France’s wine business suffered greatly in the mid to late nineteenth century due to a wine merchant who planted a limited number of American vine cuttings in his Rhone Valley garden. In 1862, the vines Monsieur Borty planted carried a louse, phylloxera, which spread throughout the French wine country and destroyed or significantly affected four million acres and caused 40 percent of French vineyards to shut down. Eventually, a remedy was discovered: French vintners grafted French vines onto American rootstock because they were resistant to the louse.

Just as vines from America were the cause of the Great French Wine Blight, they were also the antidote. Despite Muslim extremists committing much of today’s terrorism, Muslims may be the key to preventing future terrorist acts. Experts, within and without the French government, have been making attempts to bring this about.

Since the 1980s, terrorism has plagued the French people. In the ’80s alone, there were 29 significant* attacks resulting in 217 people killed and 483 injured. From 1994 to 2010, there were 11 attacks by Islamic groups. The years 2015 and 2016 were the deadliest in recent memory. In 2015, the attack on Charlie Hebdo’s office left 17 dead. Later in the year, in November, a larger Islamist attack occurred in multiple places around Paris, including the Bataclan and the Stade de France. Gunmen killed 131 and injured 413 that horrific night. In total, during these two years, Islamist terrorists killed 238, according to Le Monde.

Some of the recent killings have been quite brutal, with two victims being beheaded. One of the victims was Samuel Paty, who taught his middle school class about the breadth of France’s freedom of expression by showing them a caricature of Islam’s founder, Mohammad. A few days later on October 16, 2020, as Paty departed the school where he taught, College du Bois d’Aulne, a radicalized Chechen teenager beheaded him.

In his speech to the French people responding to the attack, President Emmanuel Macron focused on protecting the essence of being French, and the importance of “nurturing love for the Republic.” He viewed the attack not only as an attack on a person and a broader threat to the security of France’s citizens, but also as an attack on France’s ideals because Paty was killed for exercising one of the Republic’s key freedoms, freedom of expression. These words echo the sentiments of former leaders of France after terrorist attacks.

President Macron has codified his commitment to protecting the freedoms of the French Republic. On December 9, 2020, Macron’s government introduced a bill that sought to address the violence perpetrated by Islamic extremists. After nine months of debate and consideration in Parliament and a constitutional challenge, the bill became law in August 2021. The key measures of the “Law Reinforcing Respect of the Principles of the Republic” include:

  • The state will permanently close houses of worship and dissolve religious organizations if members provoke violence or incite hatred.
  • The state will temporarily close any house of worship that spreads ideas that incite hatred or violence.
  • Religious organizations are required to obtain government permits every five years to continue operating, and their accounts must be certified annually if they receive foreign funding.
  • In response to the Paty murder, the unauthorized posting of one’s personal details online to expose the person to harm is punishable by a €45,000 (over $52,000) fine and up to three years in jail.
  • Parents must obtain authorization from the government to homeschool their children, a provision aimed at ensuring children are taught France’s secular values.
  • Forced marriage, virginity checks, and other such practices for future brides are banned.

Questions abound regarding the new law: Are these measures sufficient to address the problem? What are the unforeseen or unintended consequences of the government becoming more involved in religious affairs? Is the government’s quest to increase national security trampling on religious freedom?

France has a conspicuous relationship with religion. The government owns all the church buildings built before 1905. It pays the teachers of many private schools, most of which are Roman Catholic. It also regulates religious activities in an effort “to protect the rights of others, the public order, health, and morals.” (This regulation is also applied to all other “organized groups.”)

While there is a fair amount of government involvement in religion, there is also the principle of laïcité that dictates the ways in which religion cannot influence government. For many centuries, Catholicism was the singular religion of France. Consequently, one was either a Catholic or a free thinker. Laïcité was created when the Vatican issued directives, in the late nineteenth century, to governments that they foist upon their citizenries the moral code of the Catholic Church.

To understand laïcité in full, it is helpful to look at the United States and the religious freedom mentioned in our founding documents. Our founders’ reasoning on Americans’ religious practices was based upon their experiences in the Old World. “Freedom of religion” is the oft-used phrase to describe the relationship between the government and the nation’s religious affairs. The US government is prohibited from establishing a national religion or interfering with the lawful practice of religion.

In France, freedom from religion is the apt description for laïcité. The term communicates freedom from the moral compulsion of religion. Due to the historical involvement and influence of Catholicism upon French politics, the French government passed a law in 1905 that emphasized freedom of conscience rather than freedom of religion. The main point of the law was to guarantee the free opportunity to believe or not to believe. The historical relationship between the Catholic Church and the state drove this point. Hence, “freedom of conscience is … understood by the French as a freedom from the moral authority of a single dominant religion”—church out of the government rather than government out of the church (the US model).

In the 1960s, decolonization brought laïcité back into the public square. Many Muslims had been emigrating from north Africa, and now their children were attending state schools. Specifically, their daughters were wearing headscarves. This public display of religion at a state school violated laïcité. In 1989, politicians began discussing the phenomena and debated what constituted religious symbols and where wearing them was appropriate. In 2004, politicians from the right and the left came together and passed legislation prohibiting the wearing of religious symbols in state schools, and face coverings were banned in 2010.

The “Principles of the Republic” law just passed is the most recent example of how the French government has worked to address the cultural and extremist challenges presented by a non-Western people group. The question is, Will this latest law finally bring about the assimilation of Muslims into French society and protect the society from Muslim extremists?

Remi Brague, emeritus professor of medieval and Arabic philosophy at the University of Paris I, believes many people do not understand fundamental issues about Islam, which complicates the situation Macron and his government face. Brague sees a key aspect of Islam that, if understood, would greatly aid policymakers: Islam is more of a civilization entering into another civilization.

“More often than not, we reduce Islam to the beliefs and behaviors of the people who claim to be Muslims, or who are supposed to be so. Hence a sociological and/or psychological approach fills the columns of our newspapers. The majority of our ‘analysts’ simply don’t take religious issues seriously. They haven’t yet recovered from their Marxist-Leninist hangover and still consider that religions are hardly more than ‘superstructures’ covering up the economic ‘infrastructure’ from which they emanate.”

Brague continued, “As a consequence, our intellectuals imagine that they understand terrorists better than the terrorists themselves do. The latter may slit the throat of priests or of people praying in a church, shouting ‘Allahu akbar’; they may pick Coptic Christians out of their Egyptian prisoners and kill them. Never mind, many among our intellectuals and journalists react [thusly]: ‘No, no, nothing to do with religion! This is only the expression of social problems, etc.’ Taking Islam seriously means taking its theology seriously. The way in which you conceive of God and of His relationship to His creatures weighs upon your whole worldview.”

The importance of worldview cannot be overstated. The Christian worldview was the driving force of the development of religious freedom in the West. Seeing that France has forsaken its Christian heritage and chosen secularism, I asked Brague if a void now exists in France’s political philosophy. In 1905, the state said no to both the presence and the counsel of Christianity in the halls of Parliament. Are there tools in the tenets of Christianity that might help France build better relations with the French Muslim community?

“Strangely, the break was between the church and the state, not between the church and civil society. The people remained largely evangelized, baptized, etc. ‘til the ’60s, when the gap enlarged. Unfortunately, many polls show that it is still growing larger.

“Moreover, a separation can be understood in two meanings at least: when you tear asunder a sheet of paper, both halves are separated; when married people get a divorce, they are separated. Church and state were separated in this second way only. They never constituted a single unity. Their ‘separation’ simply meant that two independent institutions that had cooperated ceased to do. Now, the independent existence of the two institutions should not be taken for granted. It hardly existed in the Greek cities, in the Roman republic.

“Christian tenets may have a social effect as long as they are shared by a majority of people, crossing the social divides. On this point, they do no better than the tenets of other religions. Yet, this is not what they are meant to do. What they are first and foremost is true, not useful, not subservient to any political or social goal.”

While Christianity should not be used pragmatically, Brague argues, its polar opposite, secularism, is a pragmatic tool the powerful wield. In the US, it is being used to silence religious speech and dissenting opinions, but in France, President Macron esteems it as the political diamond of the Republic. “We will defend the freedom that you taught so well, and we will strongly proclaim the concept of laïcité,” he declared in his tribute to Samuel Paty. Brague sees two faults in laïcité: (1) it cannot carry the weight French society has placed on its shoulders, and (2) in a civil society, it has to defend blasphemous speech.

“I fear that our ‘laïcité’ [is] mistaken for a kind of secularism, the sacred cow of our times. Such merely negative ideas are not a match against militants of all ilk, including the Islamic kind. Freedom of speech is an excellent thing, and it deserves to be defended and, at least, protected by the law. This includes the refusal of any law against ‘blasphemy’—a rather vague notion, by the way. But what, if freedom of speech includes the right to slander and vilify?” Brague said.

Currently, Muslims comprise 5.6 percent of the population 15 years old and older. Most of them (66 percent) believe that the French state permits “freedom of religious expression,” according to the Institute Montaigne. Many Muslims experience no tension between their religious practices and “the corpus of the French Republic and nation.” But there is growing unrest amongst 50 percent of 15 to 25-year-old Muslims who “identify… with a disaffected form of religious affiliation.” And according to an Ipsos survey, “44 percent of French Muslims believe the rest of society has little regard for them. The figure rose to 61 percent among Muslims living in households earning less than the minimum wage.”

Early on, Muslims were temporary migrants from countries such as Algeria, Morocco, and Turkey. Because of their temporary status, France outsourced the oversight of the migrants’ practice of Islam to the countries they came from. The temporary status became permanent after the 1973 oil crisis. Fearing they would not be allowed to return to France if they left, Muslim migrants brought their families to the Republic to live permanently.

Since 2018, Macron has been striving to do more to integrate Muslims into French society. He has talked about creating a role for a mediator who would work on behalf of French Muslims with the government toward greater assimilation. He would like to see the government step up and relieve foreign nations (Morocco, Turkey, Algeria, and others) of their oversight and financing of the majority of Islamic activities in France. It is through this arrangement that Islamic extremism has been creeping in since the ’80s. As one commentator put it, Macron is now seeking to transform the “Islam in France” into an “Islam of France.”

In this faceoff between secularism and religious freedom, can one be prioritized more without the other being noticeably diminished? Brague believes freedom of religion can be misapplied to all practices of a religion that are not truly religious in nature.

“Putting all so-called ‘religions’ on the same level is already misleading, not to say shocking. The worst parallel is the one which is too often drawn between the situation of Jews in the ’30s and the situation of Muslims in the present day. Did Jews, in the ’30s, assault and kill priests or policemen?

“Is the freedom which has to be curtailed really ‘religious’ in nature? Nobody forbids praying, fasting, etc. What is limited is the way in which social pressure compels people to do as if they prayed or to fast even if they don’t want [to], or wearing some clothes, etc. To stick to the last example, suppose a woman is placed in front of the choice: either putting on a veil or being considered as a whore whom one can harass, and even rape if one feels like it. Is her choice in favor of the veil an expression of ‘religious freedom’?” Brague contended.

While many are focused on the violent acts perpetrated by Islamists, Brague sees another danger simmering below the public’s awareness.

“Some French Muslims (how many exactly, who knows?) say they ‘understand’ extremist factions. Other ones observe that the menace of terrorist attacks is enough to exert a soft pressure on French authorities so that they become more compliant with the demands of ‘moderate’ Muslims: special diet in school canteens (no pork), building new mosques, some of them huge, bowdlerizing high school courses on biology (no Darwin) and history (no Shoah), etc. This kind of soft pressure might prove in the long run more detrimental to our culture than terrorism, which has the great drawback of being visible, hence, of awaking reactions of defense,” Brague said.

The desire of certain Muslims to change French culture is an indicator that assimilation (or integration, as French politicians prefer to term it) is a challenging project.

Brague explained, “The trouble with Islam is that it is not merely a ‘religion,’ i.e. a system of cult, consisting of religious practices like prayer, fasting, pilgrimage, etc. which are present in many religions, including Christianity. Islam is a legal system which, in principle at least, can tell the believer what he/she has to do in any circumstance of everyday life. The same could be said with Judaism, the difference being that the 613 commands of Jewish Law hold good for Jews only, non-Jews having to put up with the seven commands given to Noah, whereas Islamic Law should be obeyed by each and every human being. Islam kind of combines Christian universalism (which is not legal) and Jewish legalism (which is not universal).”

Furthermore, Muslims are told that “the West (which they, more often than not, mistake for Christendom) is rotten to the core and they should carefully avoid assimilation, organizing into self-chosen ghettos, and rather wait ’til the fruit should fall.”

Salafism, a school of Islam present in France, encourages the isolating ghettos Brague referenced. It advocates Muslims separate socially and culturally from the community. And some of the most radical imams in France are not foreign, but Salafist, French imams, according to Bernard Godard, former head of the Central Office of Worship [advisor regarding Islam] to the Interior Ministry. President Macron has proposed that imams be trained regarding the cultural values of France. But this would mean the government would be involved in the shaping of a religion. Plus, it would not address the current reality: radicalization is mostly taking place in places other than mosques.

Radicalization is taking place online and in prisons where hardline, Salafist materials are readily available. In particular, this is true for those who committed the massacres in Paris and Nice, who were in prison for non-terrorist activity and were radicalized. “The idea that if all of the imams in France embrace a moderate Islam there will be no more terrorism is ridiculous and irrelevant,” said Olivier Roy, an Islamic scholar at the European University Institute in Florence.

The “Principles of the Republic” law is a collection of rules that are reactive, punitive, regulative, and preventative. Due to the nature of governance, laws rarely create pathways to fostering trust that can then lead to conversation and end in relational transformation. For French Christians, Brague sees a clear pathway for them to follow to make an impact and secure the French people. For centuries, Muslims’ impression of Christianity has been significantly dismal. Brague stated these “legends about Christianity” need to be dispelled and then the Gospel needs to be “preached to them” so that they, like many other Gentiles, might believe and be grafted into the Living Root. Assimilation accomplished more by changed minds, and perhaps transformed hearts, and less by the stroke of the legislature’s pen.

*Significant is defined as the attack caused one or more deaths.