Last week in Paris, French President Emmanuel Macron vouched to unravel a proposed law that seeks to fight “Islamist separatism“. He claimed that this long-awaited law was primarily designed to regulate the practice of Islam in France. In a keenly-awaited speech in the Paris region, the French president unveiled the French establishment’s plans for a law to fight what he identifies as “the favoring of religious laws over France’s republican, secular values” – a stance he calls “separatism”.
“The law, to be formally presented in December, will primarily crack down on the foreign influences in French Muslim communities”, Macron revealed. “It will allow the state to monitor the funding that French mosques receive from abroad, create a certificate program for French imams and ban homeschooling for young children to prevent the creation of Islamic schools”.
“What we need to fight is Islamist separatism,” Macron said, in a speech delivered in the northwestern Paris suburb of Les Mureaux. “It’s a conscious, theorized, politico-religious project that materializes through repeated deviations from the values of the republic and which often result in the creation of a counter-society.”
Motivated in part by a string of deadly terrorism attacks – some perpetrated by French Muslims against fellow citizens – Macron has talked for several years about his desire to encourage the integration and prevent the radicalization of those who practice Islam in France. However, in his recent speech, Macron went further than his previous statements in his critique of France’s largest minority community. Under fire by the political right for being soft on crime, he called Islam “a religion that is in crisis all over the world, whose problems stemmed from a very strong hardening of positions among Muslims”.
Marcon’s tone baffled even the Muslim leaders who are predominantly compassionate for the call for greater integration.
“The question of ‘separatism’ does not concern all Muslims in any way. Far from it!” claims Chems-Eddine Hafiz, the rector of Paris’s Grand Mosque. “I would like to point out, with all due respect, to those circles that seek to establish a parallel between Islam and Islamism, to those who suggest that Islam is Islamism, and vice versa, that there is indeed a distinction to be made between the Muslim religion and the Islamist ideology.”
“You recognize that ‘radical Islam’ is taking root because the Republic has deserted the social question,” lamented the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF), a prominent Muslim advocacy group, in a statement addressed to Macron. “Instead of developing the social, you propose to impose repressive devices.” criticised CCIF.
In his speech, however, Macron was not entirely biased. The french president did place some of the blame for “Islamist separatism” on France itself, particularly in its unwillingness to address the bloody Algerian war and the colonial past still imprinted in what he called “our collective psyche.” “And so we see children of the Republic, sometimes from elsewhere, children or grandchildren of citizens from immigrant backgrounds and from the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa revisiting their identity through a post-colonial discourse.” Yet this, he said, was “a form of self-hatred.”
Call For Reform
Considering how to tackle the religion of Islam has been a prominent and reoccuring topic of discussion in the French press and daily talk shows. Nonetheless, the call to reform an entire religion has repeatedly elicited accusations of xenophobia and Islamophobia. In addition, related policy proposals have eluded, and even embarrassed, virtually every president who has attempted such reform at all. Even an attempt by a left-wing president, Socialist Francois Hollande, to strip convicted terrorists of their French nationality failed in the French parliament.
Macron, a nominal centrist who became president in 2017, has acknowledged that legacy, including in his speech of last week. Nonetheless, he said he was “committed to a project that consists in finally building an Islam in France that can be an Islam of the Enlightenment.” Macron further added that the proposed legislation would aim to ensure that public life in France reflects the values of “laïcité”, or state secularism, a century-old legal principle that separated church and state and mandated France’s neutrality on religion.
The 1905 Law On Secularism
“The landmark 1905 law on secularism permits the French people to belong to any faith of their choosing”, Macron said, “but outward displays of religious affiliation can under no circumstances be allowed in schools or the public service” he warned.
“Secularism is the cement of a united France,” Macron insisted. “Let us not fall into the trap laid by extremists who aim to stigmatize all Muslims.” The French president repeatedly stressed the importance of schools in instilling secular values in young people, and said that the government would require private schools to agree to teach them. He proceeded to add that with minimal exceptions, the 50,000 French children who are currently educated at home would be required to attend school with fellow students.
Macron acknowledged that the French state was partly responsible for the “ghettoization” of communities with large numbers of Muslim residents, saying that non-secular organizations have sought to make up for “failings” of “integration policy”. “Where we stepped away, they stepped in,” he said.
Macron also said that France’s colonial past, including its colonization of Algeria, “left scars” on a society that has sometimes struggled to integrate immigrant communities from former colonies. “We have not unpacked our past. We have grandparents who have passed their scars onto their children,” he said.
Specter of Islamist terrorism
Macron’s speech comes seven months after he announced that his government would seek to combat “foreign interference” in the practice of Islam by ending a programme that allowed countries to send imams and teachers to France. “A problem arises when, in the name of religion, some want to separate themselves from the Republic and therefore not respect its laws,” he had said in a speech in February this year.
France has in recent years been forced to take a hard look at its core republican values, perceived by many to be threatened by radical Islam in the wake of a string of terror attacks targeting secular liberties such as freedom of expression. Last week’s speech comes while a trial is underway in Paris over the deadly January 2015 attacks on satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket by French-born Islamic extremists.