France debates bill against ‘disease’ of Islamist extremism

Ministers fear Muslims creating communities separate from nation’s staunchly secular identity

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French lawmakers on Monday began debating a controversial bill against what the interior minister described as the “disease” of Islamist extremism eating away at the country’s unity.

President Emmanuel Macron has pushed for the legislation, which would tighten rules on issues ranging from religious-based education to polygamy, since a spate of attacks blamed on extremists late last year.

The National Assembly kicked off two weeks of what are expected to be tense debates on the legislation, with the left saying it stigmatises Muslims and the right arguing it fails to tackle the core issue.

The proposal is dubbed the anti-separatism bill as ministers fear Islamist extremists are creating communities separate from France’s staunchly secular identity. It has been bitterly criticised in Muslim countries.

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“Our country is sick from separatism, above all Islamism which is damaging our national unity,” Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin told parliament.

“You have to know what to call the disease, you have to find the medicine,” he said. “This text does not fight religions but the Islamist takeover bid.”

The bill is a “remedy against a part of what is eating away at us”, he added.

The law was in the pipeline before the October killing of Samuel Paty, a junior high school teacher who was beheaded in the street after showing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in a class.

But the killing, committed by an 18-year-old Chechen after a social media campaign against the teacher, gave fresh impetus to the proposals.

It prompted the inclusion of the specific crimes of online hate speech and divulging personal information on the internet. Under the legislation, doctors will also be fined or jailed if they performed a virginity test on girls.

Attacked on left and right

Polygamy is already outlawed in France but the new law would also ban polygamous applicants from receiving residency papers.

Paty’s death was one of a spate of jihadist-inspired attacks in France last year, including a knife assault outside the former offices of the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine and deadly stabbings at a church in Nice.

Read more: France says stance on radicalism distorted, not anti-Islam

Macron has become a figure of hate in some Muslim countries and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called the draft law an “open provocation”.

In France, far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon opposes a text that he says “stigmatises Muslims”.

“It is a useless law and also dangerous as it threatens freedoms,” he said.

On the right, the parliamentary group leader of the Republicans Damien Abad said the text ignored issues such as radicalisation in prison and migration.

Meanwhile, French far-right leader Marine Le Pen — who analysts believe will be Macron’s main rival in 2022 elections — last week outlined her own plans, which include a ban on Muslim headscarves in all public places.

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Macron has sought endorsement of the drive from French Muslim groups but three of them — two of which are for worshippers of Turkish origin — refused to do so, dealing a blow to the initiative.

AFP with additional input by GVS News Desk

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