Conflict Alerts # 413, 28 July 2021
In the news
On 23 July, the French Parliament passed the bill strengthening the government's role to check mosques and other religious organizations as part of its fight to prevent Islamic radicalism and defend the republic. The 'Law Reinforcing Respect of the Principles of the Republic' was passed by the National Assembly with 49 votes in favour, against 19. Also known as the anti-separatism bill, it was first approved by the lower house on 16 February 2021.
Issues at large
First, the bill in brief. The passed bill empowers the government to permanently close houses of worship, dissolve religious organizations without a court order, if their members are found to be inciting hatred. Religious organizations will now have to get government permits every five years to continue operating; also, they would need annual certification of their accounts if they receive foreign funding. The bill makes it a criminal offense for anyone, in the name of religious ideology, pressures civil servants, and other public-service providers to deviate from French secular values. Unauthorized posting of someone's personal details to expose them to harm is punishable with EUR 45,000 and up to three years in jail. The passed bill also mandates parents who home-school their children to obtain government authorization to ensure their children are taught the right French secular values.
Second, France's struggle with Islamic extremism. The new law comes in the immediate background of strings of terrorist attacks. In October 2020, a middle-school teacher Samuel Paty was beheaded after the father of one of his students posted a video online complaining about the teacher's decision to display cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad to his class. The attacker, an 18-year-old Chechen refugee, acted after seeing the video. Two weeks later, a Tunisian man killed three with a knife at a church in Nice. The attacks remain those incidents where the French laïcité (secularism) was seen by the larger French society to be in direct conflict with one's religious norms, especially Islam. Macron has since politicized the attacks and called Islam to be in crisis. The law attempts to legalize and uphold Paty as a symbol of free-thinking French who has been under attack from the Islamic radicals.
Third, Macron’s attempt at reinterpreting French laïcité. The bill framed by Macron at the outset aims to respond to the spread of Islamist extremism. But at its core, it is a State's exceptional attempt at solving the problem of extremism with another extreme of creating parallel societies where civic laws will take precedence over personal freedom to practice ones' own religion. Called laïcité, it is a strict separation of religion and State wherein to be a French secular means absence of religious symbol in public space. The law re-enforces laïcité as political and social anxiety towards Islam.
Fourth, public support for the law. Macron's course correction of illiberal elements in the French society through security and legal means has public support. The anguish and exclusionary remarks favouring the burkhini or headscarves ban is a larger public expression of how Muslims remain alienated in French society. Passing the bill, further provides a social space to the project of homogenizing the republic where being French cannot coexist with simultaneous religious identities.
Macron, in passing the bill, formalized the ground for the popularity of conservative politics with favouritism of one's national historicity. The right-wing opposition Republicans (LR) party and the far-right National Rally have both called for more restrictions on Islamism. However, the new law is the first attempt by a Western liberal democratic republic at legalizing the socio-political alienation of its minority by its ethnic majority.