President Emmanuel Macron’s government has unveiled a wide-ranging draft law to curb the influence of Islamist “separatists” in French society.
The draft legislation, launched on the 115th anniversary of France’s 1905 law separating church and state on Wednesday, includes measures to ban “virginity certificates” for Muslim women and to curb home schooling. It follows two deadly Islamist terror attacks in October, in which four people were killed.
Although the text does not use the words “Islamist” or “separatist” and is called the law “to protect the principles of the republic”, Mr Macron and his ministers have said their aim is to rein in Islamists whom they accuse of imposing puritanical, sexist and sometimes violently anti-republican views on communities across France. The country is home to an estimated 5.7m Muslims, according to Pew Research Center, the largest such minority in western Europe.
Prime minister Jean Castex, presenting the bill after a cabinet meeting at Mr Macron’s Elysée presidential palace, said it targeted “the pernicious ideology known as radical Islamism”.
He said: “This draft law is not a text against religions, nor against the Muslim religion in particular. It’s the opposite — a law of freedom, a law of protection, a law of emancipation in the face of religious fundamentalism.”
The law includes an extension of the principle of “neutrality” in public services to private companies contracted by the authorities: “neutrality” means that those working for the state may not wear ostentatious religious symbols or refuse to work with people of another sex or religion. Local authorities will not be able to order separate sessions for men and women at public swimming pools.
Hate speech and radical content on social media and the wider internet will be more tightly controlled, and it will be illegal to identify public servants such as teachers with a view to harming them — a measure inserted into the law because Samuel Paty, a school teacher decapitated by a Chechnya-born Islamist in October, was reviled and identified on Facebook, while his attacker claimed the killing on Twitter afterwards.
The law will also stop state subsidies to civic associations deemed hostile to France and oblige them to declare their loyalty to republican principles if they want to benefit from government support.
Mr Macron, heavily criticised by some Muslim leaders abroad after he defended freedom of speech and the right to blaspheme, has rejected accusations of Islamophobia from Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Imran Khan of Pakistan.
One of Mr Macron’s advisers said the government’s strategy was a “destabilisation” of radical Islamist networks that it says hold sway in certain districts of France — 15 of which were targeted by the government nearly three years ago for “republican reconquest”.
Despite unease among liberals about other provisions of the draft law — the effective ban on home schooling, for example, and a criminalisation of patients who demand to choose the gender of the doctor who treats them in state hospitals — Mr Macron’s crackdown on Islamism since he took office in 2017 is supported by a majority of French voters.
According to an Ifop-Fiducial opinion poll for CNews and Sud Radio in October, 87 per cent of the French agree that France’s distinctive form of laïcité, or secularism, is in danger. Seventy-nine per cent agree that “Islamism has declared war on France and the republic”, and 78 per cent support teachers such as Samuel Paty who show their pupils caricatures that mock religions to explain freedom of expression.
Action against Islamism and support for secularism are popular across the political spectrum. The poll showed that 88 per cent of Socialists supported the use of religious caricatures in schools, compared with 89 per cent of supporters of Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National.
In its 54 articles, the law will extend the enforcement of laïcité in various walks of life. Home schooling will be restricted, officials say, because some children are in fact being sent by their parents to unregistered Koranic classes.
Marc Trévidic, a former anti-terrorism prosecutor and judge, estimated that 3,000-4,000 young French people — twice the official number — had gone to fight as jihadis in Syria and Iraq after 2013. “We were stunned by the number of departures,” he told the Financial Times.
Mr Macron has promised a parallel effort to handle complaints of discrimination and to fund government services in deprived areas.
The law will not resolve a wider reluctance to accept public display of religious faith, said Tareq Oubrou, a Morocco-born imam in Bordeaux. “There’s a visibility [of French Muslims] that is seen as a stubborn separatism, as a plan to Islamise society,” he said, recalling that the 1905 law was aimed at curbing the powers of the monarchist Catholic church.
“Every religious practice is seen as a turn to sectarianism leading to fundamentalism,” he said. “It’s not like in Anglo-Saxon countries . . . Here, in France, freedom is first of all the freedom to free yourself from religion.”
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