Earlier this month, the French President, Emmanuel Macron, called up Ben Smith, media columnist of the New York Times, to complain about the newspaper’s coverage, and that of the American press in general, of his recent speech on the theme of secularism – laïcité – in which he vowed to defeat Islamist terrorism in France.
Just to remind you, Macron plans to ensure that in future French Muslims incorporate laïcité into their day-to-day relationship with the state. He proposes that Muslim children should be educated side by side with children from other faiths and none, without reference to religious belief, and intends to ban foreign Imams from preaching extremism in French mosques.
You might suppose that Smith would have been thrilled to hear in person from one of the Western world’s most dynamic leaders. But you would be wrong. In his subsequent piece, beneath the headline, “The President vs the American Media,” Smith gave Macron just 275 words in which to make his case against 1,500 for his riposte.
According to Smith, “picking fights with American media is an old sport in France, and it can be hard to know when talk of cultural differences is real and when it is intended to wave away uncomfortable realities”.
The alleged context of the President’s phone call – made, we are told, from his “gilded” office in the Élysée Palace – was his “desperate fight against a resurgent coronavirus, a weak economy and a political threat from the right”. But not only that: Macron was also “disentangling himself from an early, unsuccessful attempt to build a relationship with President Trump”. Of course, so enamoured was he with the departing Trump, he had, as Smith notes, spoken to President-Elect Joe Biden “the day before our conversation”. (If that isn’t a smoking gun then I don’t know what is.)
Call me old-fashioned, but such a one-sided description would have been appropriate as background to a call out of the blue from the likes of Saddam Hussein or Robert Mugabe, or even Kim Jong- Un, not the democratically-elected leader of the United States’ oldest ally. You don’t have to kow-tow to the President of France, but a smidgeon of respect or perspective would have been nice.
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So what was Macron on about?
I will leave that to Smith. “He argued that the Anglo-American press, as it’s often referred to in his country, has blamed France instead of those who committed a spate of murderous terrorist attacks that began with the beheading on Oct. 16 of a teacher, Samuel Paty, who, in a lesson on free speech, had shown his class cartoons from the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo mocking the Prophet Muhammad.”
A bit of a mouthful, that. But we’ll let it pass.
And what did Macron have to say?
“When France was attacked five years ago, every nation in the world supported us,” (a reference to November 13, 2015, when 130 people were shot dead by Islamist extremists in and around Paris). So when I see, in that context, several newspapers which I believe are from countries that share our values – journalists who write in a country that is the heir to the Enlightenment and the French Revolution – when I see them legitimising this violence, and saying that the heart of the problem is that France is racist and Islamophobic, then I say the founding principles have been lost.”
A little strong, perhaps. I don’t think even the arch-liberals, who now run the New York Times like a West Village edition of Pravda, could be accused of “legitimising” the beheading of Samuel Petty.
But you don’t have to take it from me. Smith was never going to let Macron away with that.
“Legitimizing violence – that’s as serious a charge as you can make against the media, and the sort of thing we’ve been more used to hearing, and shrugging off, from the American president. And Americans, understandably distracted by the hallucinatory final days of the Trump presidency, may have missed the intensifying conflict between the French élite and the English-language media.”
So is Macron just a little bit like Trump? What we are seeing here, in Smith’s view, is not so much a disagreement over the most appropriate government response to terror on the streets of France as a conflict between the stuck-up French élite personified by Macron and the homespun meat and potatoes folk of America that inhabit the executive corridor of the New York Times.
Having established the principal parties to the dispute, Smith sets out to show how the élitist Macron got it wrong right from the start.
“When Mr Patty was murdered, Mr Macron responded with a crackdown on Muslims accused of extremism, carrying out dozens of raids and vowing to shut down aid groups. He also made a vocal recommitment to secularism. Muslim leaders around the world criticized Mr. Macron’s and his aides’ aggressive response, which they said focused on peaceful Muslim groups. The president of Turkey called for boycotts of French products, as varied as cheese and cosmetics. The next month saw a new wave of attacks, including three murders in a Nice church and an explosion at a French ceremony in Saudi Arabia.”
What is being posited here, I suggest, is that the approach of the French President, in seeking to tackle the problem of Islamist extremism head-on – i.e. in the banlieues, the schools and foreign-run mosques – was always going to lead to more attacks and more murders. So why bother? Better, surely, to endure the occasional mass-shooting or schoolyard decapitation than a stinging rebuke from the New York Times.
Which Muslim leaders is Smith referring to anyway when he talks about Macron’s “aggressive” response? Does he mean the autocrats in charge of Iran and Saudi Arabia, who lustily inveighed against Macron for his “anti-Muslim” rhetoric? Is he, in part at least, in agreement with Turkey’s President Erdoğan, who accused Macron of behaving like Hitler towards the Jews (and while Erdoğan himself conveniently ignores the appalling persecution of Turkic Uighur Muslims at the hands of the Chinese state)? Are these the voices of reason to whom we should be listening?
This is a problem that goes far beyond the New York Times alone and it is where Macron may have a point when he talks, in generalised terms, of being besieged by the Anglo-American press. Smith goes on to quote, with evident approval, the Paris correspondent of the Washington Post, James McAuley, who wrote in response to Macron’s speech on laïcité that “instead of addressing the alienation of French Muslims,” the French Government “aims to influence the practice of a 1,400-year-old faith.” He then cites a Times op-ed that asks “bluntly”: “Is France Fuelling Muslim Terrorism by Trying to Prevent It?”
Such an outrageous and ill-informed policy, then, would surely never garner any support among Muslims themselves. Except it has – and the omission of this crucial side of the story is a mystery, one that can only be explained by deliberate oversight or a sheer lack of understanding. Neither of these explanations is particularly encouraging.
Nowhere, it seems, have the journalists of the Washington Post or the New York Times extensively reflected on an open letter penned in Le Monde by some of France’s leading Muslim clerics and intellectuals, including the Grand Imam of Bordeaux, Tareq Oubrou, in which they pledged their support for the President and laïcité. Nor do they appear to have considered the more recent intervention, on Sunday, by Muhammad bin Abdul Karim Alissa, the Saudi Arabian Secretary General of the World Muslim League and the Rector of Cairo’s Al-Azhar University.
In an interview with Le Journal du Dimanche, Alissa, a leading advocate for moderate Islam, also offered his staunch support for the French President, saying that it is an important responsibility of Sunni Muslims to uphold French law and secularism against separatism. He also encouraged efforts to promote an “Islam of France” (“Islam de France”).
On the issue of the offending Charlie Hebdo cartoons, Alissa says: “We have the ultimate conviction that the value of prophets is far too important for it to be damaged by simple cartoons, however disrespectful they may be.”
I do wonder who knows more about Islam and its religious values – a globally-renowned expert with a degree in Islamic Jurisprudence (fiqh) from Saudi Arabia’s prized Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud University, or the editorial boards of east-coast liberal America. I will leave it up to the reader to decide, but I know who my money is on.
I suspect that such views have been ignored because they do not fit conveniently into a simplistic, incurious, and, above all, Trump-obsessed perspective on French affairs. It would be easy to dismiss this kind of reporting as a harmless, if irritating, folly, but for the fact that this type of perspective on events is also fuelling basic factual inaccuracies, and with international repercussions.
Over the weekend, Karen Attiah, Global Opinions editor at the Washington Post, tweeted that “the global media wanted to anoint him (Macron) as a centrist saint, the person who saved France from Marine Le Pen. Now, he’s (sic) wants to give Muslim kids ID numbers to go to school.” Critics quickly pointed out that Macron’s policy would in fact give all French schoolchildren ID numbers, regardless of race or religion. Accordingly, Attiah later apologised for her factual error and retracted her earlier tweet.
I do unequivocally apologize for the error I made in saying that Macron's bill targets Muslim children.
I do have a responsibility to facts. And I do not want to make anything harder for my colleagues who are doing an amazing job with a difficult story.
— Karen Attiah (@KarenAttiah) November 22, 2020
Where Attiah had got this notion from is a mystery, but she was not the only one to have made such a mistake. The Pakistani Minister for Human Rights, Shireen Mazari, tweeted this weekend that “Macron is doing to Muslims what the Nazis did to the Jews – Muslim children will get their ID numbers (other children won’t) just as Jews were forced to wear the yellow star on their clothing for identification.”
Again, after a feisty row with the twitter account of the French Embassy in Pakistan, Mazari deleted her tweet, although notably without offering an apology.
The French Envoy to Pak sent me the following message and as the article I had cited has been corrected by the relevant publication, I have also deleted my tweet on the same. pic.twitter.com/mgOS5RFYwm
— Shireen Mazari (@ShireenMazari1) November 22, 2020
The source of Mazari’s misunderstanding was an article published by the English language news site, The Muslim Vibe, which had originally reported on the ID numbers story. The publication has subsequently withdrawn the statement that “ID Numbers would be exclusively for Muslim children in France” with an accompanying apology at the head of the original article.
To err is human, of course, and we shouldn’t be uncharitable towards those who get things wrong. There is, however, a lot at stake with such careless accusations and their polemical tone, which understandably make many French people defensive, even angry, coming as they do in the wake of horrific terrorist attacks. It is no surprise that the French government spokeswoman, Anne-Sophie Bradelle, told Le Monde recently, “It’s as though we were in the smoking ruins of Ground Zero and they said we had it coming”.
All of this brings us back again to the NYT. Macron, when he can get a word in edgeways, laments the misunderstanding that he says has grown up between the US and Europe, and France in particular, over the place of religion in society:
“American society used to be segregationist before it moved to a multiculturalist model, which is essentially about coexistence of different ethnicities and religions next to one another. 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.”
It was the New York Times, by the way, that capitalised Black, while leaving yellow and white in lower case. But it is Smith, I would guess, in reference to the alienation of young Muslims, who opines that “some of the [US] coverage that has most offended the French has simply reflected the views of Black and Muslim French people who don’t see the world the way French elites want them to”.
Why Black and Muslim, you might ask? Why not just Muslim? Why? Because the New York Times never misses a chance to give a knee to Black Lives Matter. The only wonder is that he doesn’t bring in Me-Too as well … except that he does, in a reference having nothing to do with Macron that depicts French liberals as lagging far behind their more woke American counterparts in their toleration of sexism.
Is there a last laugh to be had in all this? Probably not. But if, over the course of the next year, Joe Biden seems to be getting on just fine with his French counterpart on everything from climate change to Covid, Putin’s Russia, economic recovery, trade with China and the need to step up European defence, don’t be surprised to see a slight smirk of satisfaction cross the patrician features of Emmanuel Macron’s increasingly beleaguered face.