The republic strikes back – Emmanuel Macron unveils a controversial bill to fight Islamism

N EARLY TWO months after the beheading of Samuel Paty, a schoolteacher who had shown pupils caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, the French government has unveiled a bill to clamp down on radical Islamism. This, at least, is the implicit aim of a draft law presented on December 9th. President Emmanuel Macron had promised a bill to combat “Islamist separatism”. But, to pre-empt charges of stigmatising Islam, the final version has been reframed as a text “to reinforce the principles of the republic”.

The bill, declared Jean Castex, the prime minister, is “not a text against religion, nor against the Muslim religion”. Rather, he said, it is “a law of emancipation against religious fundamentalism”, designed to reinforce such principles as laïcité (secularism) and gender equality. It was presented on the 115th anniversary of the adoption of a law that separated religion and the state, and first enshrined laïcité. This strict French version of secularism protects the right both to believe and not to believe, as well as requiring religious neutrality in public life.

The new provisions, which will go through parliament in early 2021, include tight curbs on home-schooling (though not a ban, as originally promised). Parents will need to apply for permission if they wish to teach their children at home, and to justify it. The aim is to limit the use of home-schooling as a way to escape state oversight of radical Koranic teaching. Officials say they have uncovered such classes in some neighbourhoods.

The bill will also make it easier for the government to inspect and shut places of worship or associations that get public subsidies, if they do not respect “republican principles”, such as women’s equality. A ban on state employees displaying “conspicuous” religious symbols, such as the hijab or crucifix, will be extended from the state administration to any form of sub-contracted public service, such as job centres (although, with the existing exception of schools, there is no such ban on those using public services, including universities). Those who threaten officials with violence to secure concessions on religious grounds will face criminal penalties.

Finally, doctors will be forbidden to issue “virginity certificates” in order to protect women from pre-nuptial pressure. It will also be illegal to divulge or publish information that locates or identifies individuals in a way that puts them in danger, with stiffer penalties for identifying those in positions of public authority. This measure is a direct response to the murder of Paty, whose assassin identified him on social media before travelling to the school where he taught.

The government argues that it needs stronger powers in order to break up “counter-societies”. Associations under radical Islamist influence, it says, have increasingly created parallel societies, running services from crèches to sports activities, and are waging a war for the minds of the young. Since 2017 intelligence services, magistrates and the state have worked in 15 such neighbourhoods to “destabilise” networks, closing 15 places of worship and four schools. Such “enclaves”, argues Gilles Kepel, author of a forthcoming book on the Middle East and jihadism, became a way for global jihadists to recruit fighters, provoke Islamophobia and divide Western societies. Between 2012 and 2018 over 2,000 French citizens left to take part in jihad in Syria, and more than 250 people were killed in terrorist attacks in France.

Since his election Mr Macron has come to believe that tougher rules are needed to defend French society from such influences. Indeed, Eric Dupond-Moretti, the justice minister, described the bill as a “great law of liberty”. In 2004, when France banned “conspicuous” religious symbols from state schools, recalls Patrick Weil, a French historian, the commission of inquiry that preceded the law concluded that it was necessary to protect girls from fundamentalist pressure to wear the hijab.

Not everybody, however, sees it this way. Critics say that the bill hands too much power to the state to overrule local authorities, and that it infringes the right to religious practice that laïcité is supposed to guarantee. Some also accuse the government of mistaking conservative religiosity for sinister intent, and of ignoring the structural racism behind the development of French ghettos. Mr Macron has indeed so far put less emphasis on his promise to fight racial discrimination than on the war against Islamism. In parts of the Muslim world, he is accused of being not just anti-Islamism, but against the religion itself.

In France, though, there is broad support for Mr Macron’s measures, both on the mainstream left (most of which is firmly laïc) and the right—although the far right’s Marine Le Pen considers them too tame. Some Muslim leaders have also backed them. Mohammed Moussaoui, head of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, said that the overall aim “reassures French Muslims”, since extremists are such a “marginal minority”. A recent poll showed that 79% of the French agree that “Islamism is at war with France”; 72% of Socialist voters agreed, and 90% on the centre-right. With less than 18 months before the next presidential election, Mr Macron’s tough line on Islamism may be criticised abroad, but is likely to prove popular at home. ■