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French anti-radicalism bill, which critics say targets Muslims, clears preliminary hurdle

A banner at a rally Sunday in Paris reads "All united against political Islamophobia."
A banner at a rally Sunday in Paris reads “All united against political Islamophobia.” Activists demanded that the French government abandon a bill aimed at rooting out Islamist extremism that they say could trample on religious freedom.
(Thibault Camus / Associated Press)

Lawmakers in the French parliament’s lower house Tuesday overwhelmingly approved a bill that would strengthen oversight of mosques, schools and sports clubs, part of an effort to safeguard the country from radical Islamists and promote respect for French values — one of President Emmanuel Macron’s landmark projects.

After two weeks of intense debate, the vote in the National Assembly house was the first critical hurdle for the legislation, which passed 347-151, with 65 abstentions.

The wide-ranging bill, titled “Supporting respect for the principles of the Republic,” has been hotly contested by some Muslims, lawmakers and others who fear the state is intruding on essential freedoms and pointing a finger at Islam, the second most-practiced religion in France.

But the legislation breezed through a chamber in which Macron’s party has a majority. It is set to go to the conservative-controlled Senate on March 30, and final passage is seen as all but assured.

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The bill gained urgency after October, when a teacher was beheaded outside of Paris and three people were killed during a knife attack at a Nice basilica.

A section of the bill that makes it a crime to knowingly endanger the life of a person by providing details of their private life and location is known as the “Paty law.” It was named for Samuel Paty, the teacher who was killed outside his school after information about where he taught was posted online in a video.

The bill bolsters other French efforts to fight extremism, mainly security-based.

Among other provisions, the bill would ban virginity certificates and crack down on polygamy and forced marriage, practices not formally attached to a religion. Critics say those and other provisions are covered in existing laws.

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It would also ensure that children attend regular school starting at age 3, a way to target home schools where ideology is taught, and would provide for training all public employees in secularism. Anyone who threatens a public employee risks a prison sentence. In another reference to Paty, the bill obligates the bosses of a public employee who has been threatened to take action, if the employee agrees.

The bill introduces mechanisms to guarantee that mosques and associations that run them are not under the sway of foreign interests or homegrown Salafists with a rigorous interpretation of Islam.

Associations must sign a contract of respect for French values and pay back state funds if they cross a line. Police officers and prison employees must take an oath swearing to respect the nation’s values and the constitution.

To accommodate changes, the bill adjusts France’s 1905 law guaranteeing separation of church and state.

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Some detractors voice suspicions about a hidden political agenda, seeing the proposed law as a ploy to lure the right wing to Macron’s centrist party ahead of next year’s presidential election.

Days before Tuesday’s vote, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, the bill’s main sponsor, accused far-right leader Marine Le Pen of being “soft” on radical Islam during a nationally televised debate.

The remark was intended to portray the government as tougher than the far right in tackling Islamic extremists. But Le Pen criticized the bill as weak and offered what she called her own, tougher counterproposal. Le Pen, who has declared her candidacy for the 2022 presidential election, lost in the 2017 runoff against Macron.

Jordan Bardella, vice president of Le Pen’s National Rally party, said on BFM TV that the legislation “misses its target” because it doesn’t attack radical Islamist ideology head-on.

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The bill refers to neither Muslims nor Islam by name. Supporters say it is aimed at snuffing out what the government describes as an encroaching fundamentalism that is subverting French values; notably, the nation’s foundational value of secularism and gender equality.

The measure has been dubbed the “separatism” bill, a term used by Macron to refer to radicals who would create a “counter society” in France.

Top representatives of all religions were consulted as the text was drafted. The government’s leading Muslim conduit, the French Council of the Muslim Faith, gave its backing.

Ghaleb Bencheikh, head of the Foundation for Islam of France, a secular body seeking a progressive Islam, said in a recent interview that the planned law was “unjust but necessary” to fight radicalization.

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Some Muslims said they sense a climate of suspicion.

“There’s confusion. ... A Muslim is a Muslim, and that’s all,” taxi driver Bahri Ayari said after midday prayers at the Grand Mosque of Paris.

“We talk about radicals, about I don’t know what,” he said. “There is a book. There is a prophet. The prophet has taught us.”

As for convicted radicals, he said, their crimes “get put on the back of Islam. That’s not what a Muslim is.”


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