The year French soft power took a body blow

From boycotts of French products in parts of the Muslim world to international condemnations of the government’s attempts to gag the press while waving the flag of liberty, France had a rough ride on the world stage this year. Feeling misunderstood, maligned and stereotyped, French politicians remonstrated, but did they protest too much?

The year kicked off with France riding high on world soft power indices after hosting a successful 2019 G7 summit, with President Emmanuel Macron displaying global leadership and offering a multilateral alternative to the Trump administration’s contempt for postwar international institutions.

But 2020 was a year that saw France repeatedly making the international news headlines and the coverage was not always favourable.

As the year wound to a close, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian joined the roster of senior French officials in defensive mode during a visit to Qatar in early December when he insisted that France, contrary to popular perception, was not Islamophobic.

His comments came amid rising tensions between France and several Muslim-majority countries over remarks by Macron in October defending cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed while noting that “Islam is a religion that is currently experiencing a crisis”. The high-octane spat – driven by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and fuelled by Paris-Ankara geopolitical strains – saw retailers boycott French products and anti-French protests in parts of the Muslim world.

At a media briefing in Doha, Le Drian conceded that France’s latest measures to combat Islamist radicalism, which have attracted widespread condemnations, “might have been misunderstood by believers who might have felt their beliefs were being disrespected”. But, he insisted, “We have the utmost respect for Islam.”

Misunderstood, maligned, caricatured and criticised by human rights groups over a security bill and another draft law – that originally promised to combat “Islamist separatism” but was recast as “reinforcing Republican principles” – France this year was forced on a PR offensive that at times had a Hamlet touch of doth protesting too much.

The pandemic year was not a good one for most Western democracies, offering China – the source of the Covid-19 virus – the opportunity to tout its diplomatic mantra of the failure of democratic systems and the superiority of Beijing’s brand of governance. France, with its coronavirus death toll crossing 58,000, took a pandemic hit as its public healthcare system, like that of its West European neighbours, struggled to cope with a crisis that will continue to wreak economic havoc next year.

But the dent in international perceptions of France was not entirely pandemic related.

“In the case of France, it was not only Covid-19. We have had terrorism, Yellow Vests trying to reinvent themselves, a controversial security bill, and accusations of police brutality by civil society and the gulf that exists between the two. Within that context, it’s normal that France’s soft power would have suffered,” said Dominique Moïsi, special advisor to the Institut Montaigne, a Paris-based think tank.

France this year suffered two gruesome terror attacks that shocked the nation. On October 16, a Chechen teenage refugee beheaded middle-school teacher Samuel Paty in a Paris suburb for displaying cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed during a civics class. Weeks later, a 21-year-old Tunisian man, who had just arrived in France, conducted a knife attack at a church in Nice, killing three people.

Following a lull during the first lockdown in the spring, Yellow Vest demonstrations broke out in the summer, a reminder that the movement – which paralysed much of France last year with their Saturday protests – has not abandoned grievances against Macron’s government.

Policing streets, studios and schools

The biggest protests of the pandemic year erupted in the autumn against the government’s “global security bill”, which included articles on mass surveillance measures and attempts to ban the public and press from disseminating police images for “malicious purposes”.

France’s reputation as a champion of human rights took a blow as international and national bodies – including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the French National Consultative Council on Human Rights and Amnesty International – slammed the legislative measure.

The government had insisted the ban on documenting police action was aimed at protecting law-enforcement officials. But following the outcry over the brutal police beating of a black music producer in Paris, the ruling party backed down with its parliamentary leader announcing the controversial Article 24 gagging the press would be “completely rewritten and a new version will be submitted”.

The damage to France’s reputation though was already done. Macron’s strident defence of freedom of expression while headlines documented police questioning 10-year-old Muslim schoolchildren on suspicion of ‘apology of terrorism’ during classroom discussions left France exposed to charges of “shameless hypocrisy”.

“The soft power of France as a defender of liberties took an incredible hit this year with the contrast between what Macron says and what the government is doing with a right-leaning slate of legislation threatening academic freedom, and freedom of the press and expression,” said Mira Kamdar, a Paris-based author and former member of the New York Times editorial board. “The image of France as the land of elegance, luxury products, fashion is also increasingly hard to square with footage of police battalions looking like something out of ‘Star Wars’ forcefully putting down citizen protest marches against legislation that threatens their rights and freedoms.”

Islam on the political frontline with an eye on 2021 polls

In July, when Macron selected conservative politician Jean Castex to replace the popular Édouard Philippe as prime minister, it was viewed as an appointment made with an eye on the 2022 presidential election. “Macron bets big on himself,” declared a Politico headline, with the article noting that by foregoing the opportunity to appoint “a non-conservative prime minister”, the French president “may be giving up on trying to win back” disaffected French centre-left voters.

With an eye on an electoral race against right-wing politician Marine Le Pen, Macron is courting the conservative vote, according to analysts. With polls consistently showing a majority French aversion to what is viewed as “Anglo Saxon communitarianism” and broad support – including among French Muslims – for laïcité, or the constitutional separation of church enshrined in a 1905 law, Macron’s electoral strategy of putting Islam on the political frontline is a safe one, according to experts.

“It’s a very politically calculated move in my opinion. Macron’s poll ratings are up. The majority of French people want to see a strong leader doing something to tackle terrorism,” said Kamdar.

The calculation may cost Macron left support, but the offset of centre-right vote gains appeared to be the driving force behind the choice of Gérald Darmanin – a brash 38-year-old conservative facing rape investigations – as France’s new interior minister.

The disconnect between what Macron said and his government’s legislative moves was amplified in the latter half of 2020 by a gap between the president’s discourse and that of senior cabinet members. On the one hand, Macron’s speeches called for an “Islam of Enlightenment” in national addresses weaving lofty classical allusions. But on the other hand, cabinet members took to the airwaves with comments that fed global perceptions of France as a country “weaponising” secularism to target its Muslim citizens, according to critics.

Darmanin’s incendiary comments on halal food aisles in supermarkets and his quip that he “can’t breathe” – a slam at George Floyd’s dying words – whenever he heard the term “police violence” outraged many French people. But the minutiae of domestic political jockeying was often lost on international audiences.

“While Macron has tried to calm things down by explaining that France is in a fight against radical Islamism, he fast-tracks bills during lockdown with scant parliamentary procedures and his ministers make civilisational remarks on halal food, his prime minister [Castex] denounces regret over colonisation, it undermines Macron’s repeated efforts to explain his government is going after radical Islamism, not Islam. You can’t expect people abroad to say the president says ‘X’ which means we don’t listen to what the prime minister and the interior minister are saying,” explained Kamdar.

Charlie Hebdo trial brings closure, but reopens raw issue

What the world heard loudest though was Macron’s defence of free speech which, through the refracted prisms of translations, media and social media coverage, was perceived as long on the defence of French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo’s offensive Prophet Mohammed cartoons instead of simply sticking to the fundamental right issue of freedom of expression.

In 2012, for instance, when US diplomats were killed amid protests outside US embassies in the Arab world following the release of an anti-Islam film, then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton defended free speech, distanced the US government from what she called the “reprehensible” film while stressing it was no justification for violence.

The Prophet Mohammed cartoon controversy involving debates over freedom of expression, blasphemy laws, the right to shock and be protected from deadly outrage is an old one by news standards, dating back to the 2005 publication of similar caricatures by Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten.

These issues came to the fore this year with the trial of the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks opening in September following delays due to the pandemic. In its issue marking the start of the trial, Charlie Hebdo republished the Jyllands-Posten cartoons with an editorial that vowed, “We will never lie down. We will never give up.”

Five years after the shattering three-day jihadist terror spree that left 17 dead – including leading Charlie Hebdo cartoonists – the victims of the attack and their loved ones finally got closure on December 17, when 14 people linked to the attacks were convicted and sentenced to jail terms ranging from four years to life.

But the events of 2020 – including a September 25 knife attack at Charlie Hebdo’s old offices that wounded two people, Paty’s gruesome beheading, the deadly Nice church attack, the cartoon republication and the backlash it triggered in the Muslim world – proved the chapter of this controversy is not closed in France.

More than 15 years after a Danish newspaper published the cartoons, France was at the centre of the storm.

For Moïsi, a staunch defender of free speech, it’s an unfortunate symbolic visualisation of French liberty. “When it comes to defending freedom and liberty, I feel more represented by [Eugène] Delacroix’s ‘Liberty Leading the People’. I prefer Marianne’s naked breast to Mohammed’s naked fesses [buttocks]. But beyond that is the fact that the French say you have to accept my culture, it’s me, it’s my values and there’s no element of integrating the need to respect others, especially if they do not have, for many reasons – religious, cultural, socio-economic – the ability to bounce back with a smile.”

No prizes for embracing Arab autocrats

As French envoys raced to snuff diplomatic fires and soothe offended feathers, Macron launched an unusual broadside against US and British media for its coverage of his fight against radical Islamism.

His accusation, in an interview with the New York Times, that US media was “legitimising violence”, saw the paper’s editorial board publish an editorial chiding Macron for going “too far in seeing malicious insult” and to remind the French president that the media had a “function and duty to ask questions about the roots of racism, ethnic anger and the spread of Islamism among Western Muslims, and to critique the effectiveness and impact of government policies”.

>> Read more on Macron taking on the Anglo-American press

Identity and racial injustice may have been the theme of Anglo-American coverage of France, but just as that media brouhaha was settling into a detente, the Italian media lit up. This time, putting the spotlight on France’s compromised arms-selling embrace of Arab autocrats crushing Islamists advocating democratic – if not liberal democratic – change.

On December 14, Italian writer Corrado Augias and Giovanna Melandri, a former Italian culture minister, returned their Legion of Honour medals in protest over France’s decision to award Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour.

In a letter to the French ambassador in Rome, Augias, a former member of the European Parliament, said he was returning France’s highest award since he did not want to “share this honour with a Head of State who has been objectively complicit with criminals”.

The turning in came as Italian prosecutors pressed charges against four members of Egypt’s security services in the 2015 abduction and death in custody of Giulio Regeni, Italian doctoral student researching labour unions in Cairo.

Welcoming the decision, Roberto Fico, speaker of Italy’s lower house of parliament, noted that, “Europe must be united and supportive, never selfish, even more so when fundamental rights are at stake”.

Trovo apprezzabile e significativa la decisione di Corrado #Augias di restituire la Legion d’onore.L’Europa deve essere unita e solidale, mai egoista, ancor di più quando sono in gioco i diritti fondamentali, il cui rispetto è il nucleo fondante del nostro stare insieme. pic.twitter.com/OR6Ir1BSRA

— Roberto Fico (@Roberto_Fico) December 13, 2020

As 2021 arrives, with Covid-19 vaccines and a new administration set to take over in Washington, France can reset global perceptions on its commitment to fundamental values. But it’s also a year ahead of the critical 2022 presidential election and that could pose strains on France’s ratings in world soft power indices.