Islamophobia in France: A Discursive Shift

By Jonas Wanstok

In the past month, language such as “Islamist separatism,” “Islamo-leftism,” and “communitarianism” has dominated most arenas of French political discourse. On October 16th, Samuel Paty, a teacher of history and geography at a middle school in a Parisian suburb, was beheaded near his school. The parent of one of Paty’s students began a campaign on social media calling for the teacher’s resignation following Paty’s decision to show satirical cartoons of the prophet Muhammad to his 8th grade class. The alleged killer was a Muslim teenager outraged by Paty’s actions. About two weeks later, three people were killed in a knife attack at a church in Nice that was characterized by president Emmanuel Macron as an act of terrorism. The French state’s response to these events and the subsequent media coverage have been defined by the shameless deployment of an Islamophobic rhetoric generally attributed to France’s far-right party, the Rassemblement National (previously the Front National).

The French government has ordered the dissolution of two organizations fighting Islamophobia in France, the CCIF (Collective Against Islamophobia in France) and Barakacity, by claiming they were implicated in the attack. This will lead to legal proceedings in which the administration will have to back up their claims.[1] Macron’s government has also stated they will present a bill in December that aims to strengthen the 1905 law that first codified the principle of laïcité, France’s take on state secularism. Measures in this new bill are said to include tighter controls on the financing of mosques and a crackdown on homeschooling.[2] These measures are hardly surprising. Racism and Islamophobia are endemic to France; they are part of the country’s foundations, dating back to Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798. While this past month has not marked a shift in ideology, the rhetoric surrounding Paty’s murder and the constant problematization of Muslims in France might however indicate a discursive shift.

The notion of laïcité has always been the main battleground for state-sanctioned Islamophobia. However, laïcité is a nebulous concept, and its meaning often changes depending on who you ask and what their political agenda might be. The 1905 law was initially passed to ensure the state’s neutrality in matters of religion at a time when the Catholic church held significant political influence. The principle of laïcité is often romanticized as the foundation for freedom and equality in France: freedom of thought, to practice any faith without fear of discrimination, to be free from the imposition of any creed or belief system, and equality of status between all individuals regardless of their spiritual beliefs. In practice, however, France has unsurprisingly been extremely selective in how laïcité functions and to whom it extends protection. So much so, in fact, that laïcité and Islamophobia have become close to inextricable, constantly upholding and legitimizing one another. “The tendency in France for over 20 years has been to deny a specific group the right to make personal choices, without ever proving the threat to public order or individual freedom that these choices are claimed to pose.”[3] Laïcité was deemed to be intact when president Emmanuel Macron attended the Bishops’ Conference of France in 2018 and said he felt “the link between the Church and the State has been damaged and it is important that we mend it.”[4] Yet we are also told to see the same laïcité in practice when Macron orders the closing of the Grand Mosque of Pantin, a low-income Paris suburb, after a video criticizing the actions of history teacher Samuel Paty was posted on the mosque’s Facebook page prior to Paty’s murder.[5]

Despite what recent events might seem to indicate about the nature of laïcité as a law and concept, it’s incredibly telling that no politicians on the left or on the right choose to interpret this crisis as a challenge to laïcité’s legitimacy as a principle. Rather, they all claim to be defending a law whose existence is deemed inextricable from the existence of the republic. The most influential party on the anti-austerity left, La France Insoumise, argues the discourse and policies regarding laïcité have disproportionately targeted Muslims. The criticism is not levelled against laïcité as a flawed concept, but rather against those that would stray from its original meaning. Despite assurances, the French government is not fighting a war against what it describes as “radical Islam.” It is fighting against a pathologized Islamization of its population. The recent rhetoric employed by the current administration and the colonial history that shaped the political construction of the French state indicate the government’s ideal Muslim is one that would abandon their faith, or at least have the decency to hide it. Taking a page right out of the far-right’s playbook, news outlets and members of the government have codified a language that makes it increasingly difficult to name and condemn structural Islamophobia. Numerous journalists and news program presenters have taken to shaming and attacking any guests or individuals that dare go beyond strictly condemning the attacks by warning against the establishment’s weaponization of these tragedies against Muslims in France.

A few examples include journalist Patrick Cohen on the set of the news show “C à vous” being outraged by a union member recorded saying his main concern regarding Paty’s murder was the deployment of Islamophobic rhetoric that might play into the hands of the far-right. Writer Pascal Bruckner followed suit on the set of “28 minutes” when he odiously accused journalist and anti-racist activist Rokhaya Diallo of “arming the hands of the killers” of Charlie Hebdo journalists when she co-signed a text denouncing the Islamophobic content of the satirical publication, 4 years before an attack on the newspaper headquarters for publishing caricatures of the prophet Muhammad led to the deaths of 11 people.

Of course, members of Macron’s government are guilty of the same crime. On the set of the radio show Europe 1, the French minister of education Jean-Michel Blanquer criticized what he called an “intellectual complicity with terrorism,” claiming that “our society has been too permeable to ‘Islamo-leftism’ in our universities and the ranks of la France Insoumise.”[6] Along the same lines, the minister of the interior, Gerald Darmanin, said the following to a representative of la France Insoumise while the National Assembly was in session: “A political party like yours, that has long denounced the opium of the masses, is now tied to an ‘islamo-leftism’ that threatens to destroy the republic.”[7]

These cases demonstrate a discursive denial, whereby the condemnation of such attacks and the condemnation of structural Islamophobia are deemed exclusive. The corollary of this logic is that those who choose to explicitly name state-sanctioned Islamophobia are accused of defending terrorist attacks. In a country collective consciousness has conveniently failed to process the significance of its colonizer identity, the current discourse surrounding laïcité indicates a shift not in ideology but in form: the framework of colonialism and racism on which the Fifth Republic was predicated is steadily growing bolder and stronger.

[1] MAZOUE, A. (2020, October 21). Dissolution du CCIF et de BarakaCity : Un bras de fer juridique risqué pour l’État. Retrieved November 03, 2020, from

[2] France’s Macron says Islam ‘in crisis all over the world today’. (2020, October 02). Retrieved November 03, 2020, from

[3] Saygin, M. (2020, February 28). ” Séparatisme islamiste ” en France : Le poids des mots. Retrieved November 03, 2020, from

[4] Le Monde Editorial. (2018, April 11). Emmanuel Macron, l’Eglise et la politique. Retrieved November 03, 2020, from

[5] Guiton, A. (2020, October 27). La fermeture de la mosquée de Pantin validée par la justice. Retrieved November 03, 2020, from

[6] Durand, M. (2020, October 22). “Ce qu’on appelle l’islamo-gauchisme fait des ravages”, dénonce Jean-Michel Blanquer. Retrieved November 03, 2020, from

[7] 1ère séance : Questions au Gouvernement ; Mise sur le marché de produits phytopharmaceutiques ; Accélération et simplification de l’action publique ; Encadrer l’exploitation commerciale de l’image d’enfants de moins de seize ans – Mardi 6 octobre 2020. (2020, October 06). Retrieved November 03, 2020, from–questions-au-gouvernement–mise-sur-le-marche-de-produits-phytopharmaceutiques–acce-6-octobre-2020.

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