France passes bill against radicalism that worries Muslims


PARIS – Lawmakers in the lower house of the French Parliament on Tuesday approved by an overwhelming majority a bill that would strengthen the surveillance of mosques, schools and sports clubs to protect France from radical Islamists and promote respect for French values ​​- l one of President Emmanuel Macron’s flagship projects.

After two weeks of intense debate, the vote in the National Assembly was the first critical obstacle for the legislation which was drawn up at length. The bill was adopted by 347-151, with 65 abstentions.

While France is bloodied by terrorist attacks, counts hundreds of citizens who have visited Syria in the past and thousands of French soldiers now fighting extremists in Mali, few disagree that radicalization is a danger. But critics also see the bill as a political ploy to lure the right wing to Macron’s centrist party ahead of next year’s presidential election.

The far-reaching bill, entitled “Supporting respect for the principles of the Republic”, covers most aspects of French life. It has been hotly contested by some Muslims, lawmakers and others who fear the state will infringe on essential freedoms and point the finger at Islam, the country’s No.2 religion.

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But the legislation has passed through a chamber in which Macron’s party is in the majority. He’s not ready to go to the Conservative-controlled Senate until March 30, but the final pass is considered almost assured.

The bill became even more urgent after a teacher was beheaded outside Paris in October and three people were killed in a knife attack at a basilica in Nice the same month.

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

The bill strengthens other French anti-extremism efforts, mainly security ones.

Critics say the measures are already covered by current laws. Some express suspicion about a hidden political agenda.

Days before Tuesday’s vote, Home Secretary Gerald Darmanin – the bill’s main sponsor – accused far-right leader Marine Le Pen in a nationwide televised debate of being “gentle” on radical Islam, saying she needed vitamins.

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The remark was intended to portray the government as tougher than the far right in the fight against Islamic extremists. But Le Pen criticized the bill for being too weak and came up with what she called her own harsher counter-proposal. Le Pen, who declared his candidacy for the 2022 presidential election, lost in the 2017 second round to Macron.

Jordan Bardella, vice-president of the Le Pen National Assembly. said on BFM TV that the legislation approved on Tuesday “misses the mark” because it does not tackle radical Islamist ideology head-on,.

The bill does not mention Muslims or Islam by name. Supporters say it aims to quell what the government describes as pervasive fundamentalism that subverts French values, including the nation’s core value of secularism and gender equality.

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

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The high representatives of all religions were consulted during the drafting of the text. The main Muslim intermediary in the government, the French Council of Muslim Worship, provided support.

Ghaleb Bencheikh, president of the Fondation pour l’Islam de France, a secular body seeking progressive Islam, said in a recent interview that the bill was “unfair but necessary” to fight radicalization.

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

It would also ensure that children attend regular school from the age of 3, a way to target homeschools where ideology is taught, and would train all public officials in secularism. Anyone who threatens a public official faces a prison sentence. In another reference to Paty, the murdered teacher, the bill requires the bosses of a public employee who has been threatened to take action, if the employee agrees.

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

Associations must sign a contract of respect for French values ​​and reimburse state funds, if they cross a line. Police officers and prison workers must take an oath to respect the values ​​of the nation and the constitution,

To adapt to the changes, the bill adjusts the French law of 1905 guaranteeing the separation of Church and State.

Some Muslims said they felt a climate of suspicion.

“There is confusion … A Muslim is a Muslim and that’s it,” said taxi driver Bahri Ayari after worshiping the midday prayer at the Grand Mosque in Paris.

“We’re talking about radicals, whatever,” he said. “There is a book. There is a prophet. The prophet taught us.”

As for the condemned radicals, he said, their crimes “are blamed on Islam. That’s not what a Muslim is ”.

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Jeffrey Schaeffer in Paris contributed to this report.

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