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An overview of political and religious communitarisms in France

Six recent books provide an overview of the reaffirmation of Catholic, Muslim and Jewish religio-political identities in France.

These studies describe realities. But they obviously do not give a complete picture of the human groups studied. Within each group, people living their convictions peacefully are massively represented. It is the more or less influential active minorities that are described. Similarly, it would be absurd to equate these various human groups, whose history, composition, evolution and political and cultural impact are all different. Identities may be religious, but they may also be cultural, political, ethnic or social, and often combine several of these dimensions. The books presented below are characterised by the large amount of factual information they provide. This is their main interest. Their analyses may have been approved or discussed elsewhere. We have also left aside, for the moment, the choice of vocabulary. What is the most appropriate term: separatism, communitarianism, radicalisation, clericalism…? We’ll come back to that later.

A la droite de Dieu (At the right hand of God). Jérôme Fourquet. Lexio, Editions du Cerf

What is happening to Catholics in France? Alongside a vast movement of associations involved in social issues, and now ecology, another logic is unfolding. That of a reaffirmation of identity that is both closed and offensive. This is the subject of a study by Jérôme Fourquet, significantly entitled “At the right hand of God”. The study begins with a reminder of the considerable demographic erosion of the practising Catholic world: baptisms, marriages, funerals, Sunday Mass attendance, etc. are all in freefall. It then analyses what political scientist Gaël Brustier has called “Le Mai 68 des conservateurs” (The Conservatives’ May 68) (Editions du Cerf). To everyone’s surprise, conservative Catholic activists succeeded in mobilising hundreds of thousands of people in the streets against the law on marriage for all, which opened up new rights to marriage, adoption and inheritance. The blue and pink processions of the “Manif pour tous” were accompanied by the creation of a series of associations. “Sens commun”, the best known, became involved in the UMP (a Conservative party, now called Les Républicains). Anti-abortion associations and groups regained their colours. Their troops mobilised against fatherless medically assisted reproduction and surrogate motherhood. The right to medically assisted reproduction for lesbian couples and single women was voted through. Surrogacy remains contested in those circles. This movement has had a major impact thanks to its ability to mobilise people. A fringe of Catholicism has been culturally revitalised.

This reaffirmation/remobilisation is fuelled by concern about the spread of Islam. Churches are being emptied while mosques are being built. The spirit of welcoming migrants, recommended by Pope Francis, is not always accepted by the rank and file. Two books analyse these positions: “Eglise et immigration. Le grand malaise (Presses de la Renaissance) by Laurent Dandrieu and “Identitaire. Le mauvais génie du christianisme” (Editions du Cerf) by Erwan Le Morhedec. But it was above all the murder of Jacques Hamel, an 86-year-old priest, in his church in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray in 2016, which left its mark on peoples’ minds. The cause of solidarity with Christians in the Orient is becoming hijacked by the Catholic right. On the other hand, the transition to politics has been a failure, even if the Catholic vote sometimes carries some weight. The episode of support for François Fillon in the 2016 right-wing primaries for the presidential election is described in detail. The candidate was very well regarded from the point of view of traditional Catholic ethics before “Penelopegate” (a nepotism scandal that forced François Fillon to withdraw from the race). Catholics are still firmly anchored on the right, but are not very attracted to expressly Christian candidates such as Christine Boutin or Jean-Frédéric Poisson.

Bernard Rougier (ed.). The conquered territories of Islamism PUF

The profusion of books, of varying quality, on what has become known as Islamist separatism makes selection difficult. The interest of the collective book coordinated by Bernard Rougier lies in the fact that it is almost entirely devoted to the description of specific situations and territories. A dozen authors are involved, most of them students at the Centre d’Etudes Arabes et Orientales at Sorbonne Nouvelle University and the Middle East/Mediterranean Chair at the Ecole Normale Supérieure. The coordinator points out that most of them are French people of North African or sub-Saharan descent. Bernard Rougier presents the religious networks that have come to Europe from the East: the Muslim Brotherhood, Tabligh, Salafism and Jihadism. Their struggles for local pre-eminence are fading in the face of the “threats” posed by secularism and feminism. The terms “Islamist ecosystems” and “Islamic ecosystems” are used in the contributions. These refer to the distinction between militancy (sometimes warlike) and pietism (more peaceful but closed). They describe towns such as Aubervilliers, Argenteuil and the Salafists, Molenbeek, the Yemeni-influenced Val de Marne, Tabligh in the Ile de France, confessional books in French, young women in Fleury-Mérogis prison, the link between crime and terrorism… The chapter on the social manufacture of jihadism in Toulouse is written by Hugo Micheron, whose book “Le jihadisme français. Quartiers, Syrie, prisons” (Editions Gallimard) has been widely acclaimed. It shows that the origins of the phenomena described are as much local as they are directly inspired by foreign influences. A thirty-page chapter by Pierre-François Mansour deals with a rarely discussed subject: the chaotic relationship between practising Muslim movements and decolonial activists

Radicalités identitaires. Edited by Manuel Boucher. L’Harmattan.

This collective work is the result of a project entitled “Fractures identitaires, radicalités et interventions sociales. Radicalisation/counter-radicalisation actors and processes”. It is coordinated by Manuel Boucher, author of “La laïcité à l’épreuve des identités” (L’Harmattan) and “La gauche et la race” (L’Harmattan). The definition of the radicalisation process is inspired by Hugo Micheron. For him, it is the entry into “Salafo-jihadism” which “cannot be reduced to the expression of an individual puritanism. This doctrine is the bearer of a universal hope: the return of the golden age of early Islam… It invokes the idealised past to destroy the present, with a view to another future”. It is first and foremost public action that is questioned. Four contributions deal with the pathways of radicalised people, the social issue, public policy to prevent radicalisation and social administration. Prevention through social action is examined in detail: the ambivalence of social workers, the protection of minors and the overexposure of young adults, the representations and socio-professional realities of social workers in the Youth Judicial Protection Service (PJJ), municipal and regional policies, etc. As a counterpoint, two contributions focus on radical Franco-nationalist organisations: the Groupement Union Défense (GUD) and the Identitaires. The benchmark overview of this, or rather these extreme right-wingers, remains that drawn up by Nicolas Lebourg and Jean-Yves Camus in “Les droites extrêmes en Europe” (Seuil). Two texts supplement the work by Pierre-François Mansour mentioned above in the book coordinated by Bernard Rougier. These are a study by Nedjib Sidi Moussa on decolonial activists, intellectuals and artists, and an analysis by Manuel Boucher entitled “L’universalisme à l’épreuve des anti-mouvements identitaristes“, in particular the Indigènes de la République. Reinforcing the observation made several times by Gérard Noiriel: “when the class struggle weakens, identity-based patterns are revived: when the social politics retreats, the identity-based increases”.

The Jews of France between the Republic and Zionism. Charles Enderlin, Seuil

Since the publication of Samuel Gilhes-Meilhac’s book “Le CRIF. De la Résistance juive à la tentation du lobby” published by Robert Laffont in 2011, few books have dealt with the rise of the Conseil Représentatif des Institutions Juives de France (Council of Jewish Institutions of France, CRIF). Charles Enderlin was French public television’s correspondent in Jerusalem from 1981 to 2015. He offers an analysis of the transition from Franco-Judaism, committed to republican patriotism, to today’s Franco-Zionism. CRIF was founded in 1944, following the genocide of European Jews described by Raul Hilberg. In its charter, CRIF “demands constitutional guarantees against any attack on the principle of equality of race and religion”, as well as “freedom of Jewish immigration and colonisation in Palestine”. The Zionist option gradually became predominant after the Six Day War in 1967. Claiming to represent “the Jewish community in the city”, the CRIF “settled its score with Franco-Judaism”, according to Charles Enderlin. He adds: “From now on, the CRIF defines French Jews as members of the Jewish people in Israel and in the Diaspora. Definitely pro-Zionist, it asks the French authorities to support the State of Israel”. The high proportion of children attending private Jewish schools and the undeniable rise in anti-Semitism reinforce this trend. Although critical Jews are suspected of treason, in 2019 an international group of 127 Jewish intellectuals called on the French National Assembly to oppose a proposed resolution “equating criticism of Zionism with anti-Semitism”.

The State of Israel against the Jews. Sylvain Cypel. Published by La Découverte Cahiers libres.

The title may seem excessive. It takes up the thesis of the Israeli historian Tony Judt that the rise of right-wing sentiment in Israeli society will have disastrous medium-term effects both for the country and for Jews in general. Sylvain Cypel is a former managing editor of Courrier international and editor-in-chief of daily Le Monde. His latest book illustrates Tony Judt’s thesis. It details the right-wing evolution of the government and large sections of Israeli society. The left is at an all-time low, less than 10%. An increasingly radical right has governed the country for nearly 40 years. It has allied itself with other nationalist leaders such as Jair Bolsonaro, Narendra Modi, Victor Orbán and, of course, Donald Trump. In 2018, the Knesset passed a law declaring Israel the “nation-state of the Jewish people”. Israeli citizens of Jewish, Arab or Druze origin are protesting against this ethnicist vision. Fourteen major American Zionist or pro-Zionist organisations have also protested, for there is a multi-faceted but significant critical current among American Jews. The chapter devoted to the “blindness of the Jews of France” and to the CRIF’s unquestioning conformism is eloquent. The historian Pierre Birnbaum, known for his balanced works on Jews and the Republic, describes the “Israelisation of the Jews of France”. The concerns of citizens who refuse to be conscripted, sometimes even within Jewish institutions, remain largely unheard.

Charles Conte, in charge of laïcité at the Ligue de l’enseignement (France).