It’s a French draft law that attracted huge controversy before it was even published — and doesn’t even mention the issue that President Emmanuel Macron says it’s meant to address: “Islamist separatism.”
The concern that Islamist extremists are creating communities and instilling ideas that separate them from the values of the French republic has re-emerged as a major issue in French politics in recent months.
Three deadly attacks by Islamist radicals took place in France over four weeks this fall, triggering a renewed tense public debate about the French strand of secularism, known as laïcité, the place of Islam and individual freedoms. Some critics, particulaly outside France, labeled Macron’s policies “illiberal” — triggering a fierce response from the president and his allies.
Now the bill, originally described as concerning “separatism,” then “separatisms” and now entitled the law “bolstering the respect of the principles of the Republic,” has finally been presented.
In a symbolic move, the government sent the bill to parliament on the 115th anniversary of the 1905 law on the separation of church and state, a cornerstone of the French republic.
Here are five things to know about the bill, which the National Assembly will debate in January, with the possibility of introducing amendments.
Nowhere in the text of the draft law do the words “Islamism” or “separatism” appear — in an apparent attempt to avoid criticism that the bill targets Muslims.
And yet, when asked to give examples of issues that need to be curtailed, Prime Minister Jean Castex only cited behaviors linked to Islamism in an interview with Le Monde previewing the bill on Wednesday, referring to children “refusing to play with non-Muslims” or “reciting [Koranic] surats while closing their ears in music class.”
Furthermore, in his landmark speech on the issue on October 2, Macron said it was important to name things clearly and spoke explicitly of “Islamist separatism.”
And in the document outlining the government’s motives for presenting the bill, “radical Islamism” is the only form of “separatism” explicitly mentioned.
“An insidious but powerful communitarian infiltration is slowly gangrening the foundations of our society in some areas. This infiltration is for the most part of Islamist inspiration,” the document said.
The bill aims to reinforce the legal tools available to the government to curtail Islamist radicalism from taking hold in French society.
It creates a new criminal offense of threatening public sector employees or using violence to force them to make exceptions to public rules, like coercing local officials to establish separate swimming pool hours for women and men.
It creates another new offense for hate speech that makes it possible to quickly detain a person who spreads on social media the personal information of a public service agent with the intent to harm them — in a direct reaction to the events that led to the beheading of schoolteacher Samuel Paty in October.
The bill also extends what is known in France as the neutrality principle, which prohibits civil servants from wearing ostentatious religious symbols like the Muslim headscarf and voicing political views, beyond public sector employees to all private contractors of public services.
It introduces stricter financial controls on foreign money sent to religious organizations, and stricter controls over religious associations to prevent takeovers by extremists.
The draft legislation restricts the possibility of homeschooling children, introduces tougher punishment for “virginity tests,” and stricter safeguards against forced marriages, as well as more legal tools to ensure men and women inherit equitably. Muslim Sharia law awards men larger inheritances than women.
The government had initially planned on including a clause underlining the necessity for each school-aged child to have a national identifying number to make sure all were accounted for, whether attending public schools, private schools or being homeschooled. That clause has disappeared from the text.
The vast majority of pupils already have a national student identifier, but around 2 percent of school-aged students currently do not, according to an official at the ministry of education. The government is still considering introducing an amendment with a technical mechanism to extend coverage to all pupils.
When Macron presented his vision on the fight against “Islamist separatism” in a landmark speech in a Paris suburb on October 2, he struck a balance between legal measures to crack down on extremists and social measures to tackle issues such as the marginalization of some Muslims and others in French society.
But this particular bill is heavily focused on measures to help enforce the law and punish extremist behavior. Socio-economic measures are largely absent, although officials say they will follow.
French officials insist the bill is not aimed at Muslims — but it could still be perceived that way.
“There should be no misunderstandings,” an Elysée official said. “It is in no way an action against a religion. It is not against Islam, it is against people who in the name of a wrong or reconstructed vision of a religion behave in a way contrary to the republic.”
But MPs from La République en Marche, Macron’s party, say they’re thinking about introducing an amendment to the draft with measures to ban parents from having their young daughters wear the headscarf.
The bill also risks hitting people and organizations who are not its intended target.
Forcing parents to seek authorization to homeschool instead of the current system that simply requires them to disclose that they are doing so may provoke a backlash among parents who homeschool.
According to French officials, out of the current 62,000 pupils who are homeschooled nationwide, around 5,000 may be educated in ad-hoc structures that don’t respect the French curriculum or requirements.
And a new reporting requirement for foreign donations of more than €10,000, mainly aimed at curbing cash from Islamists abroad, could hit other small religious associations, like evangelical associations that receive funding from the U.S. or elsewhere.
Virginity tests, forced marriages and homeschooling young children in basements where girls as young as 3 years old are forced to wear the headscarf are some of the main examples that Macron and leading government ministers have brandished as cases of Islamist behaviors contrary to republican values that need to be fought.
But government officials have not been able to provide data to prove that these are problems on any significant scale. They have no figures for the number of virginity tests carried out in France, nor do they have statistics on forced marriage. However, they do say that NGOs put the number of forced marriages in France at 200,000. They have also struggled to quantify how widespread the issue of forcing young girls to wear the headscarf really is.
Wise men talk because they have something to say,
fools talk because they have to say something.