Written by Om Marathe
French Prime Minister Jean Castex has said it is “not a text against religion, nor against the Muslim religion”, but against radical Islamism, whose objective, he said, is “to divide French people from one another.”
On Wednesday, the French cabinet presented a draft law that targets “radical Islamism” — although the word “Islamist” is not part of the text. Called a law “to reinforce Republican principles”, the Bill will go to the National Assembly, the lower chamber of Parliament, in January
Prime Minister Jean Castex has said it is “not a text against religion, nor against the Muslim religion”, but against radical Islamism, whose objective, he said, is “to divide French people from one another.”
The Bill comes in the wake of a series of terror attacks in recent years. Although in the pipeline for some time, it is being seen as a response to the October beheading of schoolteacher Samuel Paty. It has raised concerns that it could stigmatise France’s Muslim community, the largest in Europe.
What does the proposed law aim to do?
It envisages a range of measures, including school education reforms to ensure Muslim children do not drop out, stricter controls on mosques and preachers, and rules against hate campaigns online.
Once the law comes into force, French mosques could see increased surveillance of their activities, such as financing. The government would be able to exercise supervision over the training of imams, and have greater powers to shut down places of worship receiving public subsidies if they go against “republican principles” such as gender equality. Moderate community leaders targeted by an extremist “putsch” could receive protection.
Under French secularism laws, or laïcité, there is already a ban on state employees displaying religious symbols that are “conspicuous”, such as the crucifix or hijab. This ban would now be extended beyond government bodies to any sub-contracted public service, as per The Economist.
There would also be a clampdown on home-schooling for children over age three, with parents from to be dissuaded from enrolling them in underground Islamic structures, according to France 24.
Doctors who issue “virginity certificates” would be fined or jailed. Officials would be banned from granting residency permits to polygamous applicants. Couples would be interviewed separately by city hall officials prior to their wedding to find out if they have been forced into marriage.
Stricter punishments would be introduced for online hate speech. This is seen as a direct response to the killing of Paty, who was targeted in an online campaign before he was killed.
What has been the reaction?
The sharpest criticism of the Bill has come from abroad. Turkish President Recep Erdogan, who has been strongly criticising French President Emmanuel Macron in recent months, has called the proposed law an “open provocation”.
The Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Egypt’s top cleric, has called Macron’s views “racist”. For his part, Macron said recently, “I will not allow anybody to claim that France, or its government, is fostering racism against Muslims.”
At home, experts say that Macron largely enjoys the support of a French electorate that has hardened its position on terrorism, which has claimed more than 200 lives in the past eight years. In a recent nationwide survey, 79% of respondents agreed that “Islamism is at war with France”.
Critics have expressed alarm that the Bill could lead to the conflation of the Islamic religion with Islamism, a political movement, and lead to the alienation of French Muslims. Nevertheless, there have been members of the community who have come out in support of the law, such as the leader of the French Council of the Muslim Faith.
Why is it significant politically?
Macron faces re-election in 2022, and experts say he is appealing to France’s right-wing voters after facing a series of electoral losses this year. The President has also been facing protests over a proposed “global security” legislation.
In May this year, a group of left-wing MPs from his La République En Marche! (LREM) party defected, costing the party its absolute majority in the National Assembly. Then in June, the LREM performed poorly in local elections.
Macron, who describes his politics as “neither right nor left” — he was with the Socialist Party until 2009 — faces a challenge from right-wing politician Marine Le Pen, whom he defeated in the 2017 election, and who has led the charge against him for not cracking down hard enough against Islamism.