France picks right-wing emblem to lead crackdown on Islamists

French President Emmanuel Macron (right) with interior minister Gerald Darmanin.
French President Emmanuel Macron (right) with interior minister Gerald Darmanin.PHOTO: REUTERS

PARIS (BLOOMBERG) - France's hardline interior minister has vowed to root out extremists after a grisly murder in Paris. In saying he wants to preserve a distinctly French way of life, he risks the perception that he's targeting not just Islamists, but all Muslims.

Almost six years after the satirical Charlie Hebdo magazine was attacked for publishing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, France is still looking at ways to fight extremism and Mr Gerald Darmanin argues that minority groups who stay within their own communities are more vulnerable to radicalisation.

His vision for the country includes fewer halal butchers, ethnic clothing stores and even specialist supermarket aisles.

"It always shocked me to enter a supermarket and see a shelf devoted to the food of one community, and to another one next to it," Mr Darmanin told French television on Tuesday (Oct 20).

"Some people need to understand that winning market share by appealing to basic instincts doesn't necessarily contribute to the common good."

As the country tries to come to terms with the beheading of a teacher in a leafy suburb of the capital, 38-year-old Mr Darmanin has become the public face of a crackdown whipping up sentiment against the broader Muslim community.

"France is at war," Mr Darmanin said in the aftermath of the killing. "The question is not: Will we have another attack? The question is: When?"

With far right nationalist Marine le Pen preparing another fierce fight for the 2022 election, and the left wing looking for new alternatives, President Emmanuel Macron is trying to win over conservative voters. In July, he handed the crucial security portfolio to Mr Darmanin, who has a working-class, North African background and an uncompromising commitment to France's secular values.

Those ideas were shaped by his grandfather, an Algerian Muslim he calls "a hero of the Republic", who fought alongside the French during the war of independence, and to whom he dedicated a 2016 essay on secularism and Islam.

A Sarkozy protege

In the essay, Mr Darmanin extols the particular French conception of religion - that its expression should be private and protected, kept out of the public sphere. He defends the idea of a state-sponsored Islam for the country's estimated five million Muslims and calls for a ban on clothing that "tends to discriminate against women".

It's not Islam that he can't tolerate, he says, it's extremism. His office points out that when he was mayor of Tourcoing, a town in northern France, he backed the construction of a new mosque and gave a speech at its opening.

Mr Darmanin emerged on the national stage as a protégé of right-wing former president Nicolas Sarkozy, and lashed out at Mr Macron during his election campaign, saying he should be ashamed for describing France's colonialisation of Algeria a crime against humanity and calling him "poison" for the country.

Instead of holding a grudge, Mr Macron rewarded Mr Darmanin with the budget ministry, before elevating him to interior minister - despite rape allegations dating back to 2009.

The complaint was dismissed by an investigative judge, but recently reopened after the Paris appeals court said he should have conducted his own investigations instead of relying on prosecutors' findings. That all makes some people close to the President uncomfortable with Mr Darmanin's appointment.

He says the affair was consensual, and Mr Macron says he believes him.

Within his first days on the job, Mr Darmanin made his worldview clear.

He met the police but ignored community groups alarmed by racism within the force. He said he wanted "to stop certain segments of society from returning to savagery", a phrase more commonly used by the far right to refer to Arab and African communities.

And then, he told lawmakers he considered police violence "legitimate", adding that he "suffocates" when he hears talk of police excesses. In a world roiling with anger at the death of Mr George Floyd at the hands of cops in Minneapolis, it was an incredible word for a politician to choose.

Mr Darmanin is driven by a sort of frenetic energy. He has made about 60 trips up and down the country since taking office, despite the pandemic, and frequently appears on radio, television and social media.

He has tweeted in defence of women's right to sunbathe topless and the right to blasphemy, which is enshrined in French law as component of free speech.

Mostly, though, he focuses on safety. A person close to him acknowledges that his frequent comments on the subject risk exaggerating the threats, but says the aim is to help Mr Macron "reconquer the semantics of security".

No doubts

Mr Darmanin's views on Islam and secularism run through Mr Macron's draft law to fight extremism, unveiled shortly before the beheading of Mr Samuel Paty. At the time, the President was slammed for cynically chasing conservative voters. Now, as calls for law and order amplify, the proposals are being seen in a new light.

When news of the beheading flashed across French tv screens, Mr Darmanin was already on a plane heading back to France, having cut short a trip to Rabat where he had been discussing illegal migration with Moroccan officials.

He rushed to the crime scene, and stood by Mr Macron as he defended French values and promised that radical Islamists "won't pass".

Mr Darmanin has an unwavering sense of self-belief, once telling the Bondy Blog news site, "I have doubts about nothing. It's not a matter of being pretentious, but I never consider whether what I undertake is going to succeed. The idea never enters my head."

Friends say he's endearing and jovial, and knows the stories of all the Christian saints and the lyrics of French popular songs. Sometimes, he spontaneously sings a cappella.

And he's not afraid of "truthful hyperbole". He prides himself, for example, on not being a graduate of France's elite schools when in fact he studied at Sciences Po in northern France and attended a posh school in Paris's richest area. He has described his mother, a janitor at the Bank of France, as a cleaning lady.

Many compromises

Mr Darmanin's point about extremists seeking to spread their ideology in closed communities isn't new. A recent book titled The Emirates Of The Republic: How Islamists Are Taking Control Of The Suburbs,'by François Pupponi, who was mayor of Sarcelles near Paris for 20 years, has underlined how the issue has often been tied to the "banlieues", or projects, in France.

The three assailants in the Charlie Hebdo attack, for instance, came from deprived corners of Paris, and two of them were indoctrinated by a charismatic figure at a local mosque.

The measures Mr Darmanin announced after Mr Paty's murder by an 18-year-old Chechen refugee - the deportation of suspected radicals and the disbanding of groups and mosques he says promote Islamism - also aren't new.

They underplay many of the root causes of radicalisation, like social, political and economic grievances; a sense of injustice and discrimination, and they're hard to implement.

A person close to Mr Darmanin said public opinion is ready for his message, but observers are sceptical.

Emeritus Professor Pierre Birnbaum, a French historian and sociologist, says his approach overlooks just how diverse the country is. "There was the idea that France was a unified Republic, much more so than the US or the UK," he said, "but in practice, it actually accepts many compromises.''

Professor Haoues Seniger, of Sciences Po in Lyon, says: Will he able to fix problems on the ground? I'm not certain - interior ministers come and go and the situation doesn't change. You can educate people at school and promote debates, but you can't edict rules on people's worldview."

But with the left in disarray and a large part of it comfortable with authoritarianism anyway, Mr Macron is wagering that none of that matters.