except for Turkey.
Islamists around the world noticed Macron's speech. In the U.S, a number of prominent activists rushed to social media to criticize Macron and his proposed measures, despite not completely understanding them. Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations' Los Angeles chapter and a vocal supporter of the Erdoğan regime, shared an article announcing the end of ELCO, commenting that, "France, which continues its support for French schools and culture in dozens of its former colonies, is banning foreign language classes in France to 'combat interference'. France's hypocrisy and insecurity is something!"
French political parties have waited impatiently for Macron to make an announcement on the threat posed by Islamism. But many have now already decried the measures as "weak." Others, while praising the president's stand against Turkish influence in France, have questioned Macron's decision to limit the presence of Moroccan and Algerian Islam, while staying silent on Qatari attempts to advance "anti-democratic" Islamist ideals.
While many consider some of Macron's proposed new measures to be promising, what he left out is worrisome. Moderate Islam in the West requires reformist voices; not French bureaucracy and deputized lawful Islamists. It requires governments to limit the subtle subversion introduced by Qatar; not just the loud proselytization imposed by Turkey. Macron's efforts may be well-intentioned, but his policies will likely further homogenize French Islam under an Islamist banner, held aloft by those who have learned to advance their ideals more discreetly, under the cover of unworldly government edicts.
Martha Lee is the Research Fellow of Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.