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The French Brief - Reinforcing the Principles of the Republic: A French Paradox? 

Three questions to Hakim El Karoui

The French Brief - Reinforcing the Principles of the Republic: A French Paradox? 
 Hakim El Karoui
Former Senior Fellow - Arab World, Islam

2 October 2020, Les Mureaux, north-west of Paris, President Emmanuel Macron gave a speech on the fight against separatism: the French Republic (is) in action. In his words, France has "created neighborhoods where the promise of the Republic has no longer been kept". To answer such shortcoming, President Macron announced a set of laws that would prevent the formation of any ideology that wouldn’t be in accordance with the principles of the Republic. Following that speech, we asked Hakim El Karoui, our Senior Fellow, to shed light on Islamism in France. After months of active public debate, the bill passed on February 16. Hakim El Karoui breaks down France’s new legislation.

Last November, you shared your perspectives on the implications of President Emmanuel Macron’s speech. Can you remind us of the key elements that were subject to controversy? 

To understand Macron’s speech is to understand the political problem France currently faces, which is to say the cohesion of French society. France’s trauma of past extremist attacks and recent tragedies last October - Samuel Paty’s beheading and stabbings in Nice - have permeated the debate. 

Emmanuel Macron’s discourse on separatism was certainly attacked left and right, with some arguments stronger than others. Some were displeased that priority should be given to teaching Arabic in French schools (how does learning another language weaken the learning of French?). Others denounced the stigmatization of Muslims, blithely confusing Muslims and Islamists, which is the primary objective of the latter.
Of the many measures he proposed, the one concerning religious organizations particularly sparked debate. As previously explained in our last French Brief, the issue at stake bears upon the judicial status of nonprofits. Funding opportunities and leeway differ according to the legal category under which religious organizations fall. Macron thus aimed to toughen the legal framework of religious organizations, so as to allow better transparency over where the funding comes from. 

What will the French bill aiming to uphold "Republican Values" do?

The bill contains an array of measures which intends to legally tackle both extremism and social issues. More than 70 articles were examined, and more than 2,650 amendments were submitted. Many noteworthy subjects are covered, among which:

More than 70 articles were examined, and more than 2,650 amendments were submitted.

  • Hate speech: Added after the beheading of Professor Samuel Paty in October, Article 18 creates a new offence of endangering the life of another person by disseminating information relating to private life "for the purpose of exposing him or her, or members of his or her family, to a direct risk of harm to the person or property that the author could not have been unaware of". 
  • Education: A much debated measure. Article 21, on home-schooling, has tightened its rules by moving from a declaration system to a licensing system. In other words, all children aged 3 to 16 years will attend state registered schools. Derogations may only be granted on the grounds of health, disability, artistic or sporting practice, family itinerancy, distance from an establishment, and also in the event of "a situation specific to the child motivating the educational project". The text reinforces the supervision of non-contractual schools, particularly by introducing "a system of administrative closure" in the event of abuses.
  • "Neutrality principle" in public service: The text enshrines the principle of (religious) neutrality of private law agents entrusted with a public service mission, such as transport companies, where case law was prevailing until now.
  • Separatism: Article 4 aims to punish by five years of imprisonment and a fine of 75,000 euros any person who threatens, violates or intimidates an elected representative or public official with the aim of evading the rules of public services.
  • Association control and foreign funding: The bill now requires from publicly funded associations to sign a republican contract committing to the "principles of liberty, equality, fraternity, and respect of human dignity." Any religious association receiving foreign funds will have to provide a strict accounting. The legislation, containing 51 articles, attempts to curtail the avenues that may lead to such radicalization.
  • Dignity and equality: The bill prohibits all health professionals from issuing certificates of virginity - a common request among many Muslim families. The text reinforces its arsenal against polygamy - prohibited in France - by generalizing the prohibition to issue any kind of residence permit to foreigners living in France in a state of polygamy.

Overall, this bill aims to prevent any formation of a counter-society and the development of secluded communities whose principles aren’t in accordance with republican values. 

Regarding the controversies that sparked after Macron’s speech in October, has the new bill given rise to equal concern? 

The law "confortant les principes de la République" (bolstering the respect of republican principles) aims to fight against separatism and attacks on the citizenry. "It intends to provide answers to community isolation and the development of radical Islamism, by strengthening respect for republican principles and amending the laws on religion".

Because of its main objectives and of its original "raison d’être", some Muslim representatives have voiced their concern, saying the bill is another step towards encroaching evermore into their private sphere. While the new legislation does not mention the issue it is designed to address, "Islamist Separatism", they deem it is unfairly targeting Muslims. Protestors slam the dubbed "anti-separatism" bill as it eventually fuels discriminatory discourse and racist rhetoric against Islam. Other communities - from various confessions - also worry that this bill is too restrictive and will ultimately hinder religious freedom. 

Protestors slam the dubbed "anti-separatism" bill as it eventually fuels discriminatory discourse and racist rhetoric against Islam.

Equal resentment can be found from the Left who argues that such legislation will nurture an already prevalent hostile climate and cause further secessionism within the French society. Instead, they advocate full integration policy, to unite and not separate. But it does not get any more concrete than that. 

Even so, advising nothing is always better than suggesting trampling on the fundamental principles of the Declaration of Human Rights of 1789, as France’s far-right representatives seem to do. Indeed, the National Rally party thinks the bill is too weak in preventing what Marine Le Pen, head of the Party, calls "Islamist ideologies." 
But all little to avail. Despite all the aforementioned critics, the law has in fact not proved that controversial in France. There was in fine no real political divide at the French National Assembly. On February 16, politics rallied, and the bill passed handily, by a vote of 347 to 151. Why? Because the bill was adamant to uphold France’s core republican principles. It first - paradoxically - aims to be universal. Its purpose is to regulate all religions alike: Judaism, Protestantism, Christianism and (many) others are concerned. It follows that the only relatively sound argument against the bill - the Islamophobic rhetoric - does not really stand. 

Although some have spoken out against the potentially discriminatory nature of these legal shifts, France’s new bill was generally assented. 

Copyright: Ludovic MARIN / POOL / AFP

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