The day after French schoolteacher Samuel Paty's horrific murder in the quiet Parisian suburb of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine on 17 October 2020, mourners gathered to participate in solidarity marches across France. They expressed outrage that Paty was murdered for exercising his right to freedom of expression—for simply having shown cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in class.
This ritualized outpouring of public grief and bereavement is an all-too-familiar scene in France since the 2015 attacks. Paty's murder dredged up repressed national wounds that re-kindled polarizing debates on freedom of expression and laïcité (French secularism). The unrelenting global health crisis, with COVID-19 infections and deaths escalating across France and Europe, remained a present reality. Mourners were cognizant of how confronting the macabre had become a habitual public affair; defiance and protest were collective responses to the cycle of tragedies. President Emmanuel Macron announced that a national funeral would be held for Paty at Paris-Sorbonne University, where he would be posthumously granted the Légion d'Honneur, France’s highest civilian award.
National March for Undocumented Migrants
That same afternoon, as if occurring in a separate world, thousands of participants in Paris gathered for the National March for the Undocumented (Marche Nationale des Sans-Papiers). The march was the final act in a months-long series of marches—beleaguered by police harassment and obstruction—that had begun earlier that year. Participants had three demands: legal papers for all undocumented in France, accommodations for those in need, and the immediate closure of immigrant detention facilities. Media coverage was largely absent despite the march having been widely publicized.
Conditions on the ground, however, told a different story: The march attracted an astounding number of participants, packing the streets with group chants, music, and speeches. Many lent their support to boost the march's visibility, from the Truth Committee for Adama and Justice for Ibo, Black-led activist groups seeking justice for victims of police violence, to the Black Vests (Gilets Noirs), a prominent undocumented migrant collective.
At the march's end, participants requested a public audience with Macron, but the president provided no response other than ordering a heavy-handed police presence to monitor the march. The organizers explained how the march coincided with the fifty-ninth anniversary of the 1961 police massacre of Algerians at Pont Saint-Michel, “in memory of hundreds of Algerians murdered on 17 October 1961 while they were marching for freedom and in memory of our brothers and sisters who die by the millions each year along migration routes.” Organizers wanted to stress the shared historical experiences of police violence that marked both the Algerian anti-colonial struggle and contemporary movements for undocumented rights.
Secularism under Attack?
The solidarity marches for Paty and for undocumented rights might have both occurred on the same day, but each elicited vastly different responses from the state. Paty’s murder mobilized a rapid police response, with eleven individuals apprehended by the day’s end. Riding on the wave of public grief and shock, Macron employed a familiar narrative of national and existential injury, re-staging the murder as a deeply injurious attack on laïcité—on France’s very existence. Security measures included unannounced warrantless searches of residences in Yvelines, arbitrary arrests based on police suspicions, and opening terrorism investigations into those accused of ‘incitation to hatred’ or ‘glorification of terrorism’—broadly-defined, punishable crimes that linger in murky legal waters.
BarakaCity, a Muslim charity, was abruptly dissolved on 28 October 2020 on dubious accusations of incitation to hatred. Gérald Darmanin, the hawkish Interior Minister, unceremoniously posted the dissolution notice on Twitter, accusing the nonprofit of “maintaining relations within the radical Islamist movement that takes pleasure in justifying acts of terrorism.” In December, the Islamophobia watchdog Collective Against Islamophobia in France was similarly dissolved. The group’s dissolution was troubling, as they monitored anti-Muslim hate crimes in France and Europe, provided legal services, published annual reports on Islamophobia-related incidents, and was integral in challenging state discourse that racism and Islamophobia did not exist in France.
A few days after Paty’s murder, two women attacked a family of five women and four children by the Eiffel Tower, hurling racial slurs and drunkenly attempting to rip off the women’s veils. Muslim women were again disproportionately impacted whenever anti-Muslim hate crimes escalated. Two victims, Amel and Kenza, were stabbed and severely injured. The attackers were offhandedly slapped with general assault charges; their lawyer argued it was a personal dispute that got out of hand. Prosecutors declined to investigate it as a hate crime.
The Global Security Law and Deregulation of Policing Powers
Even amidst a global pandemic, French Parliament found time to draft more security bills. Just days after Paty’s murder, lawmakers proposed the controversial Global Security Law, triggering widespread protests across France.
Article 21 of the bill would deregulate police body-cams, legalizing unrestricted, real-time police access to footage and potentially subjecting it to automated analysis such as facial recognition to target, identify, and punish protestors. The French digital rights group LQDN - La Quadrature du Net (The Squaring of the Net) had long argued that it was “difficult to imagine that these techniques have not already been experimented in the field” and that “one out of 10 people could have their photo” stored in TAJ - Traitement d’Antécédents Judiciaires (Processing of Criminal Records). TAJ is a massive criminal records database that amasses the personal data and photos of those charged with crimes, crime victims, acquitted persons, and anyone implicated in police investigations. Le Monde reported that, at the start of the Gilets Jaunes protests against Macron’s fuel tax hikes, police successfully identified protesters by using facial recognition on Internet photos and videos posted by amateurs and journalists.
The French National Assembly had revealed earlier in 2018 that TAJ contained up to eight million facial images and an astounding 19 million files on “persons of interest.” In 2019 alone, French police ran 375,747 facial recognition scans, with 207,584 more scans done by June 2020. This amounted to over one thousand scans daily.
Article 22 proposed legalizing police drones, with ambiguous boilerplate language to frame usage as “when circumstances give rise to serious disturbances to public order,” such as “the prevention of terrorist acts” and “the regulation of transport flows.” Article 24 would criminalize taking photos and videos of police that would “harm their physical and mental integrity,” punishable by one year in prison and a €45,000 fine. Opponents argued the bill would drastically enhance police capacity to target people based on their private conduct or political and union affiliation.
Another controversial bill, the so-called Law Against Separatism, would criminalize conduct that failed to conform to secular principles, which critics argued targeted Islamic religious practice and stigmatized French Muslims. Macron responded to criticism by complaining that France had been “caricaturized” and “contaminated by an activist discourse hostile to the government.”
Islamophobia and "Anti-Terrorism" Securitization
The security measures and anti-Muslim reprisals following Paty’s murder were in stark contrast to Macron’s muted response to undocumented grievances, despite the march’s record turnout. Certain forms of discontent appeared to spur authorities and the public into action, defending the freedom of speech and laïcité, while other grievances were met with media disinterest and political apathy. The anti-Muslim measures following Paty’s murder, however, were not ‘new’ developments but were a continuation of years of security legislation that had laid the groundwork. While anti-terrorism laws might appear to emerge following major terror attacks, they were already long in the making as part of France’s longstanding securitization agenda.
Between November 2015 and October 2017, as if sensing a brief window of opportunity, Parliament introduced wave after wave of anti-terrorism legislation, while renewing a state of emergency five times. By the emergency’s end in October 2017, many ‘temporary’ security measures had been integrated into the penal code, becoming permanent powers that could be exercised in the absence of an emergency.
Formerly-illegal surveillance practices (such as metadata mining and the use of black boxes), increased powers of the Paris-based anti-terrorism court, and expanded executive overreach became permanent fixtures in French penal law, no longer mandating a national crisis to be mobilized. Draconian anti-terrorism measures became the normalized security response to a range of domestic policy issues.
For minoritized populations like Muslims, racialized groups, migrant workers, and the undocumented, encounters with extra-judicial police and security violence constituted everyday reality—no state of emergency was ever needed. There was hardly anything ‘new’ or unprecedented about state of emergency measures or bills like the Global Security Law.
The recent resurfacing of Islamo-leftism (Islamo-gauchisme) in French public discourse exemplifies how notions of freedom of speech and secularism were again politically instrumentalized to push forth securitization goals. Islamo-leftism has long been invoked as an accusatory term by figures across the political spectrum to discredit any politics, discourse, or stance seen as overly sympathetic to ideological positions that Muslims, pro-Palestinian partisans, and leftists presumably share.
Frédérique Vidal, the Minister for Higher Education, had called for investigations to distinguish between “what constitutes academic research and what constitutes activism and opinion” and identify university researchers accused of spreading so-called Islamo-leftist teachings—which apparently included any intellectual endeavor that overly focused on issues ranging from systemic racism and White privilege to theories of intersectionality and decoloniality.
Vidal’s calls echoed an earlier appeal in late October 2020 by a collective of French scholars, who expressed alarm that the perceived Islamist threat in France was being propelled by “indigenist, racialist, and ‘decolonial’ ideologies, imported from North American campuses” that consequently fueled “a hatred for Whites and for France.”
Secularism and Carceral Politics
The production of anti-Muslim racism unfolds in a broader context whereby discourses of laïcité and national crises have long been instrumentalized to prey upon public passions, expand securitization capacities, and justify neoliberal slashes to welfare provisions. Ethnic and religious minorities are then scapegoated as the origin of France’s social ills, rather than locating it in the failures of status-quo politics.
This especially occurs at a pivotal historical moment where France is beleaguered by a ballooning budget deficit, bloated public sectors, spiraling unemployment rates, and friction with police unions over resources. Labor strikes like those of the Gilets Jaunes portend the growing disillusionment of the proletarian and middle classes, alienated by neoliberal austerity measures and shrinking welfare protections that aggravate economic inequalities.
The security response to Paty’s murder in the name of defending laïcité is also a calculated policy move advancing the politics of securitization at the heart of the security state. This is why the Eiffel Tower stabbing and undocumented rights marches were not regarded as matters of national consequence: Such grievances point to systemic gendered and racialized violences endemic to France, contradicting the securitization paradigm that must construct the enemy as a barbaric, foreign Other.
By the end of the state of emergency in October 2017, the executive government had consolidated control over national intelligence agencies, surveillance activities, prefects, and national police forces. Anti-terrorism measures, such as enforcing house searches, deploying military troops to patrol major cities and ports of entry, and dissolving organizations, became carceral tactics increasingly employed against climate justice activists, union strikers, and undocumented migrants—not just Muslims.
The daily operational norm of policing in France was rapidly transformed: Domestic policy concerns such as delinquency, crime, and social dissent were increasingly governed by an anti-terrorism penal framework, with every aspect of activist, political, religious, and union activity potentially subject to pre-emptive surveillance and punishment.
Further, Macron’s insistence yet again that laïcité is under attack is deeply rooted in a jingoistic narrative of secularism. Portraying France as the ultimate defender of secular freedoms is not just political weaponization to detract from the inequalities, impoverishment, and violence caused by the failures of neoliberal policies and waning French global influence.
It is also France’s clarion call demanding the world yet again to accept, without challenge, that France alone possesses the only legitimate ethical system through which the world can understand human freedoms. In this view, the sensibilities of subjects from the Global South cannot and will not be made to define the limits of secular sensibilities; they are seen as limited by their ethnic, cultural, and religious particularities and incapable of defining the scope and potential of human freedoms.
What counts as offensive or acceptable to freedom of speech is, therefore, patterned by secular (meaning: White/European/male/bourgeois) sensibilities. What offends or pleases the 'civilized' Frenchman appears to become the worldwide default for what freedom must be and its scope.
As France is confronting escalating social instabilities and economic turbulences, the ability to regulate and suppress dissent by shoring up its security institutions is an urgent need for the state. In times of crisis, any narrative or incident can be easily reformulated to play upon pre-existing public fears of minoritized groups, and attention is shrewdly redirected to the urgency of defending principles of laïcité as defined by the ruling class.
This is what characterizes much political and public sentiment in the wake of Paty’s murder: The singular focus on laïcité and freedom of speech misses how Paty’s death and the undocumented marches both unfold in a troubling context where the state’s response to national tragedies or grievances is even more surveillance, punishment, and incarceration. National security forces become increasingly capable of responding to a wide range of domestic matters—from addressing clandestine immigration to suppressing labor strikes—with disproportionate violence, scant judicial oversight, and little ethical accountability.
 30 May 2020 marked the first major Acte (day of action) for the grassroots-based National March, where numerous undocumented and migrant rights collectives and their supporters rallied in major French cities, including Brest, Grenoble, Lyon, and Strasbourg, as well as in other European urban centers such as Brussels, Belgium, and Bologna, Italy. Police authorities placed tighter restrictions for participants marching in Paris, strategically blocking marchers from accessing key thoroughfares.
 The march was initially planned to conclude in front of the Élysée Palace, the official domicile of the French President, where demonstrators would publicly call for a meeting with Macron. However, the Paris Police Prefecture denied them access to areas surrounding the Palace, which resulted in the march concluding at Place de la République, a public square over two miles away.
 The legislative origins of ‘glorification of terrorism’ (apologie du terrorisme) can be traced back to an 1881 law on freedom of the press. It has since been carried over and adapted into the French criminal code in a 13 November 2014 anti-terrorism law that expanded prosecutorial powers. What was once protected as free speech under the notion of freedom of the press became a criminally prosecutable infraction whose scope is determined by prosecutors and magistrates. See Légifrance, Loi n° 2014-1353 du 13 novembre 2014 renforçant les dispositions relatives à la lutte contre le terrorisme, https://www.legifrance.gouv.fr/loda/id/JORFTEXT000029754374/.
 Amel and Kenza were immediately sent to a hospital for serious injuries. The journalist Taha Bouhafs later interviewed Hanane, Kenza’s sister, who recounted in harrowing detail how one of the attackers had called them “dirty Arabs” after having been told to keep their dogs on a leash, and proceeded to stab Kenza multiple times. See Taha Bouhafs, “Femmes voilées poignardées près de la Tour Eiffel, une des victimes témoigne,” YouTube video, 8:12, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_n5OiYiGG5c.
 Metadata refers to data that provides general information about a user’s online habits and patterns of activity, rather than revealing the contents of such activities and communications. Critics of metadata collection for anti-terrorism purposes argue that metadata is highly invasive to user privacy rights, as it may still disclose sensitive or private information about the user without their consent or knowledge.
 Black boxes (boîtes noires) are automatized devices manually installed and connected onto the on-site data servers of Internet service and telecom providers. Using pre-set algorithms installed by the government, black boxes scanned electronic communications and flagged ‘suspicious’ activity, such as encrypted text.
 Anti-terrorism legislation has been a staple of the French legislative scene since the 1980s. One of the most notable pre-2015 is Nicolas Sarkozy’s controversial 2006 anti-terrorism bill, passed against the backdrop of the July 2005 London bombings and the October 2005 Paris banlieue protests, which modified the criminal code, expanded surveillance capacities, and equated criminal delinquency and poverty with a predisposition to terrorism. These provided legislative precedence for future anti-terrorism laws, notably after the 2015 Paris attacks that saw a rapid uptick in anti-terrorism legislation linking delinquency to terrorism.
 The circulation of Islamo-gauchisme across political, academic, and social spheres is not new. It initially entered French public discourse in the last few decades, and was popularized in the early 2000s by the philosopher Pierre-André Taguieff, who described Islamo-gauchisme as a group of emerging leftist movements in the Global South that shared common political interests, amongst which are, he claimed, anti-Zionism, anti-Semitism, pro-Palestinian sentiments, and political Islamism. Taguieff wrote that Islamo-gauchisme was trafficked by a ‘radical’ decolonial left that utilized anti-racism and anti-Islamophobia rhetoric to propagate anti-Semitism. See Pierre-André Taguieff, La Nouvelle Judéophobie (The New Judeophobia).
 One of the more prominent labor strikes is by the Gilets Jaunes movement: Starting November 2018, workers from across the political spectrum came together to protest against diesel and carbon tax hikes that would disproportionately impact those who depended on transportation to commute to work. The government deployed the national police and riot control police in heavy-handed attempts to suppress the discontent.
 Neoliberal austerity measures include Macron’s pension reforms that would raise the retirement age to 64 and introduce a universal points-based pension system that critics contend would force people to work longer for a full pension, de-incentivize early retirement options, and increase pension contributions without wage increases or improvements to working conditions. These grievances triggered the December 2019 nationwide pension reform protests.