French President Emmanuel Macron has found himself in a fight not of his own choosing, but one that he is resolutely set to win. After two Islamist terrorist attacks within a week and a third thwarted, Macron is now in a situation that has no clear path to victory for France. 

The French Fight Against Lone Wolf Islamists

Unlike the 2011 terrorist attacks on America, the lone wolf perpetrators don’t offer a target for France to deploy its military upon. There is no foreign nation to invade, no group to rally the French against.

Instead, Macron must wage war defensively at home. Whereas the 9/11 attacks were rationalized by terrorists over America’s interference in the Middle East, the recent attacks in France were carried out as retribution over a fundamental tenet of democracy: freedom of speech.

As such, the road forward for Macron is uncertain. There is no single group to broker peace with nor are there clear objectives that can serve as a benchmark for victory. However, this much is clear: Macron will not relent in defending democratic ideals in France and that determination, perceived as stubbornness by his critics, will undermine Macron’s International ambitions at a time when his state has been focused on leveraging soft power, particularly in the Middle East. 

As the US left a power vacuum in the region, and in truth, the entire world, powers such as France, Germany, and Russia have stepped in to become leading power brokers. They’ve rushed into developments Syria, Libya, Lebanon, and Greece to put their weight behind factions that will benefit their own national interests.

The moment may now be short-lived for Paris, which will face setbacks in the region as a result of Macron’s defense of France and democracy. Macron’s heavy-fisted reaction and strongly-worded comments follow immediately on the heels of a larger plan by the president to stop the fracturing of French society due to Islamic communities that have sprung up.

Macron: ‘It’s Very Clear That France is Under Attack’

At the beginning of October, Macron outlined his plan for fighting what he termed “Islamic separatism.” Macron’s idea was hatched after a stabbing attack by Islamic terrorists outside the former Charlie Hebdo offices in September. The event kicked off a new mission for Macron in which he vowed to confront the issue head on.

His solution is to crackdown on illegal Islamic education institutions. Notably, imams will no longer be able to train overseas, thereby theoretically limiting the importation of Islamic extremism. 

“The goal of training and promoting in France a generation of Imams and intellectuals who defend an Islam fully compatible with the values of the Republic is a necessity,” Macron said.

Had that been all that happened, Macron’s stature among Arab states, although diminished, would likely have still allowed him to continue acting as a regional power broker. However, the two attacks that followed – the beheading of a teacher and recent Church attack in Nice – goaded  Macron into coming down harder.

 “It’s very clear that France is under attack. If we are attacked, it is because of our values, our values of freedom and our desires not to yield to terrorism.”

Democracy Versus Islamism

The result of Macron’s words and actions against Islamic institutions in France is that democracy is now pitted against fundamentalist Islam as two ideals that are incompatible. Whereas France welcomes the freedom of speech and has no law against blasphemy, it is widely condemned by Arab states. In particular, depictions and caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad are forbidden. 

The confrontation was further exacerbated when Turkish President Recep Erdogan stepped into the ring to condemn Macron’s defense of the cartoons and the freedom of speech, prompting cartoonists to illustrate Erdogan in unflattering ways.

Democracy and the Middle East have historically been incompatible. Even in Tunisia, one of the rare successes from the Arab Spring protests, blasphemy is not legally forbidden, but laws on the books still prohibit speech that could be construed as “disturbing the public order.” 

The Qur’an, unlike Christianity’s New Testament, prescribes a legal structure to govern society. Beyond this, the Haddith, or teachings of Prophet Muhammed, outlaw visual depictions among other rules. Such teachings were even construed to forbid television, which didn’t become mainstream in Saudi Arabia until the 1960s.

With these points considered, Macron has incited a large population of the world’s population that view his words and actions as an attack on their religion. In a war over ideals, victory is never cut and dried so easily.

Conflict of Ideologies

While a number of Arab states including Turkey have condemned the terrorist attacks in France, they will not concede Paris’ power to enforce the freedom of speech.

This brings up the issue of sovereignty. Erdogan wants the EU to act against France, but doing so would be forcing Paris to change its laws on the whims of a foreign state and a single religion. 

The core issue is an “ideology which claims its own laws should be superior to those of the republic,” Macron said before the most recent attacks. 

Macron, while in the right to defend the sovereignty of his nation and the ideals of democracy, has lost goodwill earned in the Middle East. As a result, other powers such as Russia and Germany will look more lucrative when regional issues demand an outside response.

The War At Home

At home in France, Macron has deployed an increased security presence to protect schools and churches. More attacks, or at the very least, attempts, should be expected.

Consequently, the game of tit-for-tat will continue. Muslims in France have begun protesting. Macron could limiting the number of refugees taken in from the Middle East, which would be a logical next step.

France has the support of other European states, a fact that could see terrorism spill over across borders. Macron’s fight against Islamic extremism could also have political implications. While the French election is still over a year away, Marine Le Pen, his former opponent, is known for taking a harder stand against terrorism. A poll revealed the French trust her more than Macron, BBC News reported.

Division Benefits No One

If attacks continue and Macron can’t defend his people, Le Pen could successfully challenge him for his office during the election. Macron is most certainly gambling with not only his political future, but also France’s stature in the international community by maintaining a hard line against Islamic extremism. For him to be successful, he will have to convince Arab states that French laws are under the nation’s own sovereignty to write and protect.

Arab states condemning the terrorist attacks is not enough to quell the flareup. They must end the rhetoric that Shariah law extends beyond the Arab world. This line of messaging, that Paris should not allow blasphemy, engenders more Islamophobia and backlash against Muslims and Arabs in general.

This xenophobia is what gave rise to populist leaders such as American President Donald Trump, who has championed nationalism and sowed division across not only the US, but the world. Division and focusing on differences, whether skin tone or laws governing society, only leads to more conflict, something the Middle East does not need more of.