Five years after the Paris terrorist strikes and a week after a brutal knife attack in the French capital, French President Emmanuel Macron sketches the broad outlines Friday of upcoming legislation targeting groups considered hostile to the French Republic and its values — with radical Islam, including its political dimension, at the forefront.
The anti-separatism bill has been long awaited, but was pushed back by the coronavirus pandemic. A recent poll shows the majority of French approve the initiative.
But critics, particularly members of France’s roughly six-million-strong Muslim community — Western Europe’s largest—worry it will deepen anti-Muslim sentiment they say has been on the rise in recent years.
Some also suggest it is politically motivated ahead of France’s 2022 elections, while still others—notably the leading opposition far-right National Rally party—predict the bill will not go far enough in countering threats it also links to immigration.
“What we want is a fight without mercy against communitarianism and separatism,” said National Rally spokesman Sebastien Chenu, using a French term referring to ethnic communities that are seen as unassimilated. “But that means treating the politics at the roots, including rethinking migration policy. There are a number of tools — but so far none has been used.”
“In a context where inter-community tensions are rising, Macron knows he is walking on eggshells,” wrote the regional newspaper Le Republicain Lorrain, summing up the president's challenge in a recent editorial.
Still, the newspaper backed new initiatives to “isolate political Islam” and "integrate everyone within the Republic.”
Macron’s centrist government has taken pains to assure mainstream Muslims the upcoming separatism legislation does not intend to stigmatize them, but rather targets an extremist minority. Groups like white supremacists, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin says, are also in its crosshairs.
Islam “is the religion that will have the least difficulty in working with the Republic,” said Darmanin, whose grandfather was a Muslim immigrant from Algeria.
During a recent visit to Paris’ Grand Mosque, he vowed to work with Muslim representatives in writing the bill.
Bare-bone details reported by French media however, suggest a strong focus on Islam. Among other things, the legislation ostensibly would require mosques and private religious schools to disclose their sources of foreign financing, put a stop on importing foreign imams, and crack down on areas undermining gender equality, including possible criminal sanctions for doctors issuing so-called virginity certificates for women ahead of marriage.
It would add to a raft of other measures, from bans on veiling in public schools and burkinis - modest swimsuits worn by some Muslim women - at beaches, underscoring longstanding friction between conservative Islam and staunchly secular French values.
Charlie Hebdo legacy
The legislation is also backdropped by the multiple Islamist terror attacks France has weathered in recent years—a dark legacy highlighted in an ongoing trial over the 2015 attacks against the Charlie Hebdo newspaper and a kosher supermarket.
Last Friday, a Pakistani immigrant attacked two people with a meat cleaver in front of Charlie Hebdo’s old Paris offices. He claimed in a video to be avenging the satirical weekly’s recent republication of controversial cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, which catalyzed the 2015 attacks.
Making reference to the cartoons at a citizenship ceremony earlier this month and before the latest attacks, Macron defended the “right to blasphemy” as a fundamental freedom, even as he condemned “Islamic separatism.”
“To be French is to defend the right to make people laugh, to criticize, to mock, to caricature,” the president said.
Such sentiments resonate in France, where millions demonstrated for free expression after the 2015 attacks.
A recent Odoxa poll finds more than three-quarters of French people surveyed back legislation against separatism, even though a sizable chunk fear it may deepen fractures in French society. Fueling concerns, too, is a separate IFOP poll finding some 74% of Muslims under the age of 25 putting their religion before the state — compared to just 25% of those over 35.
Fears of political Islam — and stigmatization
For French-Italian writer and geopolitical professor Alexandre Del Valle, political Islam is a particular threat. A 2019 book he co-authored, The Project, is about the Muslim Brotherhood’s alleged attempt to infiltrate and conquer the West.
“Radical Islam is not a conservative way of being religious,” he said in an interview. “It’s a plan, it’s a project that wants to build a Muslim-submitted universe. They want to reinstate a Muslim caliphate in the world.”
Del Valle believes the French President understands this and he supports the upcoming legislation. He proposed measures to fight against separatism, he said, during a French senate committee hearing last year on radical Islam.
“Mr. Macron has understood we face a strange period with many different types of fanaticisms that are converging,” Del Valle added. “Far left, far right and radical Islam.”
Others are less enthusiastic about the government’s strategy.
“The principle of a law isn’t necessarily the best tool to fight against separatism,” said François Clavairoly, president of the French Protestant Federation.
Muslim representatives are voicing sharper concerns.
While supporting areas like training imams in France, French Muslim Council President Mohammed Moussaoui warned against singling Islam out.
“The idea of associating Islam with negative concepts risks creating confusion,” he told the news channel BFMTV.
Islamophobia - becoming banal?
Jawad Bachare, head of the Collective Against Islamophobia in France - a group has been accused of having links to the Muslim Brotherhood - is more pointed, arguing the legislation threatens to further stigmatize Muslims and threaten their freedom to worship.
“I think the real stakes go beyond this,” he said. “We’re near the end of Macron’s first term. And with each election, there are the same questions about Muslims and financing of Muslim places of worship.”
Bachare points to statistics his organization has gathered showing a sharp increase in anti-Muslim acts in recent years—and to a recent incident in which French deputies walked out of a coronavirus hearing when a hijab-wearing student leader testified.
“Islamophobia is becoming banal right now,” he said, “to the point of becoming normal.”