Between Secularism and Fundamentalism: On France’s Response to Islamic Terrorist Attacks

The problem France is facing with radical Islamism is not separatism, but conquest. To fight Islamic terror, France needs to recall the Christian roots of her culture and robustly defend them.

Five years after the slaughter of the “Bataclan” in 2015, France has suffered several terrorist attacks yet again. A teacher has been beheaded near Paris, and three Christians praying in a church in Nice were killed—to speak only of the most impressive attacks. During these five years, Islamic radicalism has killed more than 260 people in France.

The 2020 attacks were very difficult to prevent. Generally speaking, there was no underlying logic, and they were each perpetrated by a single man with a simple knife. Most French people understand that this kind of attack could become very common in the future. And these attacks received a stronger political response than the bigger attacks in 2015 or 2016 precisely because the French do not want this to become their future.

Many observers noted that President Emmanuel Macron’s response was very firm. This came as a surprise: Emmanuel Macron, as a candidate and at the beginning of his presidency, was seen mostly as the spokesman for liberal globalization—or, to put it in the poetic words of the 2017 campaign, “happy globalization.” Macron was supposed to be a talented banker, but not a commander-in-chief able to resist terrorist attacks. In any case, he spoke strongly against radical Islamism, which is a rarity in French politics. Up to this point, only “populists” decry Islam by name. Of course, President Macron doesn’t speak precisely about “Islam,” but about “Islamic extremism;” nevertheless, it remains a small revolution to have a high-level governing politician use the word “Islam” when speaking of domestic terrorism.


That said, Macron’s diagnosis is false, and his answers therefore even more inaccurate, for at least three reasons. First, it is not “republican values” that are being attacked, as Macron and France’s secular elite proclaim, but a non-Islamic civilization—more precisely, a Christian civilization. Second, Islamic extremism has something to do with Islam. Third, the problem we are facing with radical Islamism is not what Emmanuel Macron calls “separatism,” but conquest.

Like the vast majority of liberals, Emmanuel Macron seems unable to understand the very notion of culture or identity. That doesn’t mean that he hasn’t any culture: he has (more than his predecessors). But he seems to be unable to understand that even an uneducated man is deeply rooted in a culture and that this culture shapes his vision of the world. President Macron is a spokesman of the financial elites and seems to think that culture is only a sort of folklore—or, worse, a barrier to international trade that we have to destroy. Even though he is highly educated, he never speaks about French culture. He even once said that French culture doesn’t exist, which is perhaps the craziest statement one can make about French culture.

Instead, Macron only speaks about abstract “republican values.” Because these values are never actually defined, nobody can clearly articulate what the problem of Islamic radicalism actually is. But radical Islamism isn’t fighting “republican values”—it’s fighting whatever is not Islamic civilization. Radical Islam destroyed the Bahmyian Buddhas in Afghanistan, as it previously burned the library in Alexandria and covered the mosaics of the Hagia Sophia. In a way, Islam could be seen as a successful iconoclasm. It doesn’t oppose the republican way of choosing political leaders; there are many Islamic republics. It doesn’t care about abstract and undefined values. It cares about French culture and Christian civilization, our way of life and our way of thinking, and their opposition to Islam’s culture, worldview, and way of life.


It’s very common in French political debates to say that Islamic fundamentalism—which is justly seen as the root of terrorism—has nothing to do with Islam or the Qu’ran. This is obviously absurd. By definition, fundamentalism has something to do with the sacred book of a religion: it is the literal reading of this sacred book. And more precisely, Islamic fundamentalists want to return to a way of life that imitates the ideal of Muhammad. This model necessarily entails theocracy, holy war, polygamy, and slavery—all of which are imposed, promoted, or allowed by the Qu’ran. Whatever modern people think about it, Muhammad’s model is not simply bad or archaic: it could be beautiful to promote Bedouin ascetism, the community of believers (umma), and the adoration of the transcendent God. However, many elements of this ideal model are frontally opposed to Western civilization—not only because modernity has dragged us far from the life of the Arabian desert in the seventh century, but because Western civilization is rooted in the Christian faith—especially its dialogue among the three divine Persons and the dialogue between human beings and God, first through revelation and above all through the Incarnation. Like it or not, these dogmas shaped our civilization: from them comes the unsolvable and unending discussion between political and spiritual powers, and between faith and reason.

In any event, we can’t say that the Islamist desire to come back to the “beautiful model” of Muhammad has nothing to do with Islam. And if it were possible—though I don’t think it is—only Muslims can say this. We Western people are not qualified to give the true and just interpretation of the Qu’ran. We can only hope that Muslim leaders who have developed new interpretations of Islamic scriptures that are more compatible with peace and the dialogue of civilizations will become more influential. In this context, the attempt of the Egyptian president Al-Sissi to ask the teachers of Al-Azhar university for such interpretations is very interesting. But this is not a Western debate, and while we wait for these qualified and more peaceful interpretations of the Qu’ran, we can only notice that the trouble we have goes back to elements that are embedded in the core of Islam itself.

The third element of President Macron’s false diagnosis lies in the concept of “Islamic separatism.” Again, there is an element of truth here: some neighborhoods of our big cities are now separated from the whole country. The law applied there is sharia—or else the law of thugs—and not French law. In these neighborhoods, a young woman without a veil or someone eating in the street during Ramadan risks a lot. In this sense, we can speak of separatism. But Islamic radicals are fighting not only to manage hundreds of districts, but to run the entire country under Islamic law. They are fighting for conquest, as the Qu’ran asks them to do, and not only for separatism.


Political correctness and, above all, poor knowledge of Islam and of the Christian roots of our own civilization drove President Macron to this partial and false diagnosis—which, in turn, leads him to false, inefficient, and sometimes dangerous answers. The first is not even an answer: it’s the unasked question of immigration. It is striking that almost nobody speaks about the question of immigration when it comes to speaking about terrorism. But it is clear that large Muslim immigration is the potting soil of fundamentalism and then of terrorism. The man who beheaded the teacher Samuel Paty was a Chechen “refugee,” and the man who murdered three people in the church of Nice was an illegal immigrant. France cannot continue to receive around 500,000 legal immigrants and more than 100,000 illegal immigrants each year—especially since we have already a large number of our own people without jobs. I cannot see how to deal with terrorism if our borders stay widely open—and if we pay for social assistance for the people fighting against our own country. If we are fighting a war against terrorism, we have to respect the rules of the war and to consider enemies as enemies.

After this question of immigration, we have also a problem of integration. It is perhaps difficult for Americans to understand, but the French model is not a model of several communities living alongside each other. Rather, the French see themselves as one national community living together with a common language, a common law, a common culture, and a common way of life. This means that, until recently, all immigrants had to integrate with French culture: they gave French names to their children, they spoke French at home, and they attended French schools to become French in one generation. Integration worked very well with Spanish, Polish, Italian, or Portuguese immigrants during the entire twentieth century—but culturally they were very close to us.

Integration now works badly (or fails to occur at all) for many reasons. The first is that Islamic immigrants are culturally far from, and often explicitly opposed to, our way of life. The second is the sheer number of immigrants: it’s easier to integrate 50,000 people than millions. The third is historical: we share a common history with the peoples of North Africa, but we then fought each other in the wars over decolonization. The fourth one is probably the most problematic: our schools and our political leaders don’t “promote” France and French culture. The left has voted for many laws of “repentance” according to which France is guilty of colonization, slavery, Jewish genocide, etc. Of course, some French people and some French leaders are truly guilty of such sins. But it’s difficult to encourage children of immigrants to love France if we only tell them that France is guilty of many sins—especially against their native country.


The law against “Islamic separatism” now prepared by the government is not precisely known today, but we have many reasons to fear that it will worsen these bad answers to Islamic fundamentalism. When outlining the law’s main guidelines, President Macron spoke against freedom of association, freedom of education, and many other freedoms—not only for Islamic fundamentalism, but for every French citizen. For example, to avoid radical Islamic schools, he spoke against homeschooling. It is deeply unfair to suppress a natural right for the sake of abuses of that right. It remains unclear whether he will go further in this direction, but he could very easily transform France into a secular dictatorship to prevent France from becoming an Islamic dictatorship.

From my perspective, fighting efficiently against Islamic terrorism begins with reinforcing the state in its sovereign missions: protecting borders, giving the police the power to fight crime in a serious way, having intelligence agencies monitor radical Islamic groups, and perhaps sending the army itself into the “separated” neighborhoods. But this security policy cannot be sufficient. We must build a robust immigration policy and choose whom we want to welcome into our country. We must above all work on the transmission of our own culture. And that means coming back to the Christian roots of this culture.

France is a secular country, but everywhere you can see beautiful churches or cathedrals; in every poem and classic work of literature you can see how important Christianity is in our culture. It is absolutely necessary that politicians cease to fight Christianity. Many seem to believe that we are still at the end of the nineteenth century, with a powerful Catholic Church running almost all the schools and hospitals and with more than 95 percent of the French population being baptized. Catholicism built France slowly, but attacking Christianity is destroying France much more quickly! We need political, cultural, educational, ecclesiastical, and media leaders loving our country and promoting it without slander or naïvely positive propaganda.


Finally, we must be honest with Muslims: we have to tell them what is problematic for us in their religion. We can find some common ground to work together according to human rights or natural law. But we must face the huge differences—if not oppositions—between our two cultures. For example, in Western civilization, the equal dignity of every human being is not negotiable: we cannot accept that a man is more valuable than a woman, or a Muslim believer than an unbeliever; we cannot accept polygamy; and we cannot accept the death penalty for apostasy. If some Muslim believers cannot share our views, then they cannot become French citizens. Perhaps they will have to move to Muslim countries, but we cannot allow them to fight—even if only culturally—against our civilization.

The question posed by terrorist attacks is not only a matter of security but much more a cultural one. If we want a peaceful dialogue of civilizations, we should come back to the roots of our own civilization and say quietly but firmly what principles we stand for and what principles we cannot accept. I’m afraid President Macron doesn’t want to deal with these difficult issues. But I am even more certain that if he does not, terrorist attacks will grow and somebody else will have to deal with them.

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