French interior minister Gérald Darmanin said the authorities would ‘launch a massive and unprecedented action against separatism’ © AFP via Getty Images

Gérald Darmanin, France’s interior minister, has announced a crackdown on 76 mosques “suspected of separatism” that will be investigated and then closed if the government’s suspicions are confirmed. 

The move against Muslim places of worship deemed to be fostering extremism follows a series of Islamist terror attacks in France, including the slaughter of three people in a church in Nice and the beheading by a Chechen refugee of schoolteacher Samuel Paty after he showed caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed to a class on freedom of speech.

“On my instructions, the authorities will launch a massive and unprecedented action against separatism,” Mr Darmanin said on Twitter. He said 76 mosques “are today suspected of separatism. In the coming days, these places of worship will be inspected. If the suspicions are confirmed, I will request their closure.” 

In early October, President Emmanuel Macron announced that his government would draft a law this year to tackle radical Islamist “separatism” and said there would be strict new controls on religious, cultural and sporting associations and a ban on home schooling. 

The government — accused of Islamophobia and of “stigmatising” Muslims by some foreign Muslim leaders and French activists, but supported by many French voters, especially on the right — wants to reimpose French secular republican values in districts heavily populated by Arab and African Muslim immigrants that are regarded as having escaped the control of the state.

Mr Darmanin spoke out after the plans were leaked to the newspaper Le Figaro, which obtained an interior ministry document of November 27 on “Muslim separatist places of worship”. 

According to the document the 76 mosques include 18 priority targets, of which eight are in the Paris area. Three of those are in the Seine-Saint-Denis department north of the capital: one was closed by a local mayor but stayed open, a second was officially closed in 2019 but continued to organise prayers and the third was seen as a security risk.

“Until now, the state focused on radicalisation and terrorism,” Le Figaro quoted Mr Darmanin as saying. “Now we’re also going to attack the breeding grounds of terrorism, where people create the intellectual and cultural space for secession and imposing their values.” 

The document counts 2,623 mosques and prayers halls in France — home to an estimated 5.7m Muslims, according to Pew Research Center — the largest Muslim population in western Europe. Many mosques are affiliated to Islamic traditions in north Africa and Turkey, but 41 per cent are said to be without affiliation, “a little understood category that could hide places of worship that are deliberately trying not to be noticed”. 

Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz condemned “political Islam” after a rampage in Vienna by an Islamist extremist. His government plans to introduce legislation that would ban membership of designated “Islamist” groups as well as give the police more powers to close mosques. 

This article has been amended since original publication to expand details of which groups accuse the French government of Islamophobia.

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