On March 30, the French Senate began debate on Emmanuel Macron’s proposed bill, titled “Supporting Respect for the Principles of the Republic.” The bill was approved first in the French lower house National Assembly, dominated by the President’s centrist “La République En Marche” (LREM) on February 16 in a 347-151 vote, but will not be officially codified unless the recent debates result in senate approval.
The drafted legislation was unveiled last December. French officials contend that its aim is to combat “Islamist separatism,” and protect the region’s commitment to laïcité—a strong French value that supports the strict delineation between the state and the private sphere of personal beliefs, following recent incidents of Islamist terrorism in October.
However, critics argue that that the proposed bill unfairly targets and stigmatizes France’s 5.7 million Muslim population, the largest Muslim population in Europe.
The tension between Élysée officials and French Muslims is no new occurrence. In the 20th century, France occupied Islamic dominated regions in Africa and the Middle East. The French believed that the natives’ devotion to the religion would interfere with the integration of laïcité, and thus occupiers began to ban Islamic symbols, including face coverings like the niqāb.
France now holds the largest proportion of Muslims in Europe, namely due to migration from its former colonies in Africa and the Middle-East. Despite the demographic’s predominance, much of the French population still understands Islam to be at odds with secularism and modernity.
In 2010, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon introduced the law that would prohibit the “concealment of the face” in public spaces. This banned face-covering headgear, masks, balaclavas, but more specifically, niqābs and burqas. In 2017, France introduced an Anti-Terrorism Bill that permit officials to search homes, restrict movement, and close places of worship, a bill later condemned by a U.N. Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR). France’s interior minister has ordered investigations into 76 mosques “suspected of separatism,” but a report from Amnesty International in response to the initiative has claimed that French leaders have too often used the term “radicalization” as a euphemism for “devout Muslim.”
74% of French Muslims today believe that there is a conflict between living in devotion to their religion and living in a western society, and the Islamophobic sentiment has only grown since the 2015 Paris Attacks, where 130 people were left dead when Islamist-extremists attacked a Parisian concert hall and stadium.
However, the traction for the “anti-separatist” bill began after President Macron’s speech regarding the murder of Samuel Paty in October 16, a French middle-school teacher beheaded by an Islamist extremist for showing his students Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad with his genitals exposed, and the stabbing of three individuals in a Nice basilica by a Tunisian national. Macron’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin also attacked halal grocery stores following the murder of Paty, identifying them as “communitarian cuisine” that fosters the kind of “separatism” that Macron has condemned.
Though the bill does not explicitly reference Islam, Macron’s speech in October introducing the bill explicitly stated that they need to fight “Islamist separatism.” He called it a religion “in crisis all over the world,” and is seeking to “free Islam in France from foreign influences” in order to create an “Islam of the Enlightenment,” a practice of faith regulated by the state.
The “anti-separatist” legislation was revealed in December, two months following Macron’s speech. In general, the bill is meant to reinforce France’s laïcité tradition by discouraging behavior that imposes religious viewpoints in the public sphere, though many of its critics argue that the bill contains a tactical, hidden agenda.
The main source of its criticism is its expansion of the “neutrality principle.” The article forbids all “private contractors or public services” from sharing political opinions and wearing physical representations of their religion, including the hijab. This article would also institute a mandate on women under the age of 18, claiming that as an “age of consent” for wearing religiously affiliated attire. Protest against this provision have been made vocal by public demonstration in Paris, as well as by a social media campaign known as #HandsOffMyHijab.
The proposed law will also include tighter controls over Muslim religious organizations and leadership. Those who receive federal funding will be required to conform to a “Republican Charter.” Imams will be trained by a state sanctioned body, the “National Council of Imams,” to ensure their conformity to the region’s anti-separatist priorities, each must being able to demonstrate their Mosque’s commitment to the “principles of liberty, equality, fraternity, and respect of human dignity.”
Regulation of foreign influence and funding is also tackled by Macron’s proposal. Titled “anti-putsch” rules, France aims to place stricter financial controls on foreign money sent to domestic religious associations to prevent takeovers from “extremists.” Any organizations receiving more than $12,000 from abroad must publish annual accounts for government oversight.
It seeks to further interfere in personal matters by imposing new regulation on homeschooling and private schools. Macron claimed in his landmark speech that “clandestine” schools were becoming a breeding ground for radicalism, where “education consists of prayers and certain classes.” “Schools must first and foremost instill the values of the Republic and not those of a religion, and educate citizens, no worshippers,” he added. All homeschooling starting in 2024 must be approved and authorized by the state, and the issuance of such may be refused. In addition, national identification numbers (INE) will be extended to home-schooled and private-schooled children to ensure that they are attending school. Parents who break the law could face up to six months in jail and a considerable fine.
These non-secular schools, and other religious communities, will also be further policed. Offenses committed in connection to a religious belief will allow authorities to close any places of worship to stop hate preachers. Amnesty International released a report on this provision that suggests that it violates the right to free expression.
Last, the legislation seeks to monitor “hate speech.” Under a “separatism” offense, an individual who spreads personal information on public sector employees will be subject to detainment and will be punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment. It also makes it illegal to share, with “malicious intent,” images of police officers in which they are recognizable.
A debate has emerged whether the law is more anti-separatist or Islamophobic in nature. There are arguments from both ends of France’s political spectrum. Many in the conservative-led Senate believe that the bill does not go far enough in preventing Islamic separatism and extremism following the terrorist attacks occurring after the 2015 Paris Attack. Marine Le Pen, the head of the National Rally party and a perennial presidential candidate, told Foreign Policy that the “legislation is too weak in fighting Islamist ideologies.”
Others on the left see the law as a “populist movement,” directed at pandering to right-wing voters and stigmatizing France’s largest minority demographic.
“Supporting respect for the principles of the Republic” is a wide-ranging bill, covering most aspects of French civil, fiscal, and social life. The goal of the bill is ultimately to preserve laïcité, but questions remain about to what extent state interference in the freedom of expression is a secular advancement.