GP Insights # 421, 4 October 2020
On 2 October 2020, President Emmanuel Macron introduced a bill to defend France's secular values against what he called Islamic separatism, with the view that the religion is under threat from across the globe. He proclaims that the bill intends to free Islam from any foreign influences in order to rein in the influence of radical Islam in the country and help develop what he called an 'Islam of France' compatible with the nation's republican values.
In a long-awaited speech on the subject, President Macron also said that the negative influence of Islamism must be eradicated from all public institutions, in a drive to push religion out of the public education and employment sector in France. The measures also include placing stringent limits on home-schooling and increasing the scrutiny of religious schools and at the same time, making all organizations that solicit public funds sign a 'Charter of Secularism'. While these measures would apply to all communities, they are intended to counter the extremist elements from those who identify themselves as Muslims. He further stated that these measures were important in the context of improving the ability of the French citizens to live together, while eradicating the ill-effects of Islamism, amid the fears of terrorist attacks the country has faced in the recent years.
What is the background?
First, the position of Islam and Muslims, as a religious community, within the French system is centrally conditioned by the French concept of secularism called the 'laїcité'. This was determined in the law of 9 December 1905 concerning the separation of church and state. It rejects any references to national, racial, ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities. This model is based on the idea that the state should interact only with the individual and not communities or groups, in order to give equal treatment to everyone. "Absolute equality" is seen as the best way to ensure the integration of all citizens, to the benefit of both the state and the citizens themselves.
Second, the French model of identity with its rich cultural heritage and languages was not designed in a way to integrate a diverse range of groups in contemporary France. Instead, it serves to make the minorities and the difficulties they face in French society, invisible. As a result, French authorities have rejected any form of targeted measures for ethnic, religious or linguistic groups. In practice, this has rendered minorities invisible and brought systemic forms of discrimination. The French government intends to present a bill in December 2020 to strengthen this law of 1905, asserting that secularism is the cement of a United France, but indirectly targeting the Muslim minorities residing in France.
What does it mean?
Although the law permits people to belong to any faith of their choosing, it would prohibit the outward displays of religious affiliation in public affairs and places of education, in addition to the already banned practice of wearing a hijab. This has created a serious backlash among the Muslim activists as they believe that Macron's views come across as emboldening the far-right, anti-Muslim leftists and threatening the lives of Muslim students by calling for drastic limits on homeschooling despite a global pandemic.
While France is re-evaluating its relationship with its Muslim minority, the largest in Europe, the members of the Muslim community have consistently denounced these acts, describing them as going against the precepts of their religion. A wide majority of Muslims believe that such a law would take away their right to normality and practising their faith without pressure. Macron's speech addresses a deep-rooted problem of the French society: its enduring difficulty to integrate the minority communities at large, particularly the Muslim population of immigrants and their descendants. This is likely to further contribute to the existing inequalities and discrimination among the French public, also leading to radicalization and sociological as well as ideological depreciation at the extreme.