PARIS: France’s lower house of parliament on Tuesday (Feb 16) voted in favour of a law to battle “Islamist separatism” that is billed by the government as a riposte to religious groups attempting to undermine the secular state.
The draft legislation, which has been criticised for stigmatising Muslims and giving the state new powers to limit speech and religious groups, was backed by a clear majority of MPs in the National Assembly.
President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist party rallied around the law, with 347 National Assembly lawmakers voting in favour, 151 against and 65 abstaining.
The text will now be submitted to the upper house Senate, where Macron’s party does not hold a majority.
“It’s an extremely strong secular offensive,” Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin told RTL radio ahead of the vote Tuesday. “It’s a tough text … but necessary for the republic.”
Among the more than 70 separate articles, the law expands the ability of the state to close places of worship and religious schools, as well as to ban extremist preachers.
Amid concerns about the funding of mosques by Turkey, Qatar or Saudi Arabia, it requires religious groups to declare large foreign donations and have their accounts certified.
It comes with presidential elections looming next year and with decades-long divisions about the integration of France’s large Muslim population and the threat of Islamists causing fresh tensions.
Macron and Darmanin in particular have been accused of pandering to far-right voters by exaggerating the danger of Islamist groups in the often-marginalised immigrant communities found in French suburbs.
The government counters that the threat is real, pointing to repeated terror attacks and what Macron called the development of a “counter-society” that rejects secularism, equality and other French values and laws.
Over the past week, a school teacher in a tough suburb southwest of Paris has come to national prominence over claims he needed police protection after receiving death threats for denouncing local Islamists.
Right-wing parties see him as a whistleblower warning about the danger of extremist groups, while those on the left have pointed to his provocative statements about Islam and accuse him of overstating the threat.
His case was picked up in the national media because of its echoes of the beheading of a school teacher, Samuel Paty, by a teenage Islamist last October that profoundly shocked the country.
Paty was the subject of an online hate campaign started by a parent of a child at his school who objected to his showing of controversial cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed during a civics class about free speech.
Paty’s killing prompted the inclusion of a new crime in the draft law of disclosing personal information about someone while knowing it will put the person in danger.
Another crime of “separatism” – defined as threatening a public servant in order to gain “a total or partial exemption or different application of the rules” – would be punishable by up to five years in prison.
With campaigning ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections already heating up, the right-wing opposition Republicans (LR) party and the far-right National Rally have both said the bill does not go far enough.
They have called for restrictions on the wearing of the Islamic veil, which they both view as a manifestation of Islamism, rather than an expression of cultural identity or religious piety.
The government has rejected calls for a wider headscarf ban, but the law will expand the demand for “religious neutrality” in clothing to people working for private companies carrying out public services.
Critics say Macron is seeking to harden his record on Islamism and security ahead of a likely re-match with far-right leader Marine Le Pen in next year’s election.
He pushed an initiative recently to ask eight federations representing Muslims in France to sign a 10-point “charter of principles,” which three refused.
The 43-year-old head of state is also accused of doing too little to counter discrimination and racism, though a new law and funding has been promised to help marginalised communities.
Nearly 200 people demonstrated in Paris on Sunday against the bill, accusing it of “reinforcing discrimination against Muslims”.
In January, a group of academics and campaigners wrote in the newspaper Liberation that the law was “an unprecedented blow” to religious freedom and the freedom to form associations.
In the wake of Paty’s killing, the government used its existing powers to close several mosques and two leading Muslim organisations, the charity Baraka City and the Collective Against Islamophobia in France.