French parliament approves controversial bill aimed at tackling Islamist extremism

Activists demand that the French government abandon a bill aimed at tackling Islamist extremism which protesters say could trample on religious freedom Credit: AP
  • By Presenter and Producer Amani Ibrahimi

France’s parliament has approved a controversial bill aimed at helping the country tackle Islamist extremism which critics say is anti-Muslim.

Lawmakers have been debating the so-called ‘anti-separatism bill’ for weeks now in the hopes to find a solution to beating radical Islam in France.

President Emmanuel Macron has shown his support for the bill as he believes it is needed in order to prevent issues such as hate speech, polygamy and forced marriages.

It would also give the government stricter control over places of worship and religious schools. 

Mr Macron’s government argues that it will protect the country’s core values of secularism and gender equality.

When it comes to religion, France is a very diverse country with a huge population of Christians but it is also home to the largest Jewish and Muslim populations in Europe. 

Yet despite a population of more than five million Muslims, the country has not been immune from accusations of islamophobia.

The bill has not been received well by some Muslims in France who say it will take away their religious freedom.

Activists hold placards during a protest in Paris against a controversial bill aimed at rooting out Islamist extremism. Credit: AP

Protesters gathered in Paris on Sunday holding signs which read ‘Islamophobia is enough’.

They are demanding that the French government abandons the bill which they say goes against religious freedom and will turn all Muslims into potential suspects. 

31-year-old Iman Bennoui who is of Algerian heritage but was born and raised in France says that there are already similar laws in place and does not believe that this bill is needed.

"I don't see how this bill will stop Islamist extremism, instead it seems to be about managing the influence of Islam in France.

"Of course it will make Muslims a potential target in the future. Islamophobia already exists in France and this will make it worse."

Although the bill does not mention the word ‘Islam’ and is aimed at all religions, some French Muslims still believe that it will impact them as it could create discrimination. 

One aspect of the bill looks at prohibiting civil servants from wearing religious clothing. 

"At the moment in public schools, you can’t wear religious clothing which in some ways is good because it means when you’re outside, you’re only judged on being French. 

"But it is also bad because if you decide to show your identity by wearing a head scarf then chances are you will be discriminated against’’ says Iman.

What are some factors which the bill includes?

  • Stricter offences for online hate speech which could result in prison sentences and fines for those who break the law.

  • Tougher punishments for any offences in connection with religion and authorities will have the power to close any places of worship to stop hate preachers.

  • All homeschooling would need to be authorised by the state in order to stop ‘clandestine’ schools from having their own agenda and potentially reinforcing extremist beliefs. 

  • Rules to prevent polygamy and forced marriages will also be put in place.

  • Fines and prison sentences for doctors who allow virginity certificates. 

  • Stricter control over foreign money being sent into France to religious organisations.

  • Organisations in France who receive public funding will have to sign a contract.

  • Civil servants to be banned from wearing any religious symbols such as the Muslim hijab, the Jewish kippah and the Christian cross. It would also prohibit them from voicing any political views. 

Police officers guard the Notre Dame church in Nice after an attack killed at least three people Credit: AP

Why was this bill proposed?

The bill comes after France was targeted twice in October last year.

A teacher at a school in Paris was beheaded after he had shown his pupils cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed during a lesson. Samuel Paty had received many threats for doing this before his death.

Just weeks later, another attack saw three people dead after they were stabbed at a church in Nice. 

In that same month, President Macron announced that the bill was being drafted in order to make the country safer.

In a televised speech, he said that "Islam is a religion that is in crisis today around the world."

Mr Macron’s views were supported by France’s Minister of the Interior, Gerald Darmanin who said: "Our country is suffering from a sickness of separatism, first and foremost an Islamist separatism that is like gangrene infecting our national unity."

Many Muslims were outraged that Mr Macron saw the caricatures as freedom of speech. 

Crowd in Pakistan burns defaced images of President Macron during protests against the republishing of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad Credit: AP

This sparked anger amongst Muslim communities across the world - resulting in protests in countries such as Pakistan, Syria, Bangladesh and Libya. 

Depictions of the Prophet Muhammed are widely regarded as taboo and are forbidden in Islam.

Arab nations responded to Mr Macron's comments by boycotting French products in their shops. Stores in Qatar, Kuwait and Jordan removed any products from France as a political message to Mr Macron.

The President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan also encouraged his country to take part in boycotting French goods.

France has been the target of these attacks more recently in the past few years. Except for 2017 and 2018, France has been attacked every single year since 2015.

In 2015, two gunmen forced their way into the offices of magazine Charlie Hebdo, killing 12 people. It was after the publishing of controversial caricatures of the Prophet Muhammed. 

Later that year, 130 people were killed by terrorists in a series of attacks that took place across Paris.

More than 80 people were killed when a lorry was driven through crowds in Nice in 2016.

A Christmas market was targeted by a gunman in Strasbourg in 2018, killing five people.

French President Emmanuel Macron announced the bill was being drafted in October 2020 Credit: AP

What is France's approach to religion?

The term ‘secularism’ comes up often when talking about French values. The country stands by the idea that it does not promote any one religion or discourage any as long as those beliefs don’t interfere with the state.

Also known as ‘Laïcité’ in French, the legal principle was established in 1905. It was created to separate the churches and the state - to allow all religions to live together by giving them freedom to practice their own beliefs.

Professor Alison Scott-Baumann, professor of Society and Belief, SOAS says: ‘’Laïcité, is a powerful approach to create equality of opportunity and mutual recognition in a multicultural society like France.  

''However, France is still Catholic to its core and thus the principle of secularism is not implemented rationally, and Muslims become the visible irritant to a secularism-that-is-Catholic.

''Macron asserts that laïcité and religious freedom go together, yet problems with religious clothing, especially Muslim clothing, suggest this is not so.''

The bill does not mention ‘laïcité’ but it does have common themes such as the banning of religious symbols in the hope to create a diverse culture. 

Over the years, the French government has brought in different measures to tackle the issues around religion and to separate it from public life.

In 2004, legislation was introduced to ban public schools from allowing children to wear anything that symbolises religion. 

The government argued that public schools are a place of learning and not for militant activity or propaganda, which at the time, was criticised by many people such as the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury and even the former mayor of London, Ken Livingstone. 

The bill will now be passed on to the Senate who have the power make amendments. If it gets the green light again then it could become a law within months.