The French National Assembly approval for a new law called ‘Strengthening Respect for Republican Principles’ also dubbed as an anti-separatism bill, has reignited the debate about not only Emmanuel Macron’s centrist, liberal claim but also where European politics is perhaps headed.
The law is said to battle Islamist separatism and strengthen the French secularism ideology commonly known as Laïcité, which outlines a strict separation of State and religion. The legislation will tighten controls on home-schooling, online hate and foreign religious funding. It also plans to counter discrimination against women and girls on the basis of religious values.
The National Assembly lower house voted on the legislation after a total of 135 hours of debate that saw over 300 amendments get adopted. The law has divided the French Left and the Right over its intended purpose and utility, but one thing both sides seem to agree on is that the law is too vague to address many of the issues France is facing today, as it grapples to deal with its growing Muslim minority population, the largest across Europe.
What led to the law
The law has come in the wake of several Islamist attacks in France and in Europe in the last many years, including the shocking killing of a French teacher named Samuel Paty in October 2020. Investigations revealed that the teacher’s discussion about free speech in the context of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo‘s cartoons in his class led to some of the Muslim students’ parents calling for action against him on social media, following which he was murdered.
The trial into the 2015 attack on the Charlie Hebdo office that killed 11 people concluded in December 2020 and found 14 accomplices guilty.
Even as the trial was underway, French President Emmanuel Macron gave a speech saying, “Islam is a religion which is experiencing a crisis today, all over the world”, adding that there was a need to “free Islam in France from foreign influences”. A few weeks later, his government proposed the anti-separatism bill.
In recent years, Europe and especially France have become central in the debate on upholding secularist values amidst a steady influx of migrants, especially from the Muslim world that these Western countries colonised in the past. Such a troubled shared past has already led to what many call a clash of civilisations. Amid such sentiments, many also argue that the 20th-century French secularism needs to be revisited in the 21st century, as multicultural societies populate the continent and most of the Western world.
From Hungary to Austria to Germany, rising Right-wing populism is trying to refashion the old liberal order. Macron’s new law can normalise this push.
Some observers in France also feel that the timing of the new law is questionable and it seems to be an attempt by the French President to pander to the Right-wing conservatives in the country, as he prepares for elections next year. He is expected to face strong competition from Right-wing political parties, who view him too soft on Muslims.
However, critics from progressive, Left and liberal backgrounds feel the law breaches religious freedoms and may target Muslims who have nothing to do with extremist ideologies. Critics argue that any Islamist ideology that may lead a Muslim French national towards terrorism cannot be defeated by legal measures like this law alone. Instead, the solution lies in creating favourable socio-economic conditions for Muslims by the French State. The government needs to uplift the economic and social status of French Muslims, who feel marginalised and are discriminated against when trying to find jobs and housing in the country. French surveys have also shown how local Muslims feel more targeted by the French police, leading to further tensions between the minority community and the State.
Nearly 200 people protested in Paris recently and accused the bill of “reinforcing discrimination against Muslims”. A collective, which included 100 imams, 50 teachers in Islamic sciences and 50 presidents of associations in France, also reportedly called the bill ‘unacceptable’. A US envoy on religious freedom criticised the bill as “heavy-handed” and the Western media too was unusually critical of Macron’s bill.
Taking a hard Right
The Right-wing in France has complained that the law will not prove to be enough to control Islamist behaviours and has not even addressed Islamist extremism directly by specifying it. It is expected that the Right, which has the majority in the Senate, may try to toughen the law further when it enters the upper house for approval next.
The Macron-led government appears to be anticipating such Right-wing reactions, and has already turned up the rhetoric. In a debate last week, the French interior minister Gérald Darmanin even called far-Right leader Marine Le Pen, the National Rally leader of being “soft” on Islam, when debating this law.
The leading French daily Le Monde described the exchange between Darmanin and Le Pen as “unprecedented”, and called it an “unexpected gift” for Pen “to have been portrayed as moderate by a minister without having to change her policies”.
Such public exchanges have further strengthened the perceptions in France that the law has more to do with politics and winning the Right-wing vote than to deal with Islamism.
A recent poll done in January 2021 showed that the far-Right leader Le Pen, who faced President Macron head-to-head in the final round and lost, is now almost as popular as the French president, ringing alarm bells about the rising popularity of the far-Right ideology. Given this survey, it seems likely that the coming year, an election campaigning year, will see more Right-wing posturing from the French government, which could lead to further marginalisation of the Muslim minority.
Taha Siddiqui is an award-winning Pakistani journalist living in exile in France. He teaches journalism and runs an intellectual space in Paris called The Dissident Club. He tweets @TahaSSiddiqui. Views are personal.