Conflict Alerts # 328, 18 February 2021
In the news
On 16 February, the lower house of the French National Assembly approved the “Respect for the Principles and Values of the Republic” or the ‘anti-separatism’ bill brought by President Emmanuel Macron to fight Islamic radicalism and defend the republic. The lower house dominated by Macron’s centrist La République En Marche party, voted 347 to 151 in favour of the bill. It will now be put to vote in the conservative-led upper house or the Senate where it is expected to approve. “It’s an extremely strong secular offensive. It’s a tough text…but necessary for the republic,” said Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin to RTL radio ahead of the vote.
Issues at large
First, the bill in brief. The bill, once enacted as a law, will impose measures such as sanctions for online hate speech, tighter controls on home-schooling, limits on donations to religious groups from abroad, and a requirement for all associations in France receiving public funding to sign a contract pledging to respect Republican values. Among the more than 70 separate articles, the law expands the ability of the French State to close places of worship and religious schools, as well as ban preachers it deems “extremist.”
Second, rising Islamic extremism and politicization of the attacks. The bill was introduced by Macron in the backdrop of a series of attacks with the recent being in October 2020 when a teacher Samuel Paty was beheaded for showing his pupils the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. Paty's killing prompted the inclusion of the specific crimes of online hate speech in the bill. His beheading by an 18-year-old Muslim Russian refugee of Chechen ethnicity bore the hallmarks of a similar attack on the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. In 2015, the office of Hebdo was attacked, for creating these comic strips on the Prophet. Hebdo has remained one event where the French laïcité (secularism) was in direct conflict with one's religious norms and the beheading of Paty further deepened the social conflict. Macron has since politicised the attacks and called Islam to be in crisis. His bill has the public support as Paty is seen as a symbol of French free-thinking that has been attacked by the Islamic radicals.
Third, a colonial idea of laïcité challenged in a multicultural French society. French society has witnessed a slow social integration of its Muslim population. The post-colonial French society is multicultural and yet one of its communities, the Muslims, today still live as ethnically ghettoized as in the colonial period. Also, France follows a strict separation of religion and state, formalized through Art 1 of its constitution, wherein to be a French secular means absence of religious symbol in public space. However, the contemporary interpretation of laïcité has been illiberal and its politicisation only meant increasing anxiety towards Islam. The public discourse fuelled by political leaders has been a public prohibition towards headscarf irrespective of whether the person is a public servant or not. France has remained colour-blind but the Muslims in France are not the French Muslims. This identity crisis and what it means to be a French today is further convoluted by the bill which sees France and its republic values at odds with Islam.
Fourth, the French state and propagation of civic liberalism. French nationalism itself is defined by civic expression of its liberalism. This French liberalism has propelled the State to defend these values through strict policing and the bill has been the likely extension. Macron and Darmanin have been particularly accused of seeing a whole marginalized community through the acts of few and pandering them as a threat. The passage of the bill would legalize what Macron calls the development of a “counter-society” that rejects secularism.
First, the anti-separatism bill is yet to be adopted as law and since its drafting, the term ‘separatism’ remains problematic. With no legal definition to the term, its fuzziness could probably be a case for more abuse from the State. Today one reads in every French newspaper how a cloth (hijab) or type of meat (halal) are signs of social separatism which could be legalised through State action.
Second, with Macron passing the bill, he could formalize the ground for the popularity of the political right. With campaigning ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections, the right-wing opposition Republicans (LR) party and the far-right National Rally have both called for more restrictions on Islamism and garner the public mandate.