PARIS, France — The French National Assembly has passed a bill that backers say will counter extremism and separatism, especially among French Muslims. However, the bill includes stricter controls on religion, bars religious symbols in some circumstances, and places strict regulations on homeschooling.
The bill, titled “Supporting respect for the principles of the Republic,” aims to uphold “French values” like secularism and gender equality. It passed the National Assembly Feb. 16 by a vote of 347-151 with 65 abstentions. The body is controlled by President Emmanuel Macron’s center-liberal party.
The bill is considered a near certainty to pass the conservative-controlled Senate, though the bill will not go before that body until March 30.
Macron has said action is needed to prevent the emergence of a “counter-society” that rejects French law and values like secularism and equality, Agence France Presse reports.
Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, the bill’s main sponsor, has said the bill provides “better protection for women who are victims of religious obscurantism.”
“It‘s an extremely strong secular offensive,” he told RTL radio ahead of the vote. “It’s a tough text… but necessary for the republic.”
Some critics of the bill, however, object that it targets Muslims and infringes upon religious freedom and freedom of association.
The French population is majority Christian, with sizable numbers professing no religion. Muslims make up about 8% of the French population. For more than a century France has had a strong secularist tradition of laïcité, formed mainly in reaction to Catholicism, but in recent decades applied to Islam in public and private life.
There are some 70 articles in the new legislation. It would make it easier for the government to ban extremist preachers and to close places of worship and religious schools deemed extremist. Religious groups must declare large foreign donations and have their accounts certified. This measure follows concerns about Turkey, Qatar or Saudi Arabia funding mosques to expand their influence and to advance a rigorous version of Islam, Agence France Presse reports.
The proposal would criminalize “separatism,” defined as threatening a public servant to secure “a total or partial exemption or different application of the rules.” It is punishable by up to five years in prison, the London-based news site The New Arab reports. Those who condone terrorism could be banned from public office, and there are stricter penalties for online hate speech, including prison sentences and fines.
People who work for private companies that carry out public services would be barred from wearing religious garb. This would include bus drivers. The government has rejected a wider ban on the Islamic veil.
At times Catholic nuns have run afoul of secularist French sentiment. In 2019, an elderly nun who wore a habit received an apology from a French mayor after retirement home staff wrongly rejected her, citing a strict ban on religious garb and “ostentatious” signs of religion.
In October 2019, controversy erupted after a Muslim mother wearing a headscarf accompanied students on a school trip to a regional parliament in eastern France. She was confronted by a member of the far-right National Rally party, who insisted she remove her headscarf.
The proposed bill aims to ensures women’s equality in inheritance. It bans “virginity certificates,” which some doctors provide for religious marriages. The bill would allow a crackdown on forced marriage and polygamy, though critics said existing laws already sufficient.
Community associations that receive public funds must sign a pledge that they are committed to the “principles of liberty, equality, fraternity, and respect of human dignity.” Police officers and prison employees must swear an oath to France’s constitution and national values. Public employees must go through training in secularism, the Associated Press reports.
The bill bans disclosing personal information about someone, known in internet parlance as doxing, while knowing it will put a person in danger.
The bill particularly drew support after the killing of middle school teacher Samuel Paty. The teacher had attracted much criticism from some Muslims after complaints that he showed caricatures of Islam’s Prophet Mohammed in his class on free speech. After critics posted the address of his suburban Paris school, Abdoullakh Anzorov, an 18-year-old Muslim immigrant and Russian national of Chechen descent, who grew up in France, beheaded him. Anzorov was then killed by police.
Paty’s killing prompted the government to close several mosques and shutter two leading Muslim organizations, the Baraka City charity and the Collective against Islamophobia in France, Agence France Presse reports.
Macron’s defense of the caricatures as free speech prompted protests among Muslims in other countries and some nationwide boycotts of French products.
Just days after the killing of Paty, an attacker shouting Islamic slogans killed three people at Basilica of Notre-Dame de Nice.
France has suffered over a dozen Islamist terrorist attacks since 2015. However, proposals to respond to extremism differ.
The Socialist Party said a major expansion of social programs would better combat extremism through better schools and job opportunities.
The far-right National Rally party, whose leader Marine Le Pen has already announced a challenge to Macron, said the bill does not go far enough. Some critics on the political right objected that the legislation should have mentioned Islam or Islamism by name.
The legislation originally proposed a ban on homeschooling. After major debate, it placed strong limits on the practice, requiring state authorization. It aims to ensure that children attend regular schools at age 3 and to avoid any agenda that might encourage extremist beliefs, ITV News reports.
Home education is viewed as a source of separatism and a means for Muslim families to shelter young girls from what they see as cultural corruption, the New York Times reports.
The religious freedom group ADF International objected to the education provisions, saying they would “severely curtail rights that have not only been upheld in French national law since 1882, but also are affirmed in international human rights law.”
“International law recognizes the right of parents to direct the upbringing and education of their children,” Jennifer Lea, legal counsel for ADF International in Strasbourg, said Feb. 17. “Children are born to parents, not the state, and it should be parents who make decisions about how to best raise their children.”
Robert Clarke, Deputy Director of ADF International, said France’s proposed homeschooling policy is “completely out of step with other democracies that embrace home education as part of their free and pluralistic society.”
“Moreover, home education is a natural, fundamental, and protected human right. France has signed up to protect this right in international treaties, and must not ignore its obligations,” he said. “Taking choices away from parents undermines the tremendous responsibility they have and is a slap in the face to the millions of mothers and fathers that France has relied upon to homeschool during the pandemic.”
A 2004 bill banned children from wearing religious symbols in French public schools. The measure drew criticism from many world leaders, including Pope John Paul II.