Macron trying to take on ‘separatism’ problem in France

By: Rachel Marsden

PARIS — French President Emmanuel Macron has decided to tackle France’s “separatism” problem. That such a thing even exists may come as a surprise to you. Heck, it came as a surprise to me, and I’ve been living in France for the past dozen years.

When the French thought about separatism in the past, they usually thought about regional separatist groups that have since faded into the background, such as the National Liberation Front of Corsica (FLNC), or the Basque nationalist Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) group on the border of France and Spain. Both groups are comprised of French citizens who in the past have perpetrated acts of terrorism to draw attention to their desire to get their independence from France.

But it’s been a while since either of these groups has been front and center on the national scene. So when Macron and his party’s majority government recently made headlines by denouncing “separatism” and introducing legislation to curtail it, more than a few of us here were left scratching our heads.

That is, until suburban schoolteacher Samuel Paty showed some published satirical images of the Prophet Muhammad to his class and was subsequently beheaded by one of these avid “separatists.”

Macron refers to “Islamist separatism” — not to be confused with “Islamic separatism,” s’il vous plait — and has taken issue with the English-language media’s failure to pick up on his linguistic subtlety. He even called New York Times media columnist Ben Smith to complain about it. Macron would like for us intellectual simpletons to recognize that the former refers to the ideological separatism he opposes, while the latter implies an attack on an entire religion, which is not his intent.

Just as I was getting my Anglo journalist mind wrapped around that particular nuance — that this issue isn’t about religion but strictly ideology — Macron’s interior minister, Gerald Darmanin, took to Twitter to announce “massive action” targeting 76 mosques for “separatism.” One such mosque, in the suburban Paris commune of Pantin, was closed on government order for six months after posting a message on social media denouncing schoolteacher Paty a week before he was killed.

This separatism stuff is pretty confusing. Macron’s own government is ordering religious establishments closed — places of worship attended by thousands of moderate religious people — when the target is supposed to be ideological.

Macron is now trying to police nearly everything — an impossible feat. He’s calling up the media to police linguistic matters when they fail to pick up on his semantic nuance. His government is apparently realizing the complexity of policing mosques, shutting them down rather than attempting to triage entire congregations to sort out the “separatists.” All this policing is required largely because the French government has long failed to maintain adequate borders around the country. Now it’s tying to establish borders within.

France has long had the opportunity to address the inadequate domestic integration of foreign-born citizens. The recent government hyperactivity on the “separatist” issue is proof of failure.

And now, it’s “Mission: Impossible.” Or perhaps it’s more like that other Tom Cruise movie, “Minority Report,” where the authorities start policing people’s thoughts to determine if they’re going to commit a crime. The French government has so badly lost control of the situation that it would have to do something nearly that drastic to get a grip on the “separatism” problem. Because despite French intelligence surveilling around 10,500 “separatists,” they’ve still been able to commit acts of terrorism on French soil.

Macron is putting on a heartfelt show of questionable effectiveness in defense of secular French values. It’s admirable in much the same way that one admires David for fighting Goliath. The new law being introduced this week is supposed to protect specific aspects of daily life from this newer form of “separatism.”

Macron also addressed the funding of French “separatism” by foreign actors in a speech earlier this year.

“We witnessed the arrival of so many organizations that we discovered had been funded by such and such a foundation, sometimes by a foreign government, sometimes by special interests, without much transparency,” Marcon said.

Technically, France itself has been funded by state sponsors of jihadism — er, “separatism” — notably Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Qatar owns the Paris Saint-Germain Football Club, and Saudi Arabia is one of France’s top weapons clients. Both countries have had dealings with France worth billions of dollars.

Maybe the French government should start by separating itself from such connections to show the “separatist” movement in France the way of virtue.