Nov 20th, 2020, 07:48 PM

Macron's "Anti-Separatism" Bill: Power Play or Honest Initiative?

By Lauren Nanes
President Macron. Image credit: Paul Kagame on Creative Commons.
President Macron. Image credit: Paul Kagame/Creative Commons.
President Macron's "anti-separatism" bill to fight Islamist radicalization raises concerns over divisiveness and questions over whether there are ulterior motives at play.

Following the recent stabbings in front of the former Charlie Hebdo office, President Macron proposed a new law to fight "Islamic separatism" in a speech addressed to the public on October 2. The "anti-separatism" bill will be presented to the Council of Ministers December 9 and is intended to reinforce secularism in France by curtailing the influence of radical Islam in the country. Addressing a religion that Macron describes as, "in crisis all over the world today," the President's bill outlines measures to create what he calls an "Islam of France" that will conform to the nation's Republican values.

With the purpose of eradicating Islamic influence from public institutions, the bill will include limits on home-schooling, increased scrutiny of religious schools and surveillance of individuals and associations suspected of "separatism."

Homeschooling will be strictly limited to children with qualifying medical conditions in order to prevent religious laws from taking precedence over civil ones. If passed, the new law would empower authorities to close down associations and schools believed to be indoctrinating children, monitor foreign investment in religious organizations in France and phase out the routine practice of foreign-trained imams preaching in French mosques. The bill would also authorize local representatives of the French state to overrule mayors regarded as too accommodating with religious minorities — referring to actions like allowing women or men-only hours at public swimming pools — in order to defend public impartiality. Efforts to ban pre-marriage "virginity certificates" for Muslim women are outlined in the upcoming bill as well.

Undoubtedly, the bill's primary focus centers on schooling. A radical decision on the part of the French government, school attendance will be compulsory for children over the age of three beginning in the fall of 2021. While strict, the new regulation is not incomprehensible to the French public as the crux of French Republican values of laïcité rests in equal and secularized education.

Laïcité is a political pillar in France. The 1905 law, initially separating the Church and the State, has become an integral part of French national identity promoting civil law over religious doctrine by strictly barring all religious expression from the public sphere. But the growing diversification of the French population has recently raised criticism that the law is outdated and incompatible with a multicultural nation, leaving Muslims caught in the crossfire as seen in the 2004 headscarf controversy. Macron claims, "the problem isn't laïcité," but rather Islamist separatism. "The problem is this ideology, which claims that its own laws are superior to the Republic's." Macron, confident in government-regulated schooling to enforce values of free speech and neutrality, has packaged this policy as indispensable in the battle against radicalization. 

A residence building in the northern suburbs of Paris. Image Credit: Shutterstock/Alex Calvi

Macron's speech, serious and bold in the midst of a climate tense with a pandemic, the Charlie Hebdo terrorism trial and the following terrorist attack at the magazine's former office, addressed a grave, longstanding issue in French society. For generations, France has been unsuccessful in integrating a significant part of its large, nonwhite Muslim population. The banlieue, a primarily working-class suburb area that encircles Paris, is notorious for its large immigrant and Muslim population. The marginalization of individuals of Arab descent can most easily be seen in the geographical separation of the city and the banlieue, where poverty and stigmatization make individuals vulnerable to radicalization.

In his October speech, Macron did not shy away from these realities, admitting to the role the French government has played in keeping populations vulnerable. "This is the breeding ground where everything has grown. We ourselves have built our own separatism. It's the separatism of our neighborhoods, it's the ghettoization that our Republic ... has allowed to occur. We've created a concentration of abject poverty and difficulties. We've crowded people together often according to their origins, their social backgrounds. We've concentrated educational and economic difficulties in certain districts of the Republic. We haven't been able, precisely because of this, to rebuild sufficient integration," Macron said.

In the wake of recent bomb scares, the upcoming release of convicts associated with terrorism charges, the gruesome beheading of teacher Samuel Paty and the Nice stabbings, debate has reignited over Islamist radicalization in France. France now faces an issue of national identity and assimilation. Strong support for the provisions come from those who believe core republican values are being increasingly threatened. And while Macron has openly stated that, "those who want to believe in Islam," will not be, "targeted," others are critical of the motives behind the bill and worry it will only further divide the nation. 

Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité — France's motto. Image credit: Easal/Creative Commons.

The outrage over the recent resurgence in Islamist attacks cannot be overstated. As the Interior Ministry requested the immediate expulsion of 231 people from France who were on government watch-lists, concern is rising that an atmosphere of anti-Muslim hysteria has latched onto the nation. Regardless of the fact that France is home to Europe's largest Muslim population, there is a structural reluctance within the secular state to recognize and engage with religious pluralities, leaving Muslims fearful that they, in practice, will inevitably be affected by Macron's new "separatism" initiative. Laïcité, although necessary in maintaining free expression and democratic values, is not without its critiques. Its tendency to mute some religions more than others has emboldened minorities to wonder whether this new bill will do the same.

"Anti-separatism" legislation has sparked sharp controversy in France where Islam cannot escape politicization. Political discussions on terrorism are almost never well received. There is a very fine line in distinguishing radicalized Islamism from Islam and Islam from terrorism and even when the line is drawn, more often than not, it disappears in translation. Bring in far-right rhetoric that increases Islamophobia and threats to national security morph into murky ideological debates that, while relevant, distract from a should-be core unifying issue: the threat. What's more is that the political stage where these issues are addressed and can be resolved is motivated by power holds. Sure policies are implemented for the general benefit of the public and state, but there is no denying that certain policies benefit some more than others. And that some is almost always the votes that can guarantee the President's continued office. It's then no wonder why, 17 months to reelection, citizens are questioning whether Macron's right-leaning stance towards crime is part political maneuver.

As Macron nears the end of his first term, characterized by an economically burdening pandemic, the radicalization issue will be decisive in his reelection. In need of the conservative vote, Macron's likely competitor in the coming elections, Marine Le Pen, renowned for her far-right anti-immigration campaign, promises to make it a challenge. Macron's "anti-separatism" bill is a show of resolve and action during a necessary time; but for the security of the public, the democracy of the nation, and the leverage of whom?